Jeff Pearlman

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Marty Appel

#78
The former New York Yankees PR director talks about writing, baseball and life inside the Bronx Zoo—from Reggie and George to Billy and Thurman. POSTED November 29, 2012

In my world, Marty Appel is legend.

Back in 1973, when he was a mere 24-years old, Marty was hired as the PR director of the New York Yankees. Let me repeat that: Marty Appel was the PR director for the Yankees—when he was 24. Hell, when I was 24 I was writing about fashion for The Tennessean. My best friend was waiting tables. My other best friend was a bouncer. Twenty-four. Crazy.

Marty held the position until 1977—meaning he was center stage for the craziness of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, the signing of Catfish Hunter, the prime of Thurman Munson. In the ensuing 3 1/2 decades has enjoyed a truly breathtaking career. Marty is the author of (Jesus Christ!) 18 books, including two of my all-time favorites—Munson and Pinstripe Empire. He runs one of the most respected public relations agencies around, and is known throughout the sports literary world as a true class act. He also seems to appear on about 8,543 Yankeeography episodes per hour. With good reason—the man knows his stuff.

Here, Marty talks about the highs of answering Mickey Mantle’s mail and the nightmare of Thurman Munson’s death; he explains what makes Derek Jeter special and why Eddie Murray and Eddie Murphy confuse him.

You can visit Marty’s website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Now pitching for the Quaz—Marty Appel …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Marty, you’ve written, I believe 18 books. You’ve also done public relations for a ton of other books. You also, I’m guessing, read books. And books. And books. My question for you—are we in a dead (or near-dead) business? Are books going the way of print newspapers and magazines? Can we—and it—be saved? And, if so, how? Dear Lord, how …

MARTY APPEL: No one is going to be able to stop the move toward electronic reading, but it doesn’t mean the end for books, magazine,, newspapers. In fact, the early versions of books online—in Kindle and Nook form—are pretty good, actually sort of fun, and since I read books on my iPhone, it’s terrific to always have one in my pocket, to read even while I’m waiting for the subway. My theory on newspapers is that a reader will be developed which seamlessly opens to “New York Times” size and collapses back into your pocket.  Once that happens, we’re back to the format we like, save on the disposal of 3-4 million newspapers a day in New York alone, and find everything—ads, stories etc., in familiar form. That’s a good thing to look forward to. The thirst for knowledge isn’t going away, it will always be fed.

J.P.: You were 24-years old when you were named public relations director for the New York Yankees. Most people that age are either: A. Living in their parents’ spare bedroom watching cartoons; B. Peddling ice cream at Carvel; C. Both. Marty, how the hell did that happen? And, at 24, could you have even possibly been prepared for the job?

M.A.: I wrote a letter to the Yankees PR director, Bob Fishel, when I was 18, just looking for a summer job. He got it on a day he was overwhelmed by unanswered cartons of Mickey Mantle fan mail. The stars were aligned just right for me, and in the late ’60s, there weren’t a lot of 18-year olds looking to get into baseball. It wasn’t a very cool sport at the time. So there I was with my summer job, working in the original stadium, working with Mick. Crazy. I still watched Rocky and Bullwinkle and still ate Carvel when I could, but I had also stumbled into adulthood very early. I was PR director (Bob’s successor) by the time I was 24, the first of my generation to ever head a team’s PR department. George Steinbrenner promoted me when Fishel left for the American League, not quite knowing that the “culture” of the industry was to hire 50+ newspapermen for the job. Was I prepared? Absolutely—because I’d learned from Fishel, the best there ever was at it. And I knew my Yankee and baseball history, which counted for more then than it does today, when sports marketing courses are more important, or perceived as such.

A boyish Marty Appel, far right, in the Yankee clubhouse with Lee McPhail, 1970.

J.P.: I loved your biography of Thurman Munson. Absolutely loved it. Yet I’m still kind of left wondering–was this a good guy? I’ve always heard so many different things about Munson—from moody to rude to anti-Semitic to on and on. Are any of those true? False? And, having worked with the man, then writing about him, did you come away with a different impression?

M.A.: Thurman had his rough edges and could leave a lot of people wishing for more, but he was a player’s player; teammates loved him and of course, the fans connected with him from a distance. He could be grumpy, profane, and thoughtless at times, but he had his soft side, especially with his family. Sometimes the “anti-Semitic” came from his style—like the Yankees assistant trainer, Barry Weinberg—he kept calling him Goldberg or Greenstein or Weingold, but it was just the way he would needle someone. That night he’d send over drinks to his table in a restaurant and when Barry looked over to say thanks, Thurman would give him the finger. Do you see how the “anti-Semitic” thing started, but at the same time, wasn’t really the case.

J.P.: I recently had a conversation with  someone affiliated with the movie version of “The Bronx is Burning,” and he felt the film lacked … something. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, save to say that the real Reggie was bigger than the fake Reggie; the real Billy was bigger than the fake Billy and the real George, well, was the size of a mountain. You worked on the film. Do you agree? Did it work as a piece of work? Or was it somewhat impossible to capture that team, that era?

