Sparky Lyle

January 28, 2010

Somebody check on Sparky Lyle. All the writers that helped lead me to writing are dying off, so I’m starting to get worried about the author of The Bronx Zoo, Lyle’s hilarious recounting of the 1978 season in diary form that inspired me, at the age of 11, to first start writing down words to describe my life. After Lyle got me started, the next two writers to take me by the hand were Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries, who died this past September, and J.D. Salinger, who died today.

I first read Salinger’s book in 10th grade, for school. Our assignment was to read a book and produce a book cover for it, with jacket copy that described the story. I hadn’t done shit for the class all year, so when I turned in a semi-coherent assignment the teacher ended her speech to the class about the evils of plagiarism by saying, “Yours was one of them,” and handing me back my book cover with an F on it. I stammered some kind of a denial (I was on the verge of tears), and she snapped, “Oh yeah? Then define the word ‘prestigious.’” I knew what the word meant but I couldn’t explain it to her. I think she eventually changed the F to a C because of the suicidal look on my face. At around the same time, in my French class, I was also accused of plagiarism for an assignment in which we were asked to translate the English words on a music album of our choice. I translated Rush’s Moving Pictures. The teacher believed I’d gotten my hands on a French-Canadian version of the album. Anyway, by then teachers didn’t believe I was capable of much except cheating, I guess. The next year I went off to boarding school and within a year and three-quarters was tossed out, just like ol’ Holden getting the heave ho from Pencey Prep, and that summer, with GED in hand and no clue what to do with myself, I reread The Catcher in the Rye and decided I wanted, when not smoking bong hits, masturbating, watching television, and staring off  into the distance, to try to make something as beautiful as that book. It’s an impossible aspiration, in my opinion, especially for a lazy person like me. (The closest anyone has ever come is Peter J. Smith in his great and underappreciated novel Highlights of the Offseason.) But I wouldn’t have wanted any other life than one at least half-assedly dedicated to chasing after that book.

As for Sparky Lyle: may he live for many more years. I choose to hold it as a good omen that even as early as 1975, as attested to by this 1976 card, he was wearing the ridiculously high-waisted pants of a nonagenarian.

And as for J.D. Salinger, I suggest avoiding the obituaries, which will spend an inordinate amount of time pointing past the work he did as a young man to revel in the odder details of his later life as an unrelenting recluse. In lieu of that, here’s a thoughtful 2001 article on his greatest creation.


  1. The death of JDS, one day after the death of Howard Zinn, may be a sign that the end is nigh. Zinn was, in my opinion, the greatest living American. Salinger may well have been the greatest living American writer.

  2. I think Sparky still manages somewhere in the Atlantic League.

  3. I kind of like these Yankees at Shea cards, there’s a kind of alternate universe look/feel about them.

    To follow up what DavidWillis said, it kind of sucks losing Zinn and Salinger in back to back days. Those are two men who had a meaningful impact on my life, especially Zinn. I was thinking about the last 3 years and we’ve lost Vonnegut, Paul Newman, and George Carlin and how I must be getting old because the heroes of my youth are dying off.

    I didn’t read “The Catcher in the Rye” until I was in my 20’s but I immediately identified with this character right away. I wish I would have read it when I was in my teens I think it would have helped me quite a bit.

    I know high schools banned it for many years because of the profanity in it, which is a joke when you consider what movies kids watch and what type of language kids actually use in high school. Also, I guess schools were afraid of presenting a book where the “hero” is a kid who gets kicked out of school and is alienated and considers most of American society/culture to be total bullshit.

    That’s an interesting point you made about plagiarism. I remember in school, English teachers going ape-shit over this topic. You could do almost anything else, but God help you if you plagiarized something. English teachers made it sound like the FBI would be contacted if you dare take a sentence from Hemmingway and try to pass it as your own for a 9th grade term-paper.

    What’s really ironic about plagiarism is that once you get into the working world of adults, you find people rip each other off all the time. Then people lie/cheat/steal and everyone finds a way to rationalize their behavior by saying it’s just “Business”.

