Scott H. Longert is the author of Cy Young: An American Baseball Hero, published by Ohio University Press, Biographies for Young Readers.
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What attracted you to share Cy Young’s story with younger readers?
I was thinking about somebody who would be relevant to a young reader, someone they wouldn’t know very well, but that they might have heard of them. Of course, we have the Cy Young Award, so I thought lots of young people might know about the Cy Young Award, but do they really know Cy Young the man. I knew some things about him, he came from a small town, and he rose up as high as you could go in baseball, so I thought he would be a good guy to write about.
You share in your author’s note that you went to the historical society and to where Cy lived. Can you share with readers how these experiences helped you in your research on Cy’s life?
It really kind of humbled me when I went there. He was born in Gilmore, (Ohio) a real small farm community outside of Newcomerstown, which is a fairly small community as well. Just to see his imprint there, was amazing. When we came into town, we saw the Cy Young baseball field and park, and the museum devotes just about an entire wing to Cy and his life so you could see right away that he was a very important person It really helped me writing the book to getting a sense of who he was by visiting where he was born and the house he passed away. To stop by and look at that house and to know that he sat on that porch many times, just a regular guy and just happened to be probably the greatest pitcher in the history of the game.
Please share with readers what Cy’s real name was, and how he came to be nicknamed “Cy.”
His real name was Denton. As a young boy, and as a teenager everyone called him Dent or Denton, and he was fine with it. He could throw a baseball extremely hard from a very young age and everyone knew it. When he got his first tryout for professional baseball to pitch for Canton, he was on the mound, and there were a few players watching, and he took his wind up, he threw the ball so hard that the catcher literally let it go by him and the ball smashed into the grandstand and apparently cracked some of the wood. Cy did this several times. One of the people watching commented, “Look at that man, he throws like a Cyclone!” The name really stuck and then people, instead of calling him Cyclone, just called him Cy, and he liked that name. From then on, Denton disappeared, and everybody called him Cy.
Cy was born in 1867 and began playing professional baseball in 1890. Baseball was a slightly different sport then. You share the many changes from then until now in the book. Can you offer a few of the differences from then until now?
One of the major ones, was that there was no pitching rubber at the time, where the pitcher had to put their foot on it and couldn’t move off of it when they pitched then, they called it the pitchers box, they could stand at the end of it, they virtually could take three of four steps forward, and just launch the ball they didn’t have to be confined to one spot and just let a lot of momentum when you were going to throw the baseball. There were some other rules about “fair and foul” if you hit a foul ball, it wasn’t counted a strike, you could be at bat for quite some time and not have any strikes against you.
It wasn’t considered manly to try to and protect your hands at all, you were a tough individual only the catcher would wear a thin glove, kind of like what we’d wear in the winter, to shovel snow. When Cy got in the major leagues, a few guys here and there most guys felt like “I don’t need a glove, that’s for babies.” Eventually guys, after getting more broken fingers and broken hands, decided it would be a good idea to wear a glove to protect their hands. Cy didn’t wear one until mid-1890’s, so he resisted for many years. As the pitcher, you are closer than anyone else. But he would not wear a glove for the first three or four years of his career.
How long did Cy play?
Cy started in Canton 1890 and played all the way through 1911. He was in the Major Leagues for twenty years as a pitcher. His career was over several decades. Most guys not able to do. He had a lot of strength and stamina.
Do you feel the physical requirements as a farmer helped him to be so strong?
I think it had something to do with it. A number of guys would take it easy during the off season, the most they would do, they would hunt and fish. Other guys had jobs, indoor jobs, sitting behind a desk. Cy was outdoors all the time, tending to his farm which was 125-150 acres, which was a lot of ground to cover. He believed in running. He would do a lot of running on his own, which was very rare for athletes at the time, he thought that helped him, so he would run. I’m sure wearing his farm clothes, coat and boots, running around the property, helped him. He’d usually come to spring training in good condition. It was customary to come to spring training, probably 5-10 pounds overweight, and use spring training to get back in shape. Other players would let themselves go over the wintertime. Cy would come to camp just about ready to play for opening day and was usually several steps ahead of everybody else.
Tell me about Cy the man.
What I found was that Cy was a great member of the community, he was a good man, and he was honest. He was a clean-living man, he didn’t really drink, he didn’t smoke, when he wasn’t playing baseball, he was home with his wife and working at the farm. He was a hard worker, and he never let success go to his head, he was the same guy he was when he was nineteen leaving for his first efforts in semi-pro baseball until the time of his retirement, he was the same guy, always kind and good hearted. I think that was the thing about the man that impressed me. He never had a big head about himself, like “don’t you know who I am, I’m the great Cy Young.” He didn’t think like that all, he was just a regular guy, who loved going home to the farm on the off season and being with his friends and family. He preferred staying home and reading or visiting with friends, he was very content with that, to be on the farm, take care of animals, plant crops and of course, chop down trees, which was his favorite thing. He was always willing to help anyone, anytime. He was very good to his friends, when people needing a helping hand, they could always call Cy.
As a fellow biographer, I stress the importance of primary sources with younger readers. What sources did you discover through your research? How did they help in sharing Cy’s life journey?
The Baseball Hall of Fame has a wonderful research library. The most important thing at the research library at Cooperstown is the player files. The Hall of Fame keep an active file on everyone who has played major league baseball. In the file you’ll find lots of newspaper clippings, magazine articles, which could be from 1893 up to something written a couple of years ago, photos, letters from the player, and to the player, statistics on the player, all kinds of things that help you get a picture of who the person was, as a ball player and a person. I think it is very vital in researching a baseball player, to see his player file and read everything there. And usually that leads to other sources. Ball players from long ago, born in small towns, usually there is a historical society that keeps the history of the town and the people who in it. If the baseball player comes from a small community, chances are the historical society will keep records of that person, and a lot of personal things, so that’s really important to visit the local historical society. If you can, in a lot of cases, the ball player you’re doing research on, has grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and usually the relatives are very happy that you are interested and happy to share stories that have been passed down from generation to generation.
The Cy Young award is given to the best pitchers in both the American League and the National League. The award was created the year after Cy’s death. How do you think he would feel about this honor?
It’s a shame that they didn’t decide to do the award while he was still alive. He would have been extremely happy and proud of the award. I think that after he passed away the Major Leagues, said what can we do for Cy? I think it would have been okay with him that even though he was gone, that baseball thought enough of him to create one of their biggest awards, and name it in his honor. Just knowing Cy, he was happy with whatever came his way. On his 80th birthday there was a big celebration in Newcomerstown, lots of people came to honor him, and give him gifts, and having a big piece of cake and dinner, shaking hands with people and that’s pretty much all he expected, and that made him happy.
In one sense it would have been great if he would have known about the award, I’m sure he would have been thrilled, but his name still lives today and will live for quite some time, and I’m sure he would have been fine with that.
Is there anything that you would want our followers to know about your book about Cy Young?
It’s a look at early baseball, how the game evolved during Cy’s time, when it started, when he played ball first for Cleveland in 1891 and how the game gradually changed, until he retired in 1912. And a little bit of history about our country at the time. America was a growing place, with expansion and new jobs, and exciting things the telephone, and automobiles and then radio and television, Cy lived through all those things. Even Little League, Cy was a big fan, and would go out and talk to the kids and show them the fine points of being a good ball player. I think the book gives a good sense of America and all about baseball and how important it is to society by reading the book.
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