Thursday, September 24, 2009

By Chuck Richter - Executive Editor

Klima is the author of Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series and The Making of a Baseball Legend (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). His story, Deal of the Century, about Paul Pettit, who in 1950 became baseball’s first $100,000 bonus baby, appeared in the 2007 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

He has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Yahoo! Sports and His writing has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Klima also wrote Pitched Battle (2002), Scouting the Heart (2010), and a collection of his baseball writing appears at his personal website, He graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a degree in anthropology. As a baseball writer, he has covered several major league games.

As a baseball broadcaster, he covered Pepperdine University for two years and spent 2003 as the radio announcer for the Yakima Bears. He has informally scouted for several seasons, with numerous contacts in baseball scouting and player development throughout baseball.

So, with introductions out of the way, as promised, lets move on to the Q&A with John Klima.

Q: - Hello John, for starters how about a little background on John Klima the writer, Baseball historian and sabermetric analyst?

A: John Klima - Hi Chuck. Well, this sounds like my life story. So I'll break it down. As a player, I was NP. (No Prospect). I could, however, write. So that was the genesis way back when. Started in high school, made a detour as a minor league radio play-by-play guy, went back to newspapers for a while, and saw the writing on the wall in that industry. Before I got out, I managed to publish a story called Deal of the Century, which was about Paul Pettit, who in 1950 was the first $100,000 bonus baby. That got me in Best American Sports Writing in 2007, which gave me the writing credit that I needed to help me get signed to write the Mays book.

My background comes from being around the game at all levels. I don't think you can be a complete baseball person if you only spend every day of your career at the big league level. I had a number of veteran scouts influence me: George Genovese, Bob Zuk, Gene Handley, Spider Jorgensen. Those were my guys. All of them, save for Zuk, had played in the big leagues before expansion. So they had seen baseball from the end of World War II until now. George, for example, was greatly influenced by Branch Rickey. And I have basics that guide me in the game from George. Spider was quick and to the point and had the best scouting instincts of any of us. Gene was a yes or no man. Zuk was a clever sniper who didn't care who he pissed off to get a player he wanted. He also understood power hitters better than any evaluator I've ever known.

I don't know that I would put 'sabermetric analyst' on me, because I'm not a math guy. I'm a SABR member, but I'm more of the research type who turns the research into narrative prose. I respect all the statistical analysts, but it’s not where my talents are.

Q: - What prompted you to write this book?

A: John Klima - I loved the idea that there was an entire part of an iconic baseball figure’s career that was completely undeveloped. In fact, the story had massive historical value because the story of how Mays became a Giant influenced virtually every major transaction around it for about a decade and helped shape the game as we know it.

Q: - After talking to Willie Mays, what was your impression of the man?

A: John Klima - Willie is a ballplayer. He may not play anymore, but he’s never lost that feel. When we talked, I told him, your big league career belongs to you. I hope you’ll help me shed some light on this other part of your career. He helped me clarify some things I needed and he helped validate some of the ideas I had, but he also told me I knew this story better than he did. And that was a huge compliment. I was writing about what was going on when he was 17-18-19 years old, before he ever got to “White Folks Ball” as black players called it. I don’t think he was as aware as I became of what was going on around him while he was simply playing ball and praying to get signed out of Birmingham. Just because Jackie Robinson had made it, don’t automatically assume that baseball as a whole was generally kind to black players in that era.

It was a tough research road and it took somebody with a wide range of knowledge on a lot of subjects in both black and white baseball. I didn’t expect Willie to be the source to carry this; you can’t go to a ballplayer and say, ‘Carry me,’ because his first priority has to be to carry himself. It wouldn’t have been fair to him or to the readers. I was on my own.

Q: - What was Willie's reaction to the book after he received his first copy and read it?

A: John Klima - I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll see him in Scottsdale. I am certain that we both have a great deal of affection for his player-manager, Piper Davis, who later played for the Los Angeles Angels in the PCL.

Q: - To the Baseball fan audience on the net, what will the fan of the game discover after completing the book?

A: John Klima – You’ll learn how Willie Mays became Willie Mays. You’ll learn what he had to go through to get to a stage where he could let all his talent shine. You’ll learn about what obstacles he had to overcome. And you’ll be entertained in the process.

Q: - You interviewed Angels' centerfielder Torii Hunter to get his take on the book. Without comparing Torii to Willie Mays, do you see a little Willie Mays in Torii Hunter's game and personality?

A: John Klima - Torii and I have had a lot of conversations about race and baseball over the years. We talked about the Mays book while I was doing it, about the Negro Leagues, about society and baseball then and now and in the future. I also expressed to Torii that I felt his passion and joy for the game was very similar to Willie. He is a humble guy and wondered if he was worthy to be with Mays. I told him, basically, trust me. In many ways, you are. I think Torii and Willie can be mentioned in the same breath as far as game personality goes.

Q: - What statement stood out the most when interviewing Torii Hunter about Willie Mays?

A: John Klima - I was describing things I found accounts of Mays doing as a teenager, things Joe Torre told me he saw Mays do as a young player. I told him, “Picture you, two levels above you.” And I remember how he said in admiration of Mays, “daaaaaaaaaaaamn!” Things Hunter does, Mays did better. He knew it. He still remembers the time he spent with Mays at the All-Star game a few years ago.

Q: - Besides Willie Mays, who are some John's favorite players in the game of Baseball?

A: John Klima - Most of the guys I have liked over the years I never saw play. Minor Leaguers who influenced me later in my life, such as a catcher named Chuck Staniland, who hit 126 minor league home runs. I love Piper Davis. I still wish I had been able to talk in detail with Gene Mauch. I have a left-hander I admire and a right-hander who just wanted one measly big league inning. Just little guys who are grinders and competitors. I did, however, love Brian Downing.

Q: - What team does John Klima pull for?

A: John Klima – I don’t really root for teams anymore; as much as I pull for individuals I’m close to within the game.

Q: - As an unbiased sports writer, how do you like the Angels' chances in postseason play this season, should they hold onto their 6 1/2 game lead over the Rangers going into this weekend's series in Texas?

A: John Klima - I don’t want to see Fuentes pitch to right-handers with power. This team reminds me an awful lot of the 1982 Angels – by far the best group of position players Scioscia has ever had, good starters, and bullpen inconsistency – just like Mauch had.

Q: - Back to the book "Willie's Boys", will you be doing any book tours, signings? If so, where and when?

A: John Klima - I will be at the Barnes&Noble in Huntington Beach on Sunday Oct. 18th, so hopefully if the Angels are in the playoffs it will be a night game and I won’t get buried by the NFL during the day. I’ll also be at the Birmingham Public Library on Tuesday, Sept. 29th.

Q: - Lastly, what can we expect to see next from John Klima?

A: John Klima - I’m getting settled on the next book idea. In the meantime, readers and fans can always swing by our website which is about scouting professional prospects and identifying future major leaguers. It’s a good place to come see and read about future players that you’re bound to see in pro ball and in the big leagues a few years down the road.
Love to hear what you think!


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