Josh Wilker, one of my favorite writers and mastermind behind the popular Cardboard Gods blog, stopped by for a little electronic chit-chat. Among other things, we covered petty crime, washing dishes with Uma Thurman and playing Strat-O-Matic with Buster Olney…proceed at your own risk.
I warned you ahead of time that my interview style is very similar to Barbara Walters’. I’ll start out with a series of seemingly innocuous questions, then- Pow!- out of left field I’ll hit you something that’ll have you sobbing like a school girl. Sound like fun?
OK, as long as you don’t ask me any questions about my past. I’m a doer, and my life only goes in one direction: forward.
Uh, ok. Turns out we know a lot of about your life. Courtesy of your essays at Cardboard Gods, where you mash-up your life story with reflections inspired by your aging baseball card collection, we get a pretty good sense of where you’ve been. What’s going on in your life right now? Are you married? What’s your day job?
I got married a couple years ago after my prospective bride passed a Diner-inspired multiple-choice and short answer test about the history of the Boston Red Sox. I cling to the borders of economic solvency by working as a proofreader and editor. (Really I do it more for the sheer adrenaline rush than the money.)
I’m getting’ a little low here, can you pass me another beer?
Have it all. I have a good old-fashioned hangover this morning, courtesy of Mr. Jameson.
I saw some books on the internet; Julius Erving, Race Car Legends, Wayne Gretzky (Ice Hockey Legends), which claim to have been written by a Josh Wilker? Did you write these, or do we have a law suit in the works? Or perhaps a little bit of both, you wrote them AND we have a law suit in the works?
I wrote the first and the third book you mention, and wrote a book on A.J. Foyt, which was part of the Race Car Legends series. In all, I wrote ten books of that nature (young adult nonfiction), but there is an eleventh young adult nonfiction book out there which has someone named Joshua D.G. Willker (with two L’s) listed as the author. It’s a book I was tentatively approached to write but nothing ever came of that first contact from the editor. It’s a mystery. I think I got into on the site, maybe in a piece on the now-forgotten Mike Tyson who played baseball in the 1970s.
What’s the largest amount of money you’ve ever stolen from somebody?
When I was 19 I worked for a couple months pumping gas at a Chevron station in Santa Barbara. I worked with this one guy who showed me how to smoke pot out of a Coke can. At a certain point we started skimming money off the top of some customer transactions. I think the deal was that customers were supposed to get a better per-gallon rate if they paid cash, but we’d charge them the credit card rate and pocket the difference ourselves. If anyone were ever to complain, we’d pretend we’d done it accidentally, out of stupidity, a role we were both well-suited to play. I don’t know how much it amounted to, maybe a buck or two a day in change.
Only a buck or two a day, Josh, but that’s when a dollar was worth 75 cents. Nowadays, a dollar’s worth only, like, a nickel…
Your fans keep wondering when you’re going to publish a book based on your essays, even though they can currently get the stuff for free. If I opened up my checkbook and told you to give me 100,000 words; would it be something based on the Cardboard Gods concept, or do you have another book in mind?
Sometimes I have stray ideas about future books, but I think I can only write one book at a time, and the one I’m working on and loving (and sometimes hating) now is the Cardboard Gods book, which will have its roots in the blog but which will be a different animal than my ongoing Internet-related effort to use my cards to cling to sanity on a semi-daily basis. I see the book as being more novelistic, with a beginning and end and a “rising action” and all that other Aristotelian shit. Plus it’s something that you will be able to hold in your hand, which will provide something that echoes what it was like to hold a baseball card in your hand. At least that’s my hope.
Is there a baseball book you’d like to see somebody else write?
I love Jonathan Ames’ writing, and I know he’s a baseball fan. He could certainly produce a weird and hilarious baseball novel, if he was so inclined. I was also reminiscing a couple weeks ago about the beat writing Joe Sexton did for the New York Times in 1993 covering a surly, haunted Mets team that lost over a hundred games. With each mounting loss, Sexton veered further and further away from reporting the increasingly meaningless details of the game and more into the existential abyss into which the Mets were falling. I may be over-romanticizing it, but I remember it as a great season-long tour-de-force in beat writing that transcended beat writing. I don’t know what kind of demand there’d be for a book of those dispatches from the edge, but I’d certainly buy it.