  4. Ennui Willie Keeler,

    I’m not sure if he still does it, but Lyle was managing the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League for years.

  5. “That’s an interesting point you made about plagiarism.”

    Just to clarify, I didn’t actually plagiarize anything. I later realized how boneheaded the accusation was: The teacher believed I’d lifted jacket copy from the book I’d done my assignment on, and the book I’d done my assignment on is famous for having (besides the listing of title and author) a completely blank jacket.

    Years later, when I was teaching college writing classes, I was a pretty soft touch as a grader, as long as a student made a sincere effort; I hated it when students turned in slop they’d cut and pasted from the internet. I’m not sure why it bugged me so much, but it did.

  6. I, too, first read Catcher in 10th grade English and got a bad grade. My teacher didn’t think I plagiarized, but that I had settled for the Cliff’s Notes version. Don’t know if I was trying too hard to capture the inarticulable meaning of it, or if my mom’s recent death had made life “seem a pathetically transparent attempt to trick (me) into forgetting about death.” I could not have cared less about the grade.

    It may be well-known to fans of this site, but hasn’t been mentioned, that the James Earl Jones character in Field of Dreams was based on Salinger’s “later life as an unrelenting recluse.”

  7. Speaking of JD, I wrote a little something about him and baseball this morning.

  8. Josh,

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were plagiarizing your assignment. I was trying to highlight the way high school English teachers would basically act like the FBI was going to be contacted if a kid ever lifted a line from Hemmingway. As if a 9th grade kid could ever pass off a Hemmingway line as his own material.

    Meanwhile there are a myriad of ways that high school kids cheat that get completely overlooked.

  9. every time i have to cut one in temple i think of holden. ever since first reading the book in high school, i’ve called my sister phoebe and she calls me holden.

    i hate to admit this, but in all these years, i never really thought about the title as referring to a baseball player. it just sorta became its own existential phrase.

    when i worked at a local newspaper, the publisher used to plagiarize relentlessly, no matter how many times we told him not to. we would catch him because the cut-and-pasted passages, sometimes several paragraphs long, would be in a different font than the rest of the column. (his explanations were more mark mcgwire than rafael palmeiro, by the way.)

  10. Sparky Lyle has been magaging the Somerset Patriots in the Atlantic League since its founding in 1998. His info can be found here: http://www.somersetpatriots.com/roster/coaches/index.html?player_id=5

  11. slavetothetrafficlight,

    You’re right about the “Field of Dreams” J.D. Salinger connection.
    They made a huge change in the movie. I not sure if the book banning scene in the film is in the book, but if it is it’s probably “The Catcher in the Rye” they’re referencing.

    In the book “Shoeless Joe” Ray Kinsella goes looking and finds J.D. Salinger. Then they go off and find the last living member of the last Cubs World Championship team of 1908.

    In the movie Ray goes looking for Terrance Mann, who is a kind of a James Baldwin/Ozzie Davis knock-off. And then they created the whole Moonlight Graham person who was actually a real person but I think most of his background story is fiction.

    It was kind of an odd change in story, I guess they couldn’t get Salinger to agree to have his likeness portrayed in a film.

    It’s kind of an odd movie in retrospect because of the way they take liberties with fiction and reality. They take many liberties with historical facts then twist reality with fiction then back to reality then back to fiction to placate plot lines, etc.

    On the one hand they seem to want to make Joe Jackson a sympathetic character by trying to make the point that he was an innocent victim in the black Sox scandal which isn’t true. Then they cast Ray Liotta who looks nothing like Jackson and doesn’t speak like Jackson not to mention he’s not left handed etc.

    How would a story about Pete Rose be received if you cast Brad Pitt to play Rose and you made Rose into an innocent victim in his betting scandal?

  12. Seaver 41,

    That’s an interesting point about your newspaper publisher.

    In high school it seems like the worst crime you can commit and then it’s amazing in the “Adult” working world it goes on quite frequently.

    A friend of mine worked for Merk putting together Insurance proposals to send out to various businesses. He wasn’t involved in the actual writing of these proposals but he used to tell me it was mind-boggling the amount of plagiarism that went on with the Merk writers. And these guys were really well-paid to just basically “cut & paste” all day.

