Writing a biography on a lost soul

Sid Gillman, in so many of the interviews I’ve read of him, wasn’t especially forthcoming. Well, that might not necessarily be true. When the interviewer wasn’t asking questions about Sid specifically – if the queries tilted toward his team or about football or about the famous coaches he knew and supported – he was fine. I don’t think he loved dealing with reporters* and I think he especially didn’t love talking about himself.

I mean, good lord, look at some of the answers Sid gave to Todd Tobias in this interview a couple years before Sid died. Could he have said anything less when asked about himself?

*There is a great story in my book about Sid swearing off reading the newspapers after getting into a spat with the media during his first season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. The legendary L.A. sports columnist Mel Durslag told me that Sid swore off reading the papers forever. Durslag asked Sid what he would do during breakfast instead of reading the local rags. “I’m going to eat my eggs and look out the goddamn window,” Sid smartly replied.

Still, I really could have used Sid – who died in 2003 – during the time I wrote his biography.

Especially when I had to write about how he grew up in Minneapolis. Or what he thought about leaving an African American player behind when Miami (Ohio) was invited to play in the 1947 Sun Bowl and the Sun Bowl officials forbid black players from competing. Or about his offensive philosophies or about if he knew forcing his 1963 Chargers team to take steroids could have long-term consequences on those individuals’ lives?

Would he have answered my controversial questions? Probably not. Or he would have tap-danced around him. Or he would have gotten pissed at me and eaten his eggs while ignoring me and looking out the goddamn window. Still, like I wrote in the intro of my book — due out Aug. 29 Sept. 11 (apparently) — it’s tougher to write the story of a man when you can’t shake his hand and talk to him face to face.

I had long and multiple interviews with each of his four kids, and all of them were great. All were forthcoming about their father, the good and the bad. Yet they couldn’t tell me stories about Sid growing up and they couldn’t get inside Sid’s head during the most meaningful moments of his life.

But Sid’s not here, and so we must find a way to move past it.

I just finished reading Richard Ben Cramer’s fantastic biography on Joe DiMaggio, and though the Yankee Clipper was alive when Cramer was researching and writing the book, DiMaggio refused to speak to him. But at least Cramer could observe some of DiMaggio’s actions (and there is a great scene at the beginning of the book with Cramer watching DiMaggio during his last appearance at Yankee Stadium). Me? I didn’t know anything about Gillman until five years after he died. Except for old film, there wasn’t much of anything for me to observe.

So, how do you write a biography about a dead person? I didn’t know. Naturally, I googled it.**

**To be clear, I used google for this exercise only. I did not use it to figure out how to write a biography of Sid Gillman. I do wonder, though, if this knowledge would have made the book better if I had actually thought to do this before I started.

According to this site, writing on somebody who’s dead is easier because “Information about them can be easier to obtain, and they can’t complain when you mention their underwear, etc.” Yes, information about Sid’s personal life was MUCH easier to obtain from the newspapers that didn’t write about it. I mean, thank the lord I couldn’t ask Sid directly about that kind of stuff. Really dodged a bullet there. And the chances of me writing about anybody’s underwear – whether Sid was alive or dead – were pretty slim (though I do have a rather-innocent story in the book about Gillman buying a kimono for his wife that he thought made her look like a geisha girl).

Let’s try eHow. “Follow a chronological order of the person’s life if possible. Include any noteworthy accomplishments, events, tragedies, successes, and more. If the person is still living, end with un (sic) uplifting conclusion about their path for the future. If they are dead, then conclude with one of their great accomplishments.” Well, crap. I concluded my book in a cemetery. That’s no good.

All right, for the real analysis, I turned to New York Times’ best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, who released a fantastic book on Walter Payton last year called, “Sweetness.” Payton, who died in 1999, obviously wasn’t around to help Pearlman (or hinder him, I suppose), and since this was Pearlman’s first book on somebody who’s dead (previous bios include Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds), I asked about his approach to the Payton tome.

“I guess, Josh, it’s not all that different from the Bonds and Clemens bios I wrote,” Pearlman wrote in an e-mail. “Neither man spoke with me, so – in a way – with Sweetness it felt normal. That said, the thing that I found interesting is how, for lack of a better word, haunted I felt. I would take these long runs at night and feel Payton next to me, running along and talking up his life. That sounds pretty insane – and it’s not like I actually believed he was there. But I just couldn’t shake that idea; that he was somehow reading over my shoulder.

“Truth be told, it might be easier when someone isn’t around. A. He isn’t there to be annoyed at you; B. (Most important) he can’t tell people not to talk to you; C. People probably feel more at ease talking, knowing Walter wouldn’t get mad at them.

“All that said, I wish he were alive …”

I felt the same way about Sid. And I can understand where Pearlman was coming from when talking about going for runs with Payton in spirit. When I traveled to Los Angeles to interview two of Sid’s children in March 2011, I visited the graves of Sid and his wife, Esther. I told them both that I would do my best to present a fair assessment of his life and his life’s work. I would try my hardest to make sure people know who Sid Gillman was, what he did and what he meant to the game.

But other than that, Sid never visited me during the writing of the book (UPDATE 1:00 a.m. CT: Swear to god, I was just adding the above photo of Sid, and I heard a single piano note go off in my house. Everybody else is asleep in their beds. I do not own a piano or a cat that would crawl across one. Freakin’ creepy, man). I never felt Sid reading over my shoulder. I never felt his presence. I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for more long runs late at night.

The question of how to write a biography on someone who’s gone never really was answered, and therefore, I have little insight to give. I just wrote it. Which, I suppose, is the only way to go at it. You research, you interview, you dig, you double-check, you triple-check, and you start tapping.

Anyway, I just hope I present a work that’s fair. I hope I did him right. I hope, like Pearlman said over and over again with his Payton book, that I gave the definitive story. And I hope somehow and in some way, Sid knows about it and would feel the same way.

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3 responses to “Writing a biography on a lost soul

  1. Good luck with your biography of Sid! He was a fascnating guy, and got me started in my research into the AFL. I’ve preordered your book on Amazon (your link is working just fine!), and can’t wait to read it. BTW, the photo of the guy standing next to Sid, the one you can’t identify… It is Keith Lincoln, from an early AFL All-Star Game in San Diego. Best of luck!

  2. Hey Todd, I’m very grateful for your contributions, even if we never met. I’ve got a copy of your Master’s thesis in my house with Sid’s signature on it (Lyle let me borrow it), and it was extremely helpful for certain aspects of the book. Here’s hoping one day that we can grab a meal together and talk about Sid and the AFL. You’re a lucky man that you got to meet Sid and Ester.

  3. I got the book yesterday from Amazon, and I am about 100 pages in. I just wanted to congratulate you on a job well done. I’ve yet to hit the period about my beloved AFL, but I am learning a lot about Sid’s early years. He was an interesting guy – much mellowed by the time that I met him. Esther was always wonderful. I have many great memories of the time that I got to spend with them. Thanks for putting this book together, and telling Sid’s story.

    BTW, I was incorrect above is stating that the photo was from a San Diego all star game. I just noticed the logo on Sid’s jacket is of the Houston Oilers. My bet would be that this photo is fromt he all star game in January of 1965. It was originally scheduled to be played in New Orleans, but was moved to Houston at the last minute. Keith Lincoln was on that roster.

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