Um, I didn’t order mushrooms on this pizza. How’d these things get on here, Josh?
You’ve probably answered this before, but I have a very poor memory. What’s your favorite baseball book, and why?
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris. Most of the books in my top ten favorite books of any kind are first-person narratives with really distinctive voices. A lot of them are coming-of-age novels. So I guess I’m a sucker for those elements in a book, and The Southpaw has both of them going for it, and on top of that it allows me, whenever I read it, to dissolve completely into a well-imagined, note-perfect fictional universe centered around my favorite sport.
Do you have a favorite “brush with greatness” story?
I went to boarding school for a couple years, or almost a couple of years, and they had this thing there called “work-job.” Every day or every couple days you had to do some chore or other for a half hour or so. One semester I ran a dishwashing machine with Uma Thurman. There used to exist a sarcastic photograph of me in a pose as the Dishwasher Stud. I stood in front of the dishwashing machine in Wayfarer sunglasses and my fast-food style paper dishwasher hat, and Uma Thurman and another girl who worked in the kitchen hung on my shoulders, as if enthralled by my magnificence. The photo was destroyed a couple years after it was taken, in a fire in the apartment of my former boarding school roommate, Bill. I have never gotten over this loss.
I’ve got a couple shots of me and Uma, but they’re mostly photo-shopped things. Okay… they’re ALL photo-shopped.
Kerouac is one of your literary heroes. Turns out he played a little baseball growing up and even created a card-based baseball simulation game when he was a kid. You’ve mentioned Strat-O-Matic in your work, can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with the game? Is there a singular memory, or favorite card that comes to mind?
As with my involvement with baseball cards, my early involvement with Strat was prodded along by a baseball-crazy kid who lived in our town, Buster Olney. My older brother started playing in a league with Buster when both of them were away at the aforementioned boarding school, and when they came home from school we had three-team round-robins.
One clear memory of that time was when I paused in the middle of my team’s ninth inning rally against my brother’s team with my best slugger, Eddie Murray, at the plate, to run upstairs and blast the section of my Eddie Murphy record where the crowd chants “Ed-die! Ed-die!” (The crowd noise didn’t help Murray, who popped out to end the game, I think.)
Another memory is when it was just Buster and me playing game after game deep into the night in my family’s kitchen, and by some freak of the dice I kept winning every single game, until Buster finally roared his favorite expletive phrase—“What a chunk of shit!”—and stormed out of the house and went home. In general, Buster kicked the crap out of everyone he played by loading his roster with lesser-known guys who years later would be thought of as Moneyball-type players. (He loved Gene Tenace.)
One other memory I have from those days stems from the sound effect Buster used whenever his closer, Goose Gossage, recorded a strikeout: “Hwaaa!” (Like a demonstrative ump signaling a third strike.) One day we went to play some basketball by the high school, and there was a karate class in session on the grass behind the outdoor hoop. The sound the leader made whenever he chopped or kicked, and which was then imitated by all the students, was exactly like Buster’s Goose Gossage sound. “Hwaaa! Hwaaa!” I learned that it’s impossible to play basketball when you’re laughing so hard you’re crying.
But most of my Strat-playing (including a lot of seasons of Strat basketball) was done alone. The highpoint of all those many hours whiled away alone in my teen years was when I presided over a no-hitter (1981 Dave Righetti against the Dodgers). I tacked the notebook page I’d used as a scorecard to the wall of my room.
You have to drive across the country, I was going to give you a choice of Bukowski versus Kerouac…but no. You have to pick Joe Morgan (the self-proclaimed greatest second baseman of all-time) or Tim McCarver as your wing man. 1. Which one do you choose? 2. How far do you make it before dumping your choice on the side of the road?
I did a fair amount of hitch-hiking when I was a teenager, so I have some practice being agreeable to people I’m trapped in a car with. But you know, even though these guys have developed TV personas as somewhat tiresome blowhards, I think face to face they’d be more human, just a couple old guys who could answer a lot of questions about baseball history. I guess I’d opt for McCarver, since he goes back a little farther. Plus I have a hunch he might enjoy a drink now and then.