  13. seaver41: That reminds me. We once collared a plagiarist while working as editors at that certain internet content provider right before “the bubble” burst. Remember?

    I think I first thought “the catcher” in the title referred to a baseball player. There is some baseball in there, of course, in the form of Allie’s glove. Last night I started re-reading “The Laughing Man,” from Salinger’s book 9 Stories, and it’s got a baseball description that I’ve never forgotten, when Mary Hudson legs out a triple and then waves to the young narrator. “She happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base.”

  14. i remember that all too well. she was covering billy wilder films for us and set in motion a series of events that winded up costing me my job there. just a few months ago they were sold for the second time and got rid of the whole staff i used to work with.

  15. ‘It may be well-known to fans of this site, but hasn’t been mentioned, that the James Earl Jones character in Field of Dreams was based on Salinger’s “later life as an unrelenting recluse.”’

    Well, yeah; in fact, in the book version of FOD the character is actually Salinger himself. Salinger’s lawyers threatened to make trouble for the film version so they changed him to “Terrance Mann.”

  16. Oops, sorry, I see somebody already covered this in a comment.

  17. “Catcher” was my favorite book for years until I discovered Kerouac. The real unfortunate thing is that it’s forever tied in my mind to the insane logic of Lennon-assassinator Mark David Chapman, who until 9/11 was the only person on earth I thought deserved the death penalty.

  18. polfro –
    For years I actually refused to read the novel in a boycott because of the Lennon assassin tie-in. I didn’t know anything much about it, and at the time the hype was too consuming for me.
    I finally relented in college, and I remember loving it. I should probably re-read it, but it’s going to have to join the actual queue of recently deceased author “masterworks” on my real-life end table behind Carroll’s ‘Forced Entries’ and Erich Segal’s ‘Love Story.’

    I loved ‘The Bronx Zoo,’ too, even though I hated the Yankees.
    The Danny Cater for Lyle trade must still grate on the nerves of any Red Sox fan.

  19. “The Catcher in the Rye” inadvertently got me interested in Buddhism. After reading the book, I read where Salinger wrote it while interested in Zen (I forget which story of his that began with a woman fanning herself with on hand–the sound of one hand clapping). I discovered, however, that Salinger wasn’t really a good source for Zen, however, but it was through him I first heard the term, and for that I’m thankful. The book really struck me back then, but I wouldn’t dream of going back to it now (P.G. Wodehouse is a far better source of the Zen spirit in my mind).

    I didn’t realize until fairly recently Salinger saw lots of combat in WWII and some theorize he suffered from PTSD, which might explain his urge to live cloistered away, at least from my experience with PSTD guys you would expect that.

    After years of hearing about “The Bronx Zoo,” I finally read it several years ago. I have to say, I wasn’t impressed, but what did strike me was that it gave an insight into athletes, in that Lyle (from what I recall sitting here) seemed far, far more concerned with his contract, stats and playing time than the historic Yankee comeback. This served as yet another reminder for me that caring about winning and losing is really for fans, not players.

  20. Some English teachers liked it when I brought up T.S. Elliot’s quip that “mediocre writers borrow; good writers steal.” And some didn’t.
    Maybe I’m a little paranoid, but there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a writer and a pirate.

  21. sb1902:

    Salinger’s story collection, Nine Stories, opens with that one hand clapping quote, and then the first story in the collection (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”) has in its opening scene a woman fanning one hand (to dry her nails). I never made that connection before!

    I read The Catcher in the Rye every couple years, give or take a little, but I’ve never returned to The Bronx Zoo. I’m afraid I’d be disappointed that it wouldn’t at all live up to how I remember it hitting me as an 11-year-old.

  22. Peter Golenbock, the collaborator in the “Bronx Zoo”, also wrote “Balls” with Graig Nettles. It’s pretty good follow-up to the “Bronx Zoo” with some good sarcastic wit by Nettles. If you enjoyed Lyle’s book, you probably would enjoy “Balls”.

