Bethesda Interview: Jane Leavy
The best-selling author and former sportswriter talks about locker room interviews, a drunken Mickey Mantle, and why she spent eight years working on a book about Babe Ruth
Family legend has it that when Jane Leavy was born in 1951, she was immediately swaddled in a pinstriped blanket, foretelling a lifelong love affair with the New York Yankees. The story is perhaps apocryphal, given that her father was devoted to the then-New York Giants baseball team and her mother abhorred all sports. But Leavy did imagine herself pitching for the Bronx Bombers. “As a young girl, I used to practice walking in from the bullpen, my warm-up jacket slung over my shoulder,” she says.
Leavy grew up 22 miles from Yankee Stadium in Roslyn, New York, and graduated from Barnard College in Manhattan in 1974 and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism two years later. She wrote for two magazines, womenSports and Self, before joining The Washington Post in 1979, where she covered baseball, tennis and the Olympics for the sports department before moving to the Style section in 1985. “I wanted to start a family, so I needed to travel less,” she says.
A trailblazer in the mainly male bastion of sportswriting, Leavy endured comments and physical indignities that might make some of the #MeToo generation blanch. For every benevolent supporter—such as Walter “Red” Smith of the New York Herald Tribune and later The New York Times, perhaps the best chronicler that baseball has produced—there were misogynists like Billy Martin, the hard-partying player turned hard-partying manager who was hired and fired by the Yankees several times.
After leaving the Post in 1988, Leavy turned her keen eye and incisive pen to books, producing biographies of Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, the clay-footed Mickey Mantle and, most recently, the near mythical George Herman “Babe” Ruth (The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created was published by Harper in October 2018), as well as a comic novel called Squeeze Play. Leavy’s prose is evocative, almost ornate. Her love of retro extends to her phone’s ringtone, the ’60s tune “One Fine Day” by The Chiffons.
Late last summer, Leavy’s childhood dream came true when she was invited to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. She sought advice from Koufax. “Stand close to home plate,” he told her.
Leavy, who is divorced, has two children, Nick, 34, and Emma, 31. She lives with her feisty labradoodle, Betty, in a craftsman-style Chevy Chase, D.C., house that affords writerly space and a cook’s kitchen. She also likes to write at her second home in Truro, on Cape Cod, where she spends several months each year.
How did your interest in sports develop?
My father, nicknamed Mort the Sport, who revered both the New York Giants baseball team and the New York Giants football team—for whom he toiled as a water boy during the 1927 season—was my inspiration. When the baseball Giants moved to San Francisco, he transferred his allegiance to the Mets. On his deathbed in 2003, awaiting surgery that was ultimately unsuccessful, the only thing I could think to do was read him game stories about the team, which was not having a good year. The last words he ever spoke to me were, ‘Oy, the Mets!’
How did you become a Yankees fan?
My father made the mistake of taking my sister, who hated sports, to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers in 1957. They brought me a Dodgers cap, but it was a girly cap with inset white panels and a wide brim—in short, not the real thing. I looked at [it], threw it down and stomped on it, I was so pissed. That eliminated the Dodgers, and the Giants left. But my grandmother, Celia
Fellenbaum, lived in the Bronx in a building called the Yankee Arms, close to the stadium. My grandmother gave me permission to be who I was—a girl who preferred baseball over frills. In fact, she took me to buy my first baseball glove—at Saks Fifth Avenue, because she didn’t know where else to go. The Blue Jays Little League team gave me a cap—no uniform—but I only played if the game was out of control.
How did your father cope with your passion for the Yankees?
My father would deign to take me to Yankee games because he knew I loved them so. My mother, on the other hand, would not tolerate the sound of sports in her parlor.
I’ve read that they had an interesting first date…
My father took my mother to a Brooklyn College football game in November 1938. My mother then retaliated by taking him to the original Loehmann’s on Bedford Avenue in the Bronx, a tit for tat that set a pattern for their 60-year relationship.
Why did you choose to get into sports writing?
It was an emanation of the unconscious. One day, just before the deadline for applying to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, my mother asked me, ‘What is it you really want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to be a sportswriter.’ Probably it was the result of all those years listening to Red Barber on a transistor radio beneath my pillow and reading all those Red Smith columns in the Herald Tribune. Also, of course, visiting my grandmother in her apartment in the Yankee Arms, very close to Yankee Stadium.
What challenges did you face as a woman sportswriter in the 1970s and ’80s?
My perspective is that being a female sportswriter was no different than being a female litigator or intern or a woman CEO. It’s all the same story: a woman intruding into ‘a male province.’ The only difference here is that as a sportswriter, the people you’re dealing with may be naked when you’re talking to them.
Were the athletes cooperative?
Some resisted on religious grounds, like the born-again Christians. But I always said there was no deadline so short that you couldn’t turn away for three seconds. If my then-5-year-old son could put his underpants on in three seconds, so could they. And if they didn’t want to drape themselves, I assumed they didn’t care and I went about my job as professionally as I could. And, of course, sportswriters cannot do their jobs properly unless they [can] talk to the athletes. It’s not fun; it’s not sexy. Locker rooms are grotty places.
You’ve said that your first locker room experience was actually a positive one.
In 1978, I was with two colleagues in the New York Knicks’ locker room. My assignment was to write about how athletes were using lotions, gels, scents and other ‘sissified’ products. So I’m standing in the middle of the room, waiting, and a big, long, wet, white arm snakes around my shoulders. Uhhhhmmmm, I’m thinking. Then a voice says, ‘Is this your first time?’ I look up and it’s Phil Jackson. ‘Yeah,’ I replied somewhat shakily. ‘I just want you to know you’re doing a great job,’ he said. But I knew I wasn’t doing anything. Jackson goes to take a shower, and when he comes back, he asks me what I was doing. I explained my assignment, and he took me around to all the players in the room, asking them if they had any ‘smells.’ We found some, and Phil put all of them on. ‘You got enough?’ he said after a while. Yeah, I had plenty. And, as a result, this led me not to expect the worst, not to be scared.