I Accidentally Become a Sports Historian

I'm a sports historian. (That may not mean quite what you think it means…I explain what a sports historian is here.) I never set out to be a sports historian. It happened pretty much by accident.

About 1965, it was obvious to me that pro football was becoming more and more popular. New fans, I figured, would need to learn something about the sport to watch it intelligently. Mainly because I had grown up in Green Bay, I knew a lot about how pro football teams operate, so I figured I was the guy to write that book.

I developed an outline, wrote the first couple of chapters, and found a literary agent who was interested. I soon learned the advantages of having an agent. If you send a manuscript to a publisher, you have to wait anywhere from three months to a year before getting a reply; and submitting to more than one publisher at a time is forbidden. That means that submitting to, say, seven publishers takes a minimum of two years and possibly as long as seven years.

But my agent was constantly in touch with editors from various publishing houses. He talked to them on the phone, met with them in their offices, went to lunch with them. He knew what kinds of books they were looking for. At a single meeting, he could mention several of his clients and what they were working on. If an editor expressed interest in a project, my agent could deliver the book proposal and get an answer quickly, often within a week or two.

He spent about a year trying to sell my idea. He got bites from 12 or 15 publishers, but none of them bought it after reviewing the proposal. Finally, we decided that the time just wasn't right for that particular book. But an editor at Hawthorn Books said that he was looking for someone to write a Who Was in American Sports and he wondered if I'd be willing to do it.

Of course, I was willing and, after some bargaining about the parameters and the amount of the advance, I signed a contract to write it. In the process of writing that book, I learned a lot about the business of writing and publishing. I also learned that it was really hard to find information about sports figures. There were only a few reliable reference books, most of them Sporting News publications about baseball.

One general sports reference book was available, The Encyclopedia of Sports by Frank Menke, but it was a terrible book, littered with inaccuracies. For example, Menke wrote that billiards was a sport among the ancient Egyptians. His evidence? In Shakespeare's play, Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her maid, Charmian, to play billiards with her. Of course, this is similar to saying that the mechanical clock was invented by the ancient Romans because there's a reference to one in Julius Caesar.

Even worse, the book was full of misspelled names. One horrendous example: An athlete won an event four years in a row at the national track and field championships. His name was spelled four different ways in the list of winners; and all four were wrong!

Frankly, The Encyclopedia of Sports was also an ugly book. It had been updated every few years and it looked as if the publisher, A.S. Barnes, used a different font for every update. As a result, the book was a typographical crazy quilt.

I decided the world needed a new encyclopedia of sports, but I postponed that for a while—a few years, actually—while I worked with Johnny Blood on his biography. But I returned to the idea sometime in 1975 or 1976, wrote a proposal and sent it to my agent, and he sold the idea to McGraw-Hill almost immediately.

After the publication of The New Encyclopedia of Sports in 1977, there was what looks like a long fallow period. Well, it WAS a long fallow period, but not for lack of planting. It was a period during which I learned a lot about the peculiarities of the book business. I talk about that in "Whose Idea Was It, Anyway?"

In 1990, things started to happen fast. Fast for the publishing industry, that is. An editor at Facts on File was looking for somebody to write an encyclopedia of sports history, which isn't the same as an encyclopedia of sports. I wrote a proposal, signed a contract, and delivered the manuscript 18 months later.

Almost as soon as I was done with that, my agent told me there was a job available at Houghton Mifflin, which published the Information Please Sports Almanac. They wanted someone to edit that annual publication. I drove up to Boston for an interview with an editor named Liz Kubik and decided I didn't want to move to Boston and I certainly didn't want to commute every day.

But Liz and I chatted for a while and came up with an idea for a book, which became A Who's Who of Sports Champions. I had barely started that when my former editor from Facts on File decided she wanted me to write a book about pro football. My agent said, "This sounds like the book you originally proposed about 30 years ago."

He was right. I pulled that old proposal out of my files, revised and updated it, changed the title to The Pro Football Fan's Companion, and suddenly I was working on two books at the same time. For the record, both those books were published in 1995.

Five years later, Facts on File asked me to update The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History. That was published 10 years, almost to the day, after the original edition and it was the last book that I wrote for a traditional trade publisher.

Since then, I have self-published three books: Bibliography of Books About American Football 1891-2015 (2016), Vagabond Halfback: The Saga of Johnny Blood McNally (2017), and Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem (2023). Another book, Fairhaven: A Lens on History, was published by a local museum.

There are separate sections on the site for Johnny Blood and the Love, Sex collection.