What’s it like being a little boy growing up with a father who plays major-league baseball?
It might not be a burning question to many of us, but once you start thinking about it — particularly if you are not the son of a major league player, but a grown-up kid who’d loved playing catch in the street with your dad — what if it sticks with you? It might recede a bit, to be clear, but it doesn’t go away.
What if you’re a newly retired reporter, writer, and PR guy, with ink not quite in your blood but always right there on the shelf?
And what if you retire and a pandemic strikes and you’re stuck at home and the idea that hasn’t fully gone away resurfaces?
Yeah, right, reader, you got it.
You’re Mark Braff of Fair Lawn, and you end up writing the newly released “Sons of Baseball: Growing Up With a Major League Dad.”
The book is about connections and relationships — about the way the relationships between major-league fathers and their sons are both unique and entirely ordinary, because the situations in which they find themselves are extraordinary, but the bonds are the usual bonds of love, duty, rebellion, and quotidian life that we all face.
It’s also the result of connections and relationships, Mr. Braff said; the backstory is about how an idea can turn into a book.
“I had the idea for the book 30 years ago,” he explained. “It was so long ago that I don’t remember what triggered it, but I thought about how so many kids — boys in particular — bond with their fathers over baseball.” Most little kids just play ball with their fathers in the backyard; what’s it like if your father has a major-league baseball field at his disposal? “Does he want to play catch on his days off?” Mr. Braff wondered.
And then, if you’re the little boy (and yes, Mr. Braff focused exclusively on little boys; how daughters might feel is left unexplored here), “what about if you play Little League? Everybody knows who your dad is. Everyone is looking at you and comparing you to your father. You’re 8, or 9, and you’re probably not better than the other kids, but everyone is looking at you and thinking that you’re not as good as your dad.”
Those are the questions that occurred to Mr. Braff all those decades ago, but he didn’t pursue them. “I figured I’d have to have face-to-face interviews, because those aren’t the kinds of interviews I’d want to have on the phone, but I had a full-time job then, and the time and expense of those interviews made the book not feasible.”
That was then. “Flash forward to 2020, and the pandemic,” Mr. Braff said. “I was still working as a PR consultant, and I found myself doing two Zoom calls every day. I retired in November that year, as planned, because I turned 65.
“The book wasn’t even on my radar then. But about two weeks later, I did think about it, and a lightbulb went off in my mind. I didn’t have to travel! I could do the interviews on Zoom. I could record and transcribe them. It would be perfect.”
So Mr. Braff had his retirement project. He knew how he could interview the sons of baseball players. But then the next problem loomed. He didn’t know any sons of baseball players. Exactly how would that work?
“I put out some feelers,” he said. “I talked to people who might know people.” Even if you don’t know anyone directly, having worked for Madison Square Garden Sports Network and then been a publicist for years couldn’t hurt. “One guy I know works for the Mets; we’d stayed loosely in touch,” he said. That connection got him to Jay Horwitz, who’d done PR for the team and now runs its alumni association, and Mr. Horwitz got him to Gil Hodges Jr., who got him to Larry Berra, who not only is a son of Yogi’s but also grew up in Montclair.
Many of the baseball sons Mr. Braff interviewed have Jersey connections. They include Michael Bouton, the son of Jim Bouton, who “lived all over Bergen County,” he said. That got him to Robby Richardson, Bobby’s son. Those connections came from “my next-door neighbor, who I happened to mention it to,” Mr. Braff said.
Another friend put him in touch with Mariano Rivera’s son.
He also talked to Larry Doby Jr., from Montclair. “He told me about his father, who was the first African American player in the American League, only three months after Jackie Robinson went to the Dodgers,” in the National League. “He said that America didn’t change that much in those three months. His father had to endure a lot. And he said that his father had gone to the major leagues” — to the Cleveland Indians — “cold.” He hadn’t had the chance to acclimate himself to the hatred he’d face, and it was hard. “Larry Doby played a double header in the Negro League and the next day he was on a train to Cleveland and played for the Indians the next day.
