Tommy Murray tells the story of a pivotal baseball season in the life of a small Iowa town in “Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball.” In this e-interview, the Iowa native, who now lives in Minnesota, talks about his deeply personal connections to the story as well as his thoughts about why Iowa is the setting for so many stories about the national pastime.
Q: Tell me what led to the writing of this book. Is it a story you’ve been thinking about for a long time?
A: “Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball” is a story of legacies. My legacy in part was created for me before I was born. My namesake, my Uncle Tommy Murray, pitched for Bancroft St. John and won the Fall Iowa State Championship game in 1943. In so doing St. John became the first Catholic school to win an integrated public/private state championship. Uncle Tommy had been exempted from the draft for severe juvenile arthritis, nevertheless he graduated that year and enlisted in the Army. He was shot to death in an ambush as he was following a tank unit in the Philippines in 1945.
My father, uncles and grandfathers — even the good people of Bancroft, Iowa, — model the virtues of the legacy I hope to leave, a legacy of devotion to church, patriotism and baseball, especially baseball. In these great men and this community, which I often use interchangeably, baseball is life and death. It’s much more than a sport. Baseball is a religion.
I played football at Notre Dame in 1973. I often don’t mention it was Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa, and that I only played two downs in my junior year. On defense during the second down I was victim to a quarterback reverse option that resulted in an 89 yard touchdown for our rival, West Burlington. I was benched for the rest of the season. During that time I observed the relationships between my teammates and our three old coaches who had retired from the high school in Burlington. I also noted fathers in the stands living vicariously through their sons on the field, and those same sons who basked in the adoration of their fathers.
This experience was the genesis of my baseball story set in northwest Iowa — a story that I would write and revise until 1988 when the legendary writer J.F. Powers reviewed the first 45 pages of the manuscript before giving up in both rage and despair. I was all too happy to agree with his assessment that my literary effort was punishing both myself and the reader and stuffed the red inked manuscript in a box and put it in a closet for over a decade.
In 2014 I retired from the Minneapolis Public Schools and decided to literally dust off the manuscript and print one copy, dedicated to my father, who was rapidly losing his memory to dementia. Unfortunately I couldn’t write my story as fast as dementia robbed my father of his life. Dad never got to read the printed copy.
Q: The book is, in part, a tribute to important people in your life. How did you balance that connection to real life with the needs of the story you were crafting?
A: Nearly all of the characters in my story are composites of loved ones that have passed on, some that I’ve never met, from wistful old men to former students that were brutal and charismatