10 Questions with ... Bill Littlefield
July 30, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I wrote a sports column for the long-defunct Boston Ledger during the â€˜70â€™s and early â€˜80â€™s. I started writing and voicing commentaries for WBUR and NPRâ€™s Morning Edition in 1984. I began hosting Only A Game in 1993. Iâ€™ve written two novels (Prospect and The Circus in the Woods) and four other books, including Baseball Days with photographer Henry Horenstein and Champions: The Stories of Ten Remarkable Athletes, and two collections of commentaries and articles, Keepers and Only A Game. I was the guest editor of Houghton Mifflinâ€™s Best American Sports Writing in 1998, and my essay, The Gym At Third and Ross, appears in the 2013 edition of Best American Sports Writing. Iâ€™ve been an English teacher since 1970, and a professor at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, since 1976, where I am now writer-in-residence.
1. You were a professor before joining WBUR and NPR (and still teach). How did you get into radio? Why radio?
I was a fan of WBUR and public radio before I had the opportunity to work there. I like the opportunity radio provides to tell stories with the use of sound. Unlike television, itâ€™s a writerâ€™s medium.
2. What was the genesis of "Only a Game" -- who decided that a sports show would fit in the public radio landscape, and how did the show's focus and tone develop?
From the outset, the aim at Only A Game has been to tell good stories well. We felt that there were a lot of wonderful stories set in sports that we could tell in a way that would delight people who enjoy good stories no matter where those stories are set. David Greene was the programâ€™s first senior producer. He and I and Gary Waleik (current senior producer) built the show and learned quickly that public radio listeners were actually very interested in sports. The not only attend games and watch them, they join gyms, play amateur sports, and, in great numbers, coach their kids. That having been said, my favorite comment is still the one that begins, â€œI donâ€™t care anything about sports, but I loved that story you guys did onâ€¦..â€
3. Some sports stories have crossed over to mainstream, non-sports audiences -- the success of movies like "42," "The Blind Side," and "Moneyball" are three relatively recent examples. "Only a Game" has had countless fascinating stories that aren't as well-known as Jackie Robinson, Michael Oher, or Billy Beane's, so, what are some stories covered on the show that you can imagine would make good movies, books, documentaries... what stories do you think would capture people's imaginations or attention?
My first novel featured a baseball scout based in very small part on Lennie Merullo, a scout I got to know when I was doing a story about Major League Scouting Bureau tryout camps. The novel is called Prospect, and I think it would make a terrific movie. Michael J. Fox thought so, too, at one point, but then he let the option run out.
4. How would you characterize the position of "Only a Game" in the marketplace as opposed to commercial sports radio and sports media in general? What role does the show play in the sports media, in your mind?
I donâ€™t think weâ€™re in competition with call-in shows or shows devoted to discussion of one team or one sport. Weâ€™re a sports magazine program dedicated to story-telling. We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and we often fail to take sports as seriously as some people feel they should be taken. I very much enjoyed doing a story a while back about a bus load of folks from a retirement home who were spending an afternoon at the race track. Years ago I spent most of the winter with the menâ€™s basketball team from a community college. Neither of these stories would ever have interested a commercial sports program.
5. All sports have their share of literate fans who write and wax rhapsodic over them, but baseball seems to have more than its share of authors and poets who have done so over the years, having drawn attention from poets like William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore to authors like Don Delillo (whose only movie work was centered on the 1986 World Series) and John Updike. A former president of your alma mater, Bart Giamatti, served as Commissioner. So, why is it that baseball lends itself to so much literature that colleges can and do hold entire conferences devoted to baseball in culture?
The standard answer to that is that baseball provides fans with pauses. At a baseball game, thereâ€™s lots of time for turning to the guy next to you and saying, â€œHey, does that shortstop remind you a little bit of Rick Burleson?â€ I suppose thereâ€™s more time to make notes about how the sun is slanting over the outfield wall and casting a long shadow over the grandstand. Otherwise, I donâ€™t know. George Plimpton used to say â€œthe smaller the ball, the better the writing,â€ but I havenâ€™t seen the great American Novel about table tennis or marbles, and there has been some entertaining stuff set in football (Endzone, The League, North Dallas Forty, A Fanâ€™s Notes) as well.
6. In the 20 years of "Only a Game," is there a single episode that sticks out in your mind as either your favorite or most memorable? Which episodes stand out?
The season I spent with the Roxbury Community College menâ€™s basketball team was terrific fun. I have enjoyed every encounter with the women playing soccer for the U.S. National Team and for the teams in the first two manifestations of womenâ€™s pro soccer. One of the more memorable days Iâ€™ve had on the job was the one I spent with documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman. We talked about his film, Boxing Gym, which is great, and he struck me as an exceptional person and a brilliant creator.
7. Of what are you most proud?
Iâ€™m proud of how long some of my associates have seen fit to stay with the program and happy to have heard from lots of people whoâ€™ve enjoyed the work weâ€™ve done on â€œOnly A Game.â€ Lots of our listeners have felt comfortable enough to suggest stories we should pursue, and in many cases their suggestions have led us to opportunities weâ€™d otherwise have missed. Itâ€™s nice to feel that weâ€™ve helped to build a community of listeners.
8. Who have been your mentors and influences in your career?
I was fortunate in college. I had the opportunity to take a creative writing course with Josephine Hendin, who was exceptionally encouraging, and another with Robert Penn Warren, who was, well, Robert Penn Warren. I think Iâ€™ve probably been influenced by every writer whose work Iâ€™ve read, often for the better.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without ______________.
...laughing at work
10. What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
Iâ€™m still learning.