Jayson Stark on the Art of Baseball Writing

Jayson Stark received a standing ovation from his BBWAA colleagues when it was announced that he is being honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. The honor is well deserved. The award is given for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, and Stark, who currently writes for The Athletic, has been at the pinnacle of his profession for decades. (The National Baseball Hall of Fame announcement, which includes a snapshot of his career, can be found here.)

Following yesterday’s news, I asked Stark if he could share the story behind his love of writing with FanGraphs readers. Ever gracious, he told me the following.

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Jayson Stark: “I love baseball, and I love the art of baseball writing. This is all I ever wanted to do. From the time I was nine years old, what I wanted was to be a sportswriter. Not a baseball player, but a baseball writer. All the time, I have to take a step back and think, ‘Oh my god, that happened. How lucky am I?’

“My mom (June Stark) was a writer. She wrote for a paper in Philadelphia — she knew Red Smith a little bit, because he worked there briefly — and was also the editor for Wear Magazine, Philadelphia. She was the president of the League of Women Journalists, Philadelphia chapter.

“She was a great writer with a love of turning a phrase. She loved reading great writing, and that inspired me to to have a love and appreciation of writing. Growing up, I had that and a love of sports.

“There’s a science to doing it well, but I would lean toward writing being more of an art. My dad was an engineer — he worked on the space program — and was a believer in the importance of science. We used to have great debates at my house about who had accomplished more in the world: scientists or artists. My dad knew that to argue [for science] would get a rise out of us.

“Great writing comes from a creative part of the brain that I don’t think can be defined scientifically. Stuff comes spilling out of your brain and sometimes you don’t even know where it came from. I’m just fascinated by great writers; how they write, how they think. And one of the great things about sportswriting is that it’s always given writers more latitude than maybe any other subject — nonfiction edition.

“Growing up in Philadelphia … there were so many great sportswriters. I don’t know that there was a bigger influence on me than Stan Hochman. It’s like when Tyler Kepner later wrote to me and I’d write back to him. I used to write to Stan Hochman and he would write back to me. I’m shocked that Stan is not a Spink Award winner. He’s one of those people whose presence is so great that everybody in Philadelphia who knew him would start to write like him. He just had that infectious rhythm in how he wrote.

“When I first realized that I wanted to be a baseball writer, I studied two people: Bill Conlin and Peter Gammons. I studied everything they wrote — how they did it, why they wrote it that way, and what made it so much fun to read. I could literally give you a list of 50 sportswriters in Philadelphia who influenced me, and then when I moved to New England I liked to read Peter, and Leigh Montville. When I first started writing baseball, I would follow those two guys around the clubhouse, because they asked such good questions. I wanted to learn to do that.

“The art of sportswriting has changed. The whole world has changed. The 24-7 world that we live in now forces you to change in many ways. The way we tell stories … I dreamed of growing up and writing. I tell kids all the time now, ‘You can’t just be a writer.’ You have to learn to speak into a microphone. You have to learn to look into a camera. You have to Tweet, and post the world’s greatest Facebook post. Instragram. Snapchat. Tell the story every way you can tell it. You need to podcast. You need to do it all, because people get their news, their information, their love of the game, every possible way.

“Do numbers get in the way of the art? Just the opposite. As you know, I love numbers. I’ve always loved numbers, and the ones that are out there are the best they’ve ever been. I’ve always felt like, ‘Don’t just make a point, prove your point.’ There are numbers that enable you to do that. And you can have fun with numbers. You can use them not to define the game, but to illuminate the game.

“Tim Kukjian and I share that love of numbers. We always have. Before there was stuff like FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, you’d start to research something and realize the only way to do it would be to take a trip through the Baseball Encyclopedia. You can ask Tim. We’d both do it every once in a while. We’d sit there one night with the giant Baseball Encyclopedia and you’d start thumbing through it, page by page by page. That’s how you had to do stuff. Now I can find that in less than a minute. What a world. What a life.

“Again, this all I’ve wanted to do since I was nine years old. To think of my name, and my story, in that Spink exhibit, alongside the likes of Red Smith and Ring Lardner — the giants of baseball writing … I can’t even grasp it. It’s just amazing that this happened to me.”

We hoped you liked reading Jayson Stark on the Art of Baseball Writing by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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rotolady
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This is fantastic is every way. Congrats to Jayson who is not only a great baseball writer, but also, as the author points out, “Ever gracious”, and a just a genuine nice guy.