M.A.: It was a drama, not a documentary, so there were allowance for some liberties, but I think they got it close enough to be entertaining and informative. There was such on-going tension in the workplace in those years; it would have been rough to subject the viewer to an eight-hour mini-series that didn’t come up for air sometimes. Also, Erik Jensen’s portrayal of Munson was so good, that it rekindled interest in Thurman again and helped lead to my writing the book about him.

J.P.: How do you write? What I mean is, literally, what’s your process when you’re mid-book? Where do you work? Are you good at blocking out distractions? How long can you go for? What’s the best time of day?

M.A.: Because I also run a PR agency, I limit my writing to Saturday and Sunday mornings, often for 5 hour stretches, so that 10 hours a week of writing keeps my on schedule.  During the week I might find time for research or an interview, and jot down ideas—even sentences, but the weekend writing when the phones are not ringing works for me. To mix it in with the PR business would be like turning off and on introverted Marty and extroverted Marty with one faucet. Hard to do.

J.P.: You were a PR man with the Yanks in what some would consider the golden era of Greenies (aka: Speed). Players would pop the pills, chase with a cup of coffee—bam! Instant energy. My question for you—is this different than the PED rage of the 90s and, perhaps, today? When someone argues, “Hey, guys have always been cheating, so why do McGwire and Clemens catch all the shit?” is there a strong counter-argument?

M.A.: You make a good point, and it hits home that every era deserves its own asterisk.  The deadball era, the pre-integration era, the wartime era, the expansion era—they all influenced performance in one way or another. Walter Johnson never faced a black or Latin hitter—how can we compare him to postwar pitchers?  Each era has to have built in asterisks in the fan’s mind. As for the PED gang, I’m not ready to hang them from a tall oak tree in Cooperstown. They were, after all, trying to play better, make more money, win more games for their teams. They were using illegal stuff—no forgiveness there—but they weren’t throwing games like the Black Sox. I think there will be a general amnesty one day. Maybe the next generation of sportswriters says “all is forgiven.”

J.P.: I had no idea you worked for World Team Tennis and, specifically, the New York Apples. What in the world was that like? And was there any possible circumstance where the league lasted into today? Or would that have been impossible?

M.A.: That was a fun summer, because I got to work with Billie Jean King, leaned to play good tennis just by watching practices, and went to Studio 54 with Vitas Gerulaitis. Don’t ask.  I liked the scoring format, I liked the team concept, and for a time, it looked like it was going to be more interesting than traditional tennis. But they were never able to sign the big men’s stars, and the league went under. The women—Chris, Martina, et al, were very supportive, but McEnroe, Borg, Connors, wouldn’t play. That killed it. When Chris Evert came to down with the Los Angeles Strings, we sold out the Garden.

J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?

M.A.: Greatest moment, apart from being hired by the Yankees, was the day Chris Chambliss homered to win the 1976 pennant. By then I was almost the senior member of the front office in my ninth season, and it came at the end of our first year in the refurbished stadium, the first time we’d drawn two million since just after World War II. That was fantastic. Having Catfish Hunter be the one to pour champagne over me—how good was that?! Other things I’d like to mention include the reviews for Pinstripe Empire, which made me feel as though I’d contributed something important that would be long lasting … the New Year’s Eve when we signed Hunter, and baseball was never to be the same … and taking my son to the last game in Yankee Stadium (2008) and sitting where my dad sat with me at my first game (1955).

Lowest point—Thurman Munson’s death in a plane crash in 1979.

J.P.: Why do you love the Yankees so much? What I mean is, why aren’t they just a former employer? A place you worked? Like, as a kid I absolutely loved sports Illustrated—as a fan would love a team. However, once I worked there it became, in a sense, a work spot. A great one, no doubt; but I’d seen the little man behind the curtain. How have you, Marty, maintained your passion?

M.A.: I guess it was the fact that I grew up a Yankees fan, then worked for them and enjoyed it, left on good terms, and went back to being a fan. In that arc, it’s all one experience, some inside, some outside, but the fan part of it was always there. I maintain a professional relationship with the team today (Yankeeographies, Yankees.com, Yankees Magazine), but still enjoy the passion that goes with rooting—and the frequent rewards they provide. Hope I never lose that.

J.P.: You used to answer Mickey Mantle’s mail. You worked with DiMaggio and Berra and Reggie and Whitey and tons of other Yankee greats. What, to you, makes Derek Jeter special? And, perhaps, different?

M.A.: As you grow older, more jaded, more realistic, you tend to think that whatever Ruth Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle had can’t be duplicated because it was “a different time.” But then along comes Jeter (and with him Rivera, and before him Mattingly)—guys who never say anything wrong, maintain the image of the club, play hard, connect with the fans, and win (well, except for Donny), and you think, “I’m older and wiser, but here we go again, the Yankees have found another one!” When a rookie gets to second base and you see him talking to Jeter, you know he’s telling him what a kick it is to be on the field with him, he had a poster, etc., etc., and it’s a beautiful thing to see. You always hope it’s not the end of the line. 

