Whenever I get interviewed by a communications student who needs to write a story about someone who is “in the business,” I’ll be asked what my greatest achievement was.
It’s always felt like people expect me to answer that question by pointing out last year’s story on Randy Moss going to Pelican Rapids High School, which broke The Forum website’s single-day clicks record, or the time our sports desk’s front page landed on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” after North Dakota State beat Kansas State in football. Those were fun moments, but it’s not like anything I did the days those happened was any different than any other day. They just got more attention because of the subject matter.
The best thing I’ve ever done for sure was the story I wrote that published on the 50th anniversary of Roger Maris’ home run record. And the anniversary of that moment and Maris’ record snuck up on me this morning. While making my usual website visits after waking up, the anniversary popped up in my Facebook memories this morning.
The only reason that story five years ago happened was because I worked my butt off to find the pitcher who gave up Maris’ home run in 1961. Tracy Stallard enjoyed a seven-year career in the big leagues, and he was on the mound that day 55 years ago when his Boston Red Sox faced Maris’ New York Yankees at old Yankee Stadium.
But in his post-playing life, Stallard has largely stayed silent about his career and about that moment. I remember early in 2011, when we met as a sports staff to discuss story ideas to run as a regular series paying tribute to Maris’ record (which I would consider to be the greatest moment in Fargo sports history), I pitched that someone should try to interview Stallard. At the time, I had no idea that Stallard was well-known for not responding to interview requests.
Google the name “Tracy Stallard” to see what I mean. On the first page of Google’s search results, you’ll find stories from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune about Stallard staying quiet while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were on their steroid-induced attack of Maris’ mark. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll even find a story under the header “Local legends” written about him by a newspaper that’s an hour away from where he lives. Even in that story, it mentions that he couldn’t be reached despite numerous attempts.
So when it came to light a couple weeks after I suggested the story that Stallard doesn’t do interviews, the story looked like it was over. But I became OBSESSED with the story. Like, I HAD TO GET THAT STORY. Maris died from cancer in 1985, so without him, the next best thing would be interviewing the pitcher. So I volunteered to make it my pet project, and that I would spend any free time I had trying to get it. After all, this was April 2011. I had like six months before Oct. 1, 2011, which would be the final day it could possibly run, with that being the 50th anniversary of Maris’ 61st home run.
I contacted the baseball writers who covered the teams Stallard played for thinking, just maybe, he had stopped by Fenway Park or Busch Stadium in his post-playing days and someone had seen him. But nobody had. Everyone was really, really helpful, but nobody even knew where he lived or where to find him. I scoured the internet, finding story after story about how he didn’t want to talk during the McGwire/Sosa chase. I went through phone records and address listings. I contacted anyone I could. Finally, through a source, he was given my phone number. I never thought I’d hear from him. But, and I’ll never forget, about a week and a half later, I’m driving north on 14th Street South in Moorhead, and I get a call from an unrecognized number. And IT WAS HIM!
Stallard and I did a couple of interviews. He was great.
We talked about how Stallard was practically a rookie in 1961, when on the final day of the regular season, pitching coach Sal Maglie (“The Barber,” which hardcore baseball fans remember as one of the all-time great nicknames) tossed a baseball Stallard’s way. That was the indication that Stallard – with no prior warning – was getting the start.
We talked about his place in history. Did he mind being the guy who had given up the Maris home run? I thought, maybe, and for no good reason, he was ashamed of having given up the home run, and maybe that’s why he shied away from interviews. But not at all. He had no problem with it. It became clear that the reason he didn’t do interviews was because he lived in the moment. He didn’t spend a lot of time, he said, sitting around thinking about his baseball career. That was a stretch of his life, and it had passed, and it was great, but that wasn’t all there was to him.
To top it all off, I came into work the day that the story ran – Oct. 1, 2011 – and I had a voicemail on my work phone. And the voicemail is from Bill Plaschke, Yeah, that guy. The Los Angeles Times columnist. One of the recognizable faces of ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” He was working on a Maris column of his own for the next day’s L.A. Times. And he needed help finding a couple people in Fargo.
I made a couple of calls and got the phone numbers he was looking for and called him back. Here I am, speaking to Bill Plaschke. Just some journalist in Fargo talking to one of the country’s best columnists. And so I give him the phone numbers for the people he is looking for, and I’ll never forget what he said to me: “I figured the guy who was able to track down Tracy Stallard wouldn’t have any trouble finding the phone number for the guy who runs Newman Signs.” And I just melted. He clearly had read my story, which led to him contacting me. And he recognized how difficult it was to even find Stallard, let alone interview him.
Thanks for reminding me of all of this, Facebook.
A BONUS LINK
While looking for the Roger Maris home run footage, I came across the show “To Tell The Truth.” This one aired the day after Maris broke the home run record, and it features Roger’s wife, Pat, and a very young Johnny Carson, who was the only one fooled by who the real Pat Maris was.