The first time I flunked out of college, I was spending my afternoons playing a J. Henry Waugh-style solitaire SOM league; while my evenings were spent in bars, chasing tail and getting beaten up. I don’t have the time to play Strat during the afternoon these days, and nothing really exciting happens to me anymore. Is this a coincidence?
Could be. What’s to hold a guy back from staying out until last call when all he’s got going the next day is some afternoon dice rolling and scorekeeping.
This hitter’s cashed, man. Can you pass me that paper clip so I can clean it out?
I, uh . . .
Is it just me, or does troubled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich remind you of a “Who” from “Whoville.” You know, the Dr. Suess book?
I am spacing on what those characters looks like, but there is definitely a Suessian paunch to Blago’s cheeks, like he’s hiding incriminating microfilm in there.
You’ve mentioned that the garish 1975 Topps set is your favorite of all-time. Who would you have in your all-time starting line-up? This could be your favorite baseball cards, position-by-position; or merely your all-time greatest starting line-up.
All right, my staff is a bit heavy on bullpen guys, but here goes.
C: Skip Jutze, 1978
1B: Carl Yastrzemski, 1980
2B: Dave Cash, 1977
SS: Rudy Meoli, 1975
3B: Carmen Fanzone, 1975
OF: Bob Coluccio, 1975
OF: George Foster, 1978
OF: Terry Puhl, 1980
DH: Hank Aaron, 1976
P: Mike Barlow, 1980
P: Mark Fidrych, 1980
P: JR Richard, 1977
P: Rich Folkers, 1975
P: Greg Minton, 1978
Okay, so you went with your favorite baseball cards. Interesting choices, Josh. They’d suck the big one, but I’d volunteer to travel with them as their batting practice pitcher. I have a feeling it could be a fun group.
I’ll ask you the same question I asked Craig Calcaterra, what are blogs?
I’m not very good at defining things like that. For me it’s a way to share my writing after enduring many years when most of the stuff I wrote never reached beyond my notebook. It’s also a way to read a lot of great writing and get a lot of interesting info that I would otherwise not be getting. Two guys from Baseball Toaster, Ken Arneson and Jon Weisman, have had really thoughtful posts that succeed at providing a more general answer to your question. Ken, the founder of Baseball Toaster, sees blogs as conversations, more fluid and interactive and capable of fostering unpredictable growth than, say, a newspaper article. (He’s careful to say that blog posts aren’t inherently better than newspaper articles, just different.)
You and I are about the same age, I think the way people follow baseball is different today than it was in the 1970s. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better or worse, just different. Do you agree?
I think information about the game existed then more as written narrative, or as spoken narrative in radio broadcasts, and now everyone can watch everything whenever they want, or have it boiled down to highlights. Images don’t sink as deep as narratives, at least for me. Then again nowadays fans can talk via the Internet about baseball, and the stories in baseball, all the time. In some ways, it’s a good time to be a fan, because of the availability to so much information. On the other hand, tickets are so expensive it’s hard to go to many games if you’re not wealthy or willing to go into sizable debt.
Everything is starting to turn green here; wondering if it’s these frickin’ ‘shrooms on our pizza…
I, uh . . .
Calcaterra liked this one: Do you think there will be Major League baseball in 100 years?
If so, I hope it’s more like soccer in England, where there are just a shitload of teams all over the country in leagues of varying prominence, and each team has the chance to move up a level if they play well or to get “relegated” if they stink up the joint.
Don Stanhouse is 57 years old. Do you think you could take him in a fight?
I doubt it. I have never landed a punch on anyone, while Don Stanhouse was on hand for the 10-cent Beer Night riot, presumably among the Texas Rangers that bat-wielding manager Billy Martin led onto the field to take on the drunken portion of the population of Cleveland.
Are you crying yet?
Only on the inside.
Thanks, Josh. You’ve been a good sport. I’ve gotta go, dude, I think the cops are coming…