He may not be in front of a classroom on a daily basis anymore (he taught most recently at P.S. 333, a junior high in Manhattan), but Phil Bildner still loves to teach. With his picture books about baseball and its legendary players, he may well have attracted a whole new generation of sports fans.
Take a look at Kirkus' 2011 Baseball Books Round-up for kids.
Kirkus talked with him about his latest picture book, The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, why he believes those 1941 records still stand, why he loves baseball and why this should not be labeled “the steroid era.”
What attracted you to the summer of 1941 and the two records achieved by Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams?
I think it was a combination of elements that brought me to this story. I was looking for one that hadn’t been done before, or not as often. The Yankees–Red Sox rivalry is obviously well known, but these two men were heroes and went on to be WWII heroes as well.
And, just to be clear, Ted Williams was not the first to maintain a .400 batting average through an entire season, but he was the last. Correct?
Correct. He’s the last one to do it. People openly wonder if in this media age it’s possible to accomplish it again. When Barry Bonds was chasing [Roger Maris’] home-run record, and when [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa were going after it, it was a media circus. I think today it would be overwhelming. Once it got to 35 or 40 hits, every at-bat would be tweeted. Would they be pitched to? Would they get days off? Every game would be on ESPN instead of local networks—like when Hideki Matsui first came to the U.S. [from Japan, to play for the Yankees], and everywhere he went he was “Godzilla.”
After DiMaggio’s 55-game-hit-streak-ending game in Cleveland, he went on to another 16-game hitting streak that season. DiMaggio would hit safely in 72 of 73 games, another record. How do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
The Yankees went on to play in the World Series that year and that was originally in the book. There were other individual stories about DiMaggio and Williams, and we had to decide what to keep in and what to leave out. The fact that they came together in the All-Star Game in such a way [Williams hit a home run to win the game for the American League; one of the runners to score on that hit was DiMaggio]. If it weren’t nonfiction it would be hard to believe that it worked out that way.
How did you work with Steve [S.D.] Schindler?
How wonderful are the illustrations? They’re beautiful but in an understated way. That was one of the fun things! Since it’s nonfiction, the amount of fact-checking that went into this—down to what color uniform and what hats they were wearing. There’s an element of playfulness in some of the games in Fenway Park. Steve didn’t use the actual advertisements because we weren’t sure about rights issues, so he used KAY-IX for the dog food with the Roman numeral for “9.” He had some fun with it also. I enjoyed the research. You uncover things when you double-check the facts—like the fact that Jo DiMaggio’s bat was stolen [during his hitting streak]! That’s the type of thing that will leap off the page when a kid is reading it.
You end with some of baseball’s all-time great stats, including Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. Do you think there should be a caveat, to note that Maris broke the record the first year the baseball season was extended from 154 to 162 games?
I think Roger Maris’ record is completely legitimate and doesn’t need an asterisk.
Do you think that those playing in the past decade should be labeled with “the steroid era”?
I think it already is [labeled that way] and many people do. I don’t think you “officially” do it. When did it start, when does it end? Do you just label steroids, or human growth hormone? In the ’80s, everyone was all jacked up on greenies. It was commonplace to use amphetamines and marijuana. For the pitchers in the 1960s, the mound was higher. Do you want to say they were pitching in an era that was pitcher-friendly? I think we all talk about it and people are aware of it. The long and short of it is, “No.”
I take a stand by not talking about the Barry Bonds’ [home run] record. Its absence speaks for itself. If someone wants to bring it up, I feel I’ve done my job as an author. I look at my books as a launching point. It’s a great place to start a discussion. That’s what I hope to do with a lot of my books.