“Talk about culture shock. His son said that the people in Cleveland were great to him, but he had to endure things on the road.
“Vada Pinson III told me that his father got to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds in maybe 1960, and it was not the most diverse community at the time they lived there. Vada liked living there, and said he wanted to live there full time, and his wife said, ‘No no no, we are not moving to Cincinnati!’ She said that in the early years, she didn’t even feel safe in the house, and the other players’ wives wouldn’t talk to her. She felt like an outcast. But young Vada said the neighbors were nice to him.”
Mr. Braff also talked to Brandon Guidry, son of Ron Guidry, “who said that during the summer, his family would rent a house in Franklin Lakes, and in the off-season, they’d go back down to Louisiana. Brandon said that when he was in New York, he’d travel to other cities with his dad, and he’d see shows and museums, and he’d hang out with the kids of other Yankees players. And then he’d go back to Louisiana, and he couldn’t talk to any of his friends there about any of it. In no way could they relate to it.
“He lived in two totally different worlds,” Mr. Braff said. But Mr. Guidry knew what he wanted. “He lives in New York full time now.”
Mr. Braff learned a great deal through the process of conceiving, writing, and selling this book. “When I started this project, I didn’t know a single son of a major league player,” Mr. Braff said. Now he does. In fact, “I figured I would need at least 15 for the book. I have 18.”
The next hurdle was finding a publisher. Piece of cake, right, once you have the i nterviews. No. No, it’s not.
“I realized that I had been so ignorant and naïve about the publishing process,” Mr. Braff said. “I thought that the big thing would be getting the interviews; then I could just send it around to the publishers and someone would say yes.
“I didn’t know that it doesn’t work that way.”
Even though he’d already written the book, he had to write a book proposal, and then he had to find a literary agent. Mr. Braff drew up a spreadsheet and started sending the proposal around; when he heard back at all, he was told that the book sounded interesting, but baseball books don’t sell well, so thanks but no thanks.
Eventually, though, he found an agent, and then the agent, Jill Marr, in California — she also loves baseball, which helps, because in the end everything is personal — found him a publisher, Maryland-based Rowman and Littlefield.
“She forwarded me an enthusiastic email from the publisher, and it was very emotional for me,” Mr. Braff said.
He’s learned other lessons about publishing; he was able to get blurbs for the book, and the foreword is by Cal Ripkin Jr., which is a major big deal.
The book is now in print and will be launched this week.
Mr. Braff looks back at his own childhood and compares it to the major league players’ sons. He was born in Brooklyn, in the Flatlands neighborhood, and moved to Fair Lawn when he was 8. “I was the son of a father who loved baseball,” he said. “We had catches.”
His street was quiet; “it would have been hard to have catches in our backyard, because there was a tree in the middle of it,” he said. “I. have such good memories of catch in the street.”
His father, Milton, played with him uncomplainingly, even though later Mark learned that “his shoulder was killing him then,” he said. Milton Braff is 94 now and still lives in Fair Lawn. “I was able to give him a copy of the book,” his son said. “My mother, Phyllis, died in December 2017. She was an avid reader. You would never see her without a book. I got my love of books from her. I just wish she could have been around to see this.”
Although the family lived in Fair Lawn, Mr. Braff celebrated becoming bar mitzvah at the Glen Rock Jewish Center. So did his sons, Gregg, who lives in Fair Lawn now, and Jason, who lives in Allendale. (Each son has two children, so Mark and Laura are the grandparents of four kids.)
What did he learn from his interviews?
“One takeaway is that these guys grew up the way the rest of us did,” he said. “Some families were very close, and some later were estranged. There were joys, heartbreaks, tragedies, like everyone else. But what we can never imagine is what it’s like to go to a restaurant for dinner, or to a shopping mall, and be stopped every five minutes for an autograph. You just want time with your father.
“It’s such a unique and odd way to grow up,” Mr. Braff said.