  23. Josh, you’re right, she’s drying her nails, not fanning herself. You always get the details correct that I slightly fumble. No wonder you’re a proof-reader.

    You’re right about “Bronx Zoo,” I suspect an 11 year old from 1979 would be far more entranced by the behind the scenes goings-on of the Cardboard Gods’ Mt. Olympus. As an adult? Not so much. The players struck me as arrested adolescents. The other thing about “Bronx Zoo” is that is was, after “Ball Four,” the first tell-all book of its sort. I can’t recall anything else between “Ball Four” and “Bronx Zoo,” but then again, I fumble the details sometimes.

    In any case, the book as a huge deal when it first came out, especially because the players were basically all still active. Jerry Remy–the iconic broadcaster of Red Sox games and a member of the 1978 Red Sox, for those of you who aren’t from around Boston–was on Boston sports radio once several years ago and I e-mailed him a question about how the players reacted to such a scandalous tell-all sort of book as “The Bronx Zoo.” I figured, since he was in the middle of baseball back then, he’d have vivid memories and anecdotes about the players’ reaction and strong opinions on the subject. To my astonishment Remy said he didn’t remember the book at all. Just like Lyle showed how players really only cared about themselves, Remy confirmed it. (If I were a pro player, I’d care about my contract first, too.)

  24. By the way, does anybody know what’s up with Lyle comically oversized glove? It looks like a softball glove. I wonder if, given his self-perception as a prankster, if he’s being funny by wearing a softball glove? Is he playing a joke on us, 34 years going?

  25. sb1902,

    You’re right, Lyle is holding an outfielder’s glove, you can tell by the webbing. And like you said it is huge.

    He probably didn’t have his glove with him when they were taken these photos so he probably just grabbed one of the outfielders’ gloves for the picture.

    Richie Coggins, Dave Bergman, and Kerry Dineen, were the only left-handed outfielders on the ’75 Yanks, so it probably belongs to one of them.

  26. sb1902, yeah wtf? looks like a 1b mitt.

  27. sb1902, I can’t think of another “tell-all” autobiographical baseball tome that came out in the interim between Bouton’s and Lyle’s, but there were a couple of hockey auto-bios during that gap, namely Derek Sanderson’s “I’ve Got To Be Me,” which shook up the somehwat more reserved hockey establishment with its wild tales of off-the-ice hijinks and shenanigans.

    Sanderson’s book, along with Brad Park’s “Play the Man,” ushered in the NHL of the 70’s in lurid, living color. I know there were a couple of similar basketball books as well, didn’t Cazzie Russell write one? We also had NY Jet Johnny Sample’s book kicking around when I was a kid.

    “Sports Journalism” really grew and developed in that period leadinf from the mid-sixties onward. Then again, so did everything else in the whole world.

  28. pete, your mention of Derek Sanderson reminds me of how the NHL of the ’70s was just about as fun as sports could get. The ’70s was a really fun time for sports, period. Quite different from today, IMHO. My favorite off-ice story from that time was when Sanderson’s teammate Wayne Cashman got arrested for being drunk and used his one phone call from jail to order Chinese food.

  29. That Sanderson book “I’ve Got to Be Me” contributed to one of my failed driving tests. It was sitting on the dashboard, on the passenger side, and the moment the instructor entered the car she took off points for it, calling it a potential hazard (I guess the idea was that sunlight could reflect off of it and blind me). It was all downhill from there.

    Didn’t Sanderson assist on Bobby Orr’s flying-through-the-air cup-winning goal?

  30. Just picked up The Bronx Zoo for the first time. Kudos to Lyle for honoring what must be a loathed ballplayer for a lot of Yankees fans: The Ted Williams.
    I guess one day they were hanging around, talkin shop, and Williams asks Lyle what he thinks the best pitch in the game is. Lyle says he doesn’t know, and Williams replies, “The slider. You know why? Because it was the only pitch I couldn’t hit consistently even when I knew it was coming.”

    RIP Teddy Ballgame. Or at least what’s left of him.

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