July 15, 2009
For many, summertime is synonymous with a hot dog, a bleacher seat and the crack of a bat. But how about a history lesson? Ask author and columnist Fred Bowen, and he will tell you that history and baseball are the perfect pair—especially when writing for children.
Bowen’s books provide life lessons for kids and are based on the history behind some of the athletic world’s biggest all stars. The author’s weekly column, “The Score,” has been featured on WashingtonPost.com and the newspaper’s weekly KidsPost page since April 2000.
This Saturday, July 18, Bowen will be speaking and signing books at Nationals Family Baseball Day, a program sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, at the museum. (Kids, bring your autograph books because also rumored to be joining him are Nats players Josh Bard and Josh Willingham.)
You have a have a history degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from George Washington University. With credentials like that, why do you write for children?
A couple of things, one I have children. My son is now 25, and I would read sports books to him when he was much younger, and I wasn’t very impressed with them. A lot of the time they would be kind of silly. I knew how important sports were to me as a kid, and how they were important to him and so many kids. I was really aiming to make a better quality kids’ sports book. Actually, my history degree is good, because my books combine sports fiction and sports history. There’s always a chapter of sports history in the back of the book. My love of history has come in handy for the writing.
The column came about because the people at the [Washington] Post knew my books, and were interviewing people about what they should include in the KidsPost. They wanted me to write for them occasionally, but I said to them,“You’re trying to get kids to go from reading the Kid’s Post, to reading the regular newspaper. I’m a newspaper reader, and I love to read all kinds of columns, and you don’t have a columnist, I can be your columnist.” They asked me what would you write on. I pulled out a piece of paper that had about 30 ideas on it. One of the great things that I love to do with the column is to explain to kids the history of the games that they love.
Your books offer children life lessons as well as a little history. You’ve used baseball legends like Christy Mathewson, Ernie Banks and Rip Sewell. What’s your favorite baseball lore?
There are a lot of great baseball stories. In my book I write about Ted Williams. Williams was the last guy to hit .400. He hit .400 for pretty much the entire year, then right toward the end of the season his batting averaged dipped to .39955, which under the rules of baseball statistics you can round up to .400. Williams had two games left, a double header. His manager told him if he wanted to sit out the last two games and preserve his average, he could. Williams said no.
“If I’m not a .400 hitter all year, I don’t deserve it,” he said. He went six for eight with a home run. I always say to my editors, you know, it’s a good story if your hair stands up.
You seem to have as much of a passion for coaching sports as you do for writing about them. What’s the best advice you’ve ever given as a coach?
I remember one time my son was very disappointed that his team at basketball camp didn’t get into the championship game. He said, “I just want to play for a championship sometime.”
I said, “You better enjoy playing more than you enjoy winning, because you are going to do a lot more playing.” It’s the idea of really trying to enjoy the sports for what they are, instead of just winning.
What’s the best advice you were ever given by a coach?
I wrote a piece for my column about the first uniform I ever had. This guy named Mr. Upton had me be the bat boy, at age six, for my older brother’s baseball team, and I was doing it in my jeans and stuff. One day Upton came around to the park. I was there with my older brother and dad. Mrs. Upton had taken one of the team’s uniforms and made it my size. I couldn’t have been happier. It was right up there with getting married and having children. It’s those kinds of memories that I try to tap into once and awhile.
What’s your biggest all-star moment?
My own sports experience is that I played everything growing up. In high school I played golf and soccer. I never played anything in college, but I continued to play recreational basketball, softball and all that kind of stuff. The funny thing is, I was back in my hometown and I ran into a guy I played little league baseball with. We were talking about playing baseball and growing up. I mentioned I was never really that great of an athlete.
“Fred if you had been good, you wouldn’t have written the books,” my friend said.
A lot of really good sports books are written by observers, they are not really the participants. As a kid, I remember really loving the sports, but it was not a perfect relationship—the sports didn’t necessarily love me back. You had to get something or learn something besides unbroken triumph, so I think that if I had really been good at sports, I wouldn’t write the way that I do.
Why do you think your books are so popular with children?
I think kids really like sports. It’s a big part of their lives. Sometimes I’ll be in front of parents and they will say to the kids it’s just a game. Well the kids are thinking, it’s just school. They take the game pretty seriously. I think that the kids sense this isn’t a story about a dog playing left field or something, this guy is taking it just as serious as I do.
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