David Krell is the author of Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory, and Popular Culture. His most recent book is 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK (Nebraska, 2021).
My original idea for a book about the 1962 baseball season was a sure thing. Or so I thought.
With the swagger of a Super Bowl champion quarterback, I walked into the nonfiction book proposal class at Media Bistro—a Manhattan-based continuing education school offering writing classes spanning the publishing spectrum. Memoirs, essays, and feature articles were also among the abundant topics for prospective scribes.
My first book traced the complex history, media interpretations, and cultural impact of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It had gotten a publisher because of the proposal developed in the eight-week class, so I enrolled again planning to focus on the two expansion teams debuting in ’62: New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s. There had been some scholarship on the Mets’ first season, but the Colt .45s had scant coverage. I saw a void and attempted to fill it.
The proposal class decoded the intricacies of writing the elaborate document that agents will request if they like the query letter. It can run anywhere between 40-80 pages and includes an author bio, summary, annotated table of contents, comparative analysis to similar books, marketing plan, and sample chapter. If an agent agrees to represent you, then there will be suggested edits and a list of publishers to target. Academic publishers like University of Nebraska Press don’t require authors to be represented by agents, so the proposal can be sent directly to the appropriate acquisition editor.
Leading the class was Ryan Fischer-Harbage, a literary agent who taught the previous one. “David, I know you’re a baseball guy,” said Ryan. “But books with broader topics get broader readerships. Think about it.”
My commute from the 33rd Street PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) station to Newport Marina in Jersey City takes about fifteen minutes in a subway train traveling under the Hudson River. I scribbled whatever I knew happened in 1962 as fast as I could in a stream of consciousness beginning with movies. To Kill a Mockingbird. Advise and Consent. Dr. No.
There were early 1960s TV shows that could be potential fodder, but research would be needed to determine if episodes from 1962 warranted inclusion—Route 66, Naked City, The Flintstones, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Beverly Hillbillies.
NASA would be a highly significant part of the book. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit the Earth. I was sure it happened in ’62. Were there others? How many? I put NASA at the top of my research list.
President Kennedy’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis would also be addressed. I noted the necessity of a research trip to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston for both topics.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind where trivia is stored in case I ever get on Jeopardy!, I recalled Chubby Checker and The Twist. Did it debut in 1962? Weren’t there other songs that capitalized on it? Yes! Twistin’ the Night Away, Let’s Twist Again, and Twist and Shout added to the list with the word “year” and a question mark.
I laughed as I recalled an explanation from Dr. Hugo Keesing, who taught American Studies 298A: Contemporary American Music 1945-Present at the University of Maryland. He told us that the “Twist” dance is not merely swiveling your hips. There are two components—pretend you are squashing a bug with one or both feet and towel off your backside at the same time.
It sent me down a tangential path.
My memories were blurry at first, then focused. I remembered the class took place on Monday nights. Spring Semester, 1986. Freshman year. We had the option of handing in a paper for extra credit, with a maximum of 35 points added to our overall score for the class. I chose the topic of music and sports.
AMST 298A had a huge enrollment—about 250 students who thought it would be soft. It wasn’t.
I often blessed my passion for nostalgia and show business as Dr. Keesing expounded on the reasons behind important changes in American culture. My fellow students were shocked to learn that Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds starred on TV westerns before becoming movie stars. They didn’t know that Milton Berle was TV’s first superstar or that Elvis Presley and other rock-and-roll icons popularized music already recorded by Black rhythm-and-blues artists.
The topics were easy for me to identify, but harder to dissect.
Dr. Keesing required us to utilize shifts in sociology, business, media, religion, racial attitudes, sexual mores, politics, and law in our analysis of trends in popular culture since World War II. How did political issues influence songwriters during the Vietnam War? Why was the spy genre dominant in 1960s popular culture? What were the reasons for the country-and-western fad in the late 1970s?
As a New Jersey native, I had the pride of knowing that The Monkees’ song “Pleasant Valley Sunday” takes its name from the street Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange—near my hometown of Springfield. It is one of my favorite songs.
Until the class, I didn’t realize that it mocks suburban mundanity, materialism, and monotony. I also discovered that songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin had moved to West Orange; their immediate environs informed the lyrics, title, and message.
I aced the exam; extra points from the paper gave me a cushion for the overall grade. A+.
As I got off the PATH train, I kept thinking about Dr. Keesing and his lessons in evaluating cultural touchstones. In my archive of school papers, I kept my notebook from AMST 298A. My handwriting had long since been that legible, but I recognized my shorthand method of taking notes.
During my research for the book that morphed into 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK, analytical skills honed decades ago on Monday nights came to be potent arrows in my quiver. I mention the class when I lecture or get interviewed about the book.
And I also demonstrate the proper way to do the “Twist.”