Selling My First Story

Here’s a quickie–beware, long historical pieces are in the offing–that may hold interest for writers struggling to crack the marketplace. Maybe the circumstances of how I sold my first article some thirty years ago are sufficiently antique to be, well, historical.

I had already written a few baseball books, which confirmed that I was a published writer if not yet a very good one. Writer’s block had plagued me from the outset: I could not write two sentences in succession without reversing course to edit the previous one. I knew myself, I thought—a tortoise who required a distant finish line to stand a chance of success. The idea of writing for a newspaper or a magazine seemed preposterous. I would prefer to torture myself and my readers with another book.

Upon which Cliff Kachline, historian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, put my name forward to The Sporting News (TSN) to write an account of the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), soon to be held on a suburban campus of the University of  Toronto. TSN had never covered a SABR convention before, but this was the summer of 1981, when a strike by baseball’s players left all sports publications in desperate need of sidebar copy.

TSN offered $125, but I was to pay my own way to Toronto and had to file the story Sunday night upon landing back at Albany Airport. That gave me a single afternoon to write the whole story, a fearsome prospect, but I was too thrilled to say no. I had read the magazine more or less religiously since I was a boy; here was a sign, maybe, that I had “made it.” Despite not being a SABR member I could wangle my way into the confab (that’s old-fashioned TSN lingo) as “press” or I could simply pay the $15 dues. I did the latter, to permit unobtrusive mingling; oh, I was so clever.

By the time I reached the convention Cliff had let everyone know that I was covering it for The Sporting News. The shy types who might provide the best stories shied away from me, while the authors looking to promote their new books tagged along hungrily, hoping to be quoted. Stuffing my notebook in my back pocket I met some truly interesting individuals along the way; these included Pete Palmer and Bob Carroll, with whom I would go on to co-create many books over the next twenty-five years, including Total Baseball and Total Football. 

I wrote the story on a four-pound Brother electronic typewriter, a quirkily useful device at a time when portable computers were more aptly termed luggable. Touching down at Albany Airport I raced to the Western Union office downtown, on State Street. There they had a teletype/fax equivalent that would miraculously zip my dot-matrix copy to St. Louis in two jiffies. It was 10:00 at night, and the story HAD to be there by midnight if it was to run.

It did, in the issue of August 8, 1981, under the dismaying headline “Trivia Hits New Heights at  Baseball Research Parley.” All the same, I framed the story and can see it on the wall above my desk as I write this, one of the 40-50 deadline pieces I now write each year.

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