Since the 1970s, Paul Dickson has written more than 55 nonfiction books on topics from baseball to slang to Sputnik. His latest is Baseball Is…, a delightful compendium offering definitions of the game from Edward Abbey, George Carlin, Larry King, and many others. (My own favorite comes from George Will: “It is said that baseball is only a game. Yes, and the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”) A Wesleyan graduate, Dickson grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., served in the U.S. Navy, and worked as a reporter at Mc-Graw-Hill Publications. He has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, Esquire, and Town & Country. He lives in Garrett Park, Maryland.
RWR You’ve written books on baseball, slang, American history, and other topics. How do you see yourself?
Dickson As a person who has had a full time career as an independent writer and am still, at 71, making a living at it. I have done it on my own terms and last received a regular paycheck 40-odd years ago. I also see myself as someone who loves tour d’ force in that I want to try as many things as I can at least once. I have just finished my first biography and will soon start work on my first children’s book. Also I love to pull off stunts for my own amusement such as seeing how many books I could write with one word titles—Words, Names, Toasts, Slang, Jokes, Chow etc—and conversely how many words I could get into a title which would be accepted by a publisher. The Mature Person’s Guide to Kites, Frisbees, Yo-Yos and Other Childlike Diversions, a book aimed at adults who refuse to put away childish things, is my longest.
RWR How do you juggle working on books on so many different subjects?
Dickson I think this comes with the territory but I have delighted in the determined diversity of what I have chosen to write about. I loved the fact that when a review of my book Sputnik: The Shock of the Century appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the reviewer was taken aback and somewhat appalled that I had written this solid historic narrative but had also written a joke book.
RWR Your latest book is Baseball Is… How did that come about? Which definition do you like best? Which surprised you? How would you define the game?
Dickson The idea was simple enough—I have always wanted to do a series of “is” books which define things variously. I am now working on Golf Is … as a follow up. But there is no end to the drill—Love is …, Hell is … “Fishing Is…” which would of course be published on waterproof paper. My favorite was uttered by the immortal Dagwood Bumstead who said to Elmo, “Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization.” The most surprising came from serious actors of the 20th century like Clarence Darrow (“Baseball is the only perfect pleasure we ever knew”) and Thomas Edison (“Baseball is the greatest of American games. Some say football, but it is my firm belief, and it shall always be, that baseball has no superior… I have not attended very many big games, but I don’t believe you can find a more ardent follower of baseball than myself, as a day seldom passes when I do not read the sporting pages of the newspaper. In this way I keep a close tab on the two major leagues and there was one time when I could name the players of every club in both leagues.”) How would I define the game? It would be a personal one: “Baseball is a great meal ticket.”
RWR Whence your interest in baseball? Have you played, and were you any good? In its latest edition The Dickson Baseball Dictionary has more than doubled in size. How do you manage to research a book like that?
Dickson Never could play worth a darn—played a little softball in the Navy but I was truly lousy. But I love the game and have written ten bat and ball books—nine on baseball and one on softball. The 3rd edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary came 25 years after I began work on it and has 10,000 definitions vs. 5,000 in the first. I had hundreds of helpers who worked on the book with me, led by Skip McAfee who edited the book as we worked on it. Skip and I recruited specialists on baseball statistics, baseball origins and other topics. I could have never done it alone. The Wall Street Journal termed it one of the five best baseball books of all time in 2010 which was, above all, testimony to the team Skip and I had assembled. We are now at work on the fourth which may in fact end up in the hands of my sons and grandchildren.
RWR You must have set a record with all the synonyms you gathered in the book Drunk.
Dickson Actually, I did the drunk collection to get into the Guiness Book of World Records. For a time that was a minor obsession, but I did not want to eat a bicycle or push a peanut across Iowa with my nose just for Guiness bragging rights. So I looked at language. When I saw that the word set—s-e-t—had something like 127 meanings as a noun and verb, I decided to create the largest list of synonyms. I looked at all sorts of things including body parts, but drunk won hands down. I got into the record book with 2,231 terms. More synonyms kept turning up, and there are now just under 3,000 terms in Drunk. The point of the book is not to celebrate a social ill but to underscore the flexibility of the English language.
RWR How do you account for Americans having so many words for the state of intoxication?
Dickson Compared to the British we are pikers. After all, the practice of drunk euphemism goes back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. Also you can be sued in the UK for calling someone drunk so there is a lot of stand-in terminology. If you read in one of the British tabloids that the Bishop left early because he was “tired and exhausted” it means he was drunk. Then there is Cockney rhyming slang. To say someone is Brahams & Lizst is to say they are “really pissed.”
RWR Which books are your personal favorites, and why?
Dickson The immodestly titled Dickson Baseball Dictionary is probably my greatest accomplishment and it will, I hope, still be alive and well long after I’m gone. But my real favorites are the big narratives—The Bonus Army which I co-authored with Thomas B. Allen and Sputnik—and the investigative ones—Think Tanks and the Electronic Battlefield—because they were actually important books that made a contribution to our understanding what was going on. But it is hard to make a living with these books. The Electronic Battlefield was a “snake bite book”—more people were bitten by poisonous snakes in the U.S. the year it came out than bought the book. Not complaining—just explaining.
RWR You’re working now on a biography of baseball legend Bill Veeck. Why him? What are you finding out?
Dickson The first draft of The Life and Good Times of Bill Veeck—The Man Who Changed Baseball went to my editor a few weeks ago. There were a number of reasons why I picked Bill Veeck, not the least of which was that his was a singular American life begging to be covered in a full-fledged biography. His story allowed me to get into World War II, the struggle for racial equality which he was very much a part of, and the transformation of baseball from mom-and-pop to corporate ownership. I spent close to three years researching this book. I conducted about 200 interviews and looked at much primary source material, including Veeck’s FBI files. I think there’ll be some fascinating surprises in the book, which will be published in the spring of 2012. Veeck changed the game in many ways ranging from the trivial–he was the first to put players names on the back of their uniforms, he rebuilt Wrigley Field for Phil Wrigley, a job which included planting the ivy–to much bigger things, including the way teams are financed and changes in free agency. His impact on promotion and showmanship affects the game to this day.
RWR What’s coming up?
Dickson A lot of things. The third edition of my War Slang is on the way with a special section on Iraq by Ben Lando, a brave and enterprising reporter who is also a friend. Then the paperback edition of the Dickson Baseball Dictionary comes out in June, in time for Father’s Day. In November my monster book of Official Rules comes out from Dover Publications. This is based on eight earlier collections of aphorisms, maxims, etc. collected by my own personal think tank, The Murphy Center for the Codification of Human and Organizational Law, founded in 1976. I am also just finishing a book entitled Journalese: A Dictionary for Deciphering the News which I am writing with Bob Skole, an old friend and former boss from the time I was working for a living as a magazine writer. The next big narrative will be about the interstate highway system. It will begin with the march of Coxey’s army on Washington which was a demand for interstate highways before automobiles were a practical reality. It will also focus on President Eisenhower’s belief that a major public works project was the best way to get the country out of its wartime economy.