Interview with Bill Ryczek

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by Protoball Functionary, June 2013

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Protoball: Nearly 30 years ago, you set off on a trail that would produce three books (Blackguards and Red Stockings, When Johnnie Came Sliding Home, and Baseball’s First Inning) covering base ball's early history from its origins to the demise of its first professional league in 1875. Was this your master plan, or did the writing and research just take on its own momentum? Had you long thought you might want to write base ball books?

Bill Ryczek: I was always intrigued by the fact that virtually nothing had been written about the National Association, which was America’s first professional sports league. My plan was that when I retired I would begin researching and writing about the NA and then possibly move forward. In 1981, I had some surgery and faced about six weeks at home. I decided to start about 40 years ahead of schedule, and once I got into the research, realized that a lot had happened prior to 1871, so I started working backwards. So, I did have a plan, but the starting point was 40 years off and it was executed in reverse.

Protoball: Our understanding of early ballplaying is a lot richer than it was ten years ago owing to digital searches and so on. Are there areas for which our past conventional wisdom is shakier than it was, and where we need to be ready to rethink our past bromides?

Bill Ryczek: The main change in my thought process over the past 30 years is the realization that documentation is what someone wrote down and preserved, and not necessarily what actually happened. I think we have assumed that what we found was inclusive, when in fact we now know indirectly that many things happened that were not well-documented. The primary example of this, in my opinion, is the credit given to the Knickerbockers, and I certainly deserve ample blame in this regard. The Knickerbockers may not have been the first organization, or the best ball players, but they were undoubtedly the best historians and note-takers, which gave their story precedence over others that were equally or even more important. And Alexander Cartwright also had the support of some good PR. There are undoubtedly other areas where what we know is probably exclusive of important data that we are unaware of. Most things we find in this regard come to us by accident—when someone like George Thompson reads the 1818 National Police Gazette to find out who strangled who in the Bowery and uncovers a baseball gem. Protoball: By the time you started work on Baseball's First Inning, you already knew a lot about where the game was headed in later decades. Did anything in your research on the 1840-1860 period alter your prior impressions of its earliest days?

Bill Ryczek: The primary sources I used didn’t present any major surprises, but many of the secondary sources researched by others have really changed the way we view baseball’s origins, particularly the work of David Block and John Thorn. In my opinion, Peter Morris has taught us a lot about the “who” in terms of the genealogical research that enabled us to get to know the men of the early era, and David and John have enlightened us to “how” and “why.” I consider myself more of a storyteller than a researcher, and I strive to learn enough about the story to feel a part of it and be able to relate the tale almost as a participant.

Protoball: The research on your base ball books started in the age of the non-memory typewriter and Dewey decimal cards and wrapped up in the age of Google and the 19CBB list-serve. Which era has been more fun for you?

Bill Ryczek: We can be much more productive today, which is great, but the thrill of compiling new information is sometimes lost, because it’s already there. It’s like taking great pride in your ability to read road maps and find obscure places and learning that it is an irrelevant skill with the invention of the GPS. The ability to gather data more easily, however, allows us to focus on interpretation and analysis. There’s no doubt that the ability to access information from our desk top rather than traveling hundreds of miles has made our work much easier.

Protoball: What strike you as some of the more underappreciated works on early base ball?

Bill Ryczek: Most of works I like are pretty well known. One of my favorite books on early baseball is Catcher by Peter Morris. Since Peter is a winner of the Henry Chadwick Award and several other honors I don’t think we can call him underappreciated, but I think Catcher is based upon a unique theme, and very well done. It’s unusual for someone to have the ability to focus on minute detail, like Peter does with his genealogical research, and also be able to structure a work thematically and write riveting prose.

Protoball: You evidently juggled Baseball's First Inning along with new books on the 1960s Mets, Yankees, and the Jets of the NFL. Would you advise that sort of mix to others? And what was it like getting to know your New York baseball heroes up close?

Bill Ryczek: It’s a function of personality. Some people work best while focusing on a single task while others get bored doing that and become refreshed by changing tasks frequently. I’m the latter type, and if I were a child today, I’m sure I would be diagnosed with some type of disorder. I can only focus on a single thing for a short period of time, and generally work on several projects simultaneously. I also get distracted by peripheral areas of research and spent far more time on subjects like boxing and canine sports than I needed to for Baseball’s First Inning.

Getting to talk to the heroes of my childhood was wonderful, something I never expected to do when I watched them play. When, as a nine-year-old, I watched Willie McCovey line out to Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 World Series, I never dreamed that 40 years later I’d be talking to Ralph Terry about what he was thinking on the mound, or with Tom Tresh about how he’d made that great catch in left field, or what Phil Linz, Bud Daley and Jack Reed were thinking about as they watched. None of my interaction with them went beyond a phone conversation, but I did become friends with a couple of the old New York Titans, which was a nice, unexpected benefit.

Protoball: What's next for you now? A rest, maybe?

Bill Ryczek: As a co-editor, I’m currently reviewing the final proofs of Baseball Pioneers,, the pre-1870 history of the teams and players from the areas where baseball began. I’m finishing up a book on minor league football in Connecticut during the 1960s and early ‘70s, which is due at the publisher next May. Local minor league football is a challenging topic, and I’m trying very hard to tell a compelling story of players struggling to make it to the NFL and owners trying to stave off bankruptcy to make it an interesting read. Following that, I’ve been slowly working on a book about baseball’s 1884 season, and have a partially finished manuscript called Baseball on the Brink, the story of baseball in the late 1960s. I think Tim Wendel just wrote my book, however, so I’ll wait awhile before reviving that one. I also have a couple of other ideas in the very, very early stages. I’m writing a monthly column on 19th century baseball for The National Pastime Museum website and beginning in January 2014 will teach a course at Quinnipiac University on the history and social impact of baseball. At some point I’d like to write a non-sports book, but that will probably have to wait until I retire, since I still work full-time at my finance company. I doubt I will write any more about the origins of baseball, as I’ve said about all I have to say, and others are doing a wonderful job of learning more about the game’s beginnings without my help.

Protoball: "Rye-sick" or "Rizzick?"

Bill Ryczek: . It depends upon which Ryczek you ask. I pronounce it Rye-zick. My late father and one of my sisters preferred Rye-sick. Our cousins in Moodus, CT say Ritz-zack. In fact, we’re all incorrect, for in Polish “cz” is pronounced as we pronounce “ch” in English.