If you could ask Ted Williams - one of the greatest hitters in baseball - only one question, what would it be? That was the challenge Seth Swirsky, a young, Los Angeles-based songwriter, gave himself in the depths of the 1994 baseball strike.
"I missed the game and felt this emptiness," he says of the circumstances that led to perhaps the greatest letter-writing exchange in baseball.
Swirsky wrote to players (many of them retired greats), asking them individually tailored questions.
Their replies, and Swirsky's letters, were compiled in a compact and fascinating book, "Baseball Letters: A Fan's Correspondence With His Heroes" (Kodansha International, 178 pp., $24). The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., may display the letters next year, and actress Demi Moore wants to use them in a TV special.
"This just happened; it was never meant as a book," says Swirsky, contacted recently by phone.
So what did he ask Williams? Swirsky wanted to know if he'd learned anything about hitting from watching or talking to Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. Williams replied that the best advice had come from Rogers Hornsby, another great batter: "Get a good ball to hit." In other words, wait for a pitch in the strike zone.
Swirsky's project shows the effectiveness of a short, well-written letter. Altogether, 97 exchanges are in the book, with replies from Duke Snider, Whitey Ford, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, current star Cal Ripken Jr., and many other notable and lesser-known players. Most wrote back on the same sheet Swirsky sent, and, of course, signed it.
Given the presence of many profiteering sports-autograph collectors, Swirsky's letters could have met with suspicion. The reason they weren't, he says, is that his genuine curiosity shone through. "I think the players gave me answers because they thought I really wanted the answers," he says. "I was not in this for autographs. What it's worth should be the furthest thing from your mind. It should be about what it's worth to you."
When publishers heard of Swirsky's hobby, book offers came. "I had to go back to all the players and get releases" to print their letters, he says. "That's when I thought the project would end." In fact, no one doubted his good intentions, and the releases came back. Many included players' good wishes.
Swirsky says he'll keep writing as long as it's fun. He only writes once a question has come to him that he thinks is sufficiently engaging.
"Some of the questions are a little offbeat," he says. "I try not to ask what they've been asked a million times. I don't want to ask the 'How did you feel?' questions." He includes a self-addressed, stamped envelope with his letters, which he sends to the teams of former players for forwarding. His respectful tone, he says, is well-received.
One early response that encouraged him came months after Swirsky's letter was delivered to ex-Giant Bobby Thomson by a mutual acquaintance. Swirsky wondered what it was like for Thomson to see his much-replayed 1951 pennant-winning home run. "He wrote that he liked watching the home run more when he was by himself than he did with other people," Swirsky says. "It was such a human response."
Warren Spahn, a left-handed pitcher for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves and other teams, is the winningest left-hander in American baseball history. He faced New York Giants rookie Willie Mays in 1951. In 1995, Seth Swirsky wrote:
Dear Mr. Spahn:
Did you know how great Willie Mays would be when he got his first career home run off of you? Looking back, it truly was a historic at-bat - two future Hall-of-Famers. I wondered if you could tell me what you remember about that at-bat.
Warren Spahn's reply:
I remember very well Mays first at-bat. The [scouting] information we had was that he pulled away from the plate when he swung & that he couldn't reach the curve ball on the outside. The pitch he hit off me was a curve ball on the outside corner but from a left hander, he didn't pull away & thus the home run.