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARTY APPEL:

• We give you 300 at bats, right now, in the Israel Baseball League. What’s your stat line?: I suited up in Fantasy Camp two years ago and hit a line drive single to center on the first pitch. It’s on video. I left the game with my 1.000 average. I don’t want any more at bats! But as for the Israel Baseball League (a pro league in 2007 for which I did the PR)—I would hit my .207 with no power, just like in the Police Athletic League in Maspeth Queens, but I would play second base like I was born there. In my mind, I’m still 15 and know all the moves, my favorite being flipping the ball onto the pitcher’s mound after I’ve caught a third out.

• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Otto Velez?: Otto was one of our crown jewels! Gabe Paul said so, when Charlie Finley wanted him and Scott McGregor for his manager, Dick Williams. “We’re not giving up our crown jewels” was the quote. I liked him! Sometimes the guys you like best are the one’s that the fans quickly forget.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): John Milner, Dave Bergman, Christina Aguilera, the Food Network, Tubby Raymond, Snooki, San Antonio Gunslingers, Platoon, Ball Four, asparagus, Ed Figueroa’s autobiography, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murray, Bill Murray: I get in trouble with traditionalists if I list Ball Four high up there, but I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they fell in love with baseball after reading Ball Four. As for Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murray, I always mix them up in conversation, so don’t make me do this.

• Seven favorite baseball stadiums: It begins with the spring training park in West Palm Beach which had this great willow tree off the third base side, and I’d sit under it and do my stats after each game. And they served Oreos in the press room. Then comes Yankee Stadium I, Yankee Stadium II, Yankee Stadium III, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Royals Stadium (now Kauffman), where the elevators from clubhouse to press box were so convenient.

• Did the DH come closer to saving baseball or ruining baseball?: Saving! There was no hitting in the American League in the early 70s, and they needed to do something. Most would agree it served its purpose and can go away, but it’s here to stay, and it’s better than watching pitchers hit or paint dry. By the way, pitchers are always the best hitters in Little League, why do they all become so bad? I never got that.

• If someone needs to read one book by Marty Appel, it is …: I very proud of “Pinstripe Empire,” but one that didn’t sell a lot was a memoir of my time with the Yanks, “Now Pitching for the Yankees.”  The publisher went out of business the same month the book came out, so it had little distribution and sold only about 5000 copies.  I still get emails from people telling me how funny it is and how much they enjoyed it.  For Yankee fans who like good backstage stuff, especially about the ’60s and ’70s, this was fun to write and I think it’s still fun. It was published in 2002.

• Five reasons one should attend SUNY Oneonta over Harvard?: It cost  less, it’s closer to Cooperstown, it produced Don Garber (MLS Commissioner), Pizza Rendevous (432-8505) was terrific, and you learned how to start you car with a dead battery on a cold morning.

• Will Roger Clemens ultimately get into the Hall of Fame? Should he?: I think the next generation of sportswriters will be more forgiving and offer a general amnesty to all the PED guys. He was the best starting pitcher of his time, even if he never faced a batter with the game on the line. No modern starting pitcher ever faces a batter with the game on the line.  How do we compare him to Ford or Koufax or Feller?  The real down side of this ultimate decision is the way guys who played clean get penalized. Bernie Williams was a 30-homer guy, not a 50, so no Hall of Fame.  But, we just may have to live with it.

• Would you rather make $150,000 over three years with Celine Dion working on her autobiography, “I Have a Beautiful Voice of the Gods, and You Suck Quite Badly,” or spend 500-straight hours watching the career highlight video of Toby Harrah? Was there a career highlight for Toby?  I must have missed it.  And if I’m getting $150,000 for working with Celine Dion, it’s because she’s keeping the other $4,850,000.  I need to phone my agent, quickly.

• More likely? Santa Claus is real or Brien Taylor comes back to win 20 for the 2013 Yanks?: It doesn’t look like Brien is going to be available for 2013, so gotta with with the Claus guy.

  • http://www.caltrops.com Souffle of Pain

    Hey man, how’s that evidence coming that showed Bagwell took steroids? It’s about that time of year where you become the dumbest clownsac on the internet again.

  • http://www.ErikShermanBaseball.com Erik Sherman

    Great interview with the classiest person in sports, Marty Appel. I didn’t realize “Now Pitching for the Yankees” only sold 5,000 copies because the publishers went belly-up. I have read that book three times. Absolutely love it. Wonder if Marty can somehow buy back the rights and re-publish. It really was a classic on the inside-workings of those late sixties/seventies Yankee teams.

  • Barry

    Souffle are you bothering any other writers? Ian O’Conner had a piece on espn.com today asking the same questions about Bagwell. PTI mentioned the same thing on yesterday’s show. Did you email them too? BTW, hell yeah Bagwell took ‘riods.

  • Richard

    Another example of why I enjoy The Quaz. This was a nice interview with a truly classy man. I loved “Now Pitching…” and his Munson bio, and I’ve been devouring “Pinstripe Empire.”

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