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
But of course that was a false sense of security.
Oh yeah, some hockey players told me I just wanted to look. [Baltimore Orioles manager] Earl Weaver yelled at me. But the two times I thought my life was in danger was when I was sent to the then-mean streets of the South Bronx on a journalism school assignment—and in Billy Martin’s office.
Two hostile environments, huh? Tell me about Martin.
It was 1981, and Martin was leading the Oakland Athletics to great success, and I was sent out to write a piece about this phenomenon. Anyway, I’m in the locker room and a bunch of players literally encircle me. One says, ‘Hey, Jane, have a drink with us.’ I politely decline. The circle gets tighter around me. This repeats a couple of times until I’m really hemmed in. So I decide that I will have a sip of a drink and then they will be more likely to answer my questions. Woke up the next morning in some motel in Oakland not having any idea how I got there. I had an interview scheduled with Martin, so I head back to the stadium. He was waiting in his office wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, cowboy boots and nothing else—his feet propped up on the desk. ‘Sleep well, Jane?’ he said. It seemed likely to me that he had spiked the drink. It was terrifying, but I told no one at the time. [Leavy later publicly discussed the incident.]
Any problems with male editors or fellow reporters?
I interviewed with both The Washington Post and the late Washington Star. Dave Smith, the sports editor of the Star, asked me: ‘How do I know you’re not just going to get knocked up and then quit?’ I didn’t have problems with male colleagues.
Tell me about some favorite or unusual interviews.
My favorite conversation of all time was an argument I had with [Baltimore Orioles outfielder] John Lowenstein about whether it was better to burn to death or freeze to death.
Not all of your encounters were philosophical, right?
Early on, I showed up five minutes late for an interview with [the head football coach of a major university], and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I don’t much like Jews as a group.’ Later, when I was in the locker room, one of the coaches picked me up by the scruff of my neck and literally threw me out into the hallway.
How about an interview that surprised you in a good way?
An interview I did in 1980 with Al Bumbry, the Orioles’ outfielder, was just supposed to be a nice baseball story about a guy reaching the potential that everyone had predicted for him. Instead, it evolved very emotionally about his parents who had never married and lived apart, growing up confused, dealing with a speech impediment…and how now he and his wife were separating and…his daughter was developing a speech impediment.
Mickey Mantle was a hero of yours—until he wasn’t.
In 1983, I met Mantle, my hero, in Atlantic City. I was meeting him at the Claridge Hotel in AC. He was then 51, working as director of sports promotions—essentially a greeter—who was directing a golf tournament. He was late; I was getting more anxious. Finally he shows up at the breakfast buffet. He puts out his hand and says, ‘Hiii, I’m Mick,’ and I replied, ‘Hi, I’m nervous.’ And he said, ‘Why? Didya think I was gonna pull on your titty?’ OK, I said to myself, OK, I just grew up. It was traumatic.
I tried to interview him later, at the bar in the casino at 2 a.m. At that point, he was blotto. Literally falling over. And his hand is going up my thigh. Just before it got to the promised land, he passed out and fell face forward. And I’m stuck under 225 pounds of Mantle. A waitress came along and [together] we managed to drag Mantle to an elevator. As he gets in, he suddenly comes awake and goes, ‘Are you comin’ upstairs with me tonight, Jane?’ I go, ‘No, Mick.’ We get to his floor, he stumbled out, and I went back to my room and cried. The next morning he apologized and I got the interview. It’s one thing to interview someone else’s hero—quite another to interview your own.
Yet, ultimately, you got the interview you hoped for.
It was really good. He told me about his nightmares. And he told me about the knee injury he sustained during the second game of the 1951 World Series. He was convinced that Joe DiMaggio had purposely called him off a fly ball very late, and in veering away from Joe, Mantle caught his spikes in a drain.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Red Smith told me to write the way people actually talk. He said, ‘I tremble with pleasure at this kind of usage: I know the man that that’s the house ofs daughter. People say things like that but nobody quotes them that way, and they should because that’s the way people talk. ’
And the worst advice?
‘Go write for Vogue magazine.’ That’s from my mother.
How do you describe Washington’s sports fans?
I think Washington is aggrieved. It’s such a disparate place that when there is something to celebrate… . Nats are pathetic. I always thought Caps fans were heroic. The Wizards…that’s just sad. I can’t watch football anymore because of the brain damage connection.
You oppose the election of players to the Hall of Fame who used performance-enhancing substances.
I’m surprised at how many voters are willing to overlook the drug issue. I would never vote for [Roger] Clemens or [Barry] Bonds or [Mark] McGwire, etc.
And Pete Rose?
There’s a sign on every clubhouse door: ‘You can’t bet on the game.’ Period. I don’t know any reporter, especially female reporters, who haven’t had an unpleasant experience with Rose. I was in the Phillies’ locker room trying to interview Mike Schmidt, who was a gentleman. Schmidt was wearing a towel while we spoke, and three times Rose crept up behind him and pulled off the towel. After the third time, Schmidt said, ‘I’m sorry,’ excused himself and said, ‘I have to go deal with this,’ and went after Rose.
Who was your favorite among the three players you’ve written books about?
That’s easy. Sandy Koufax. I never expected to be able to interview him. But the only thing I can say is that he’s an even better person than he was a pitcher. He’s the rare guy whose soul is complete without a lot of attention. He’s incredibly thoughtful in both senses of the word. He’s read everything and has something interesting to say about it. And he’s the kind of friend who remembers to call a pal every year on the anniversary of his sobriety. He even came to my daughter’s bat mitzvah. Who knew I was rooting for the wrong guy all these years?