Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 1999 /22 Mar-Cheshvan 5760
Asking all the right questions takes a special pitch
THE REASON I like Seth Swirsky -- and I've never
even met the guy -- is not because I'm a great fan
of baseball. I'm not.
The reason I'm a fan of Swirsky is that I'm a fan of
precise, quirky questions. I've always thought that
the secret to getting people to tell you wonderful
stories lies in fine-tuning the questions you ask
them, honing in, unleashing the floodgates of
memory by making certain that your questions are
probably unlike the questions the person you're
talking with hears every day.
Swirsky -- a songwriter who lives in California -- is
in love with baseball, and during the 1994 major
league strike found himself missing the game. To
pass the time he usually would have spent watching
or listening to ballgames, he began writing letters to
his favorite old-time baseball stars. He wasn't
asking them for their autographs -- he was asking
Really good questions. He wrote to a retired
ballplayer named Ken Raffensberger, and asked in
the letter: "I looked up your major league career
record and it says that you were the MVP of the
'44 All-Star Game. I wondered if you could tell me
if your parents and other family members were at
that game to watch your great performance? What
did you do after the game?" To a retired pitcher by
the name of Bud Thomas, Swirsky wrote: "I
wondered if you could tell me if you remember the
great Ted Williams' at-bat against you on April 23,
1939, when he hit his very first of 521 career home
runs? What was that at-bat like from your
Now . . . baseball fans would probably be
fascinated with the answers. But it was the
questions that impressed me -- there's a lesson
Swirsky is teaching there, about how to get people
to relax and reflect and open up. Baseball has
nothing to do with it -- knowing how to ask
Swirsky collected some of the letters he received
from ballplayers in a 1996 book called "Baseball
Letters," which I mentioned in the column when it
first came out. Now he has published a similar
book -- it is called "Every Pitcher Tells a Story,"
about his correspondence with pitchers.
Once again, it is not my interest in baseball that
draws me to what Swirsky has done. It's my
admiration for the way this guy poses his questions.
To Gary Kroll, a member of the New York Mets
in the 1960s, Swirsky asked what it was like -- as
the last pitcher to start a game for the Mets before
the famous Beatles concert in Shea Stadium on
Aug. 15, 1965 -- to have the band show up in his
home ballpark. ("I was there, got to meet the
Beatles . . . ." Kroll wrote in his response to
To Mace Brown, who was a rookie pitcher with
the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1935, Swirsky asked what
he remembered about the day Babe Ruth hit his
714th and final home run -- which Ruth, playing for
the Boston Braves, did against Brown's team. (". . .
(Ruth) crossed home plate, and he ran directly into
our dugout and sat right beside me on the end of
the bench!" Brown wrote back to Swirsky. "He sat
there for about 4 or 5 minutes. . . .")
To Jaret Wright, the youngest pitcher ever to start
a seventh game of a World Series when, at age 21,
he pitched for the Cleveland Indians against the
Florida Marlins in 1997, Swirsky asked whether
Wright's dad, former major league pitcher Clyde
Wright, said anything to him before and after the
To C.J. Nitkowski, who was was a pitcher for the
Class AA Chattanooga Lookouts in 1994, Swirsky
asked what it was like to pitch five times to a fellow
minor leaguer who that summer, like Nitkowski,
was trying to make it to the majors: Michael
To retired catcher Ed Herrmann, who played for
the White Sox, Swirsky asked what he and pitcher
Wilbur Wood talked about when Herrmann would
walk out to the mound -- what the actual
conversations were about, as thousands of fans
watched and had no idea what was being said.
How good are professional songwriter Swirsky's
The answer to that lies not in the words of the men
who responded to him -- but in the fact that they
responded to him, that they took the time to write
him back. Questions like those, you almost have to
answer -- they're so thoughtful, you feel an
obligation to think about them and reply.
Maybe Swirsky should cover the 2000 presidential
campaign. His questions might do the impossible --
make the rest of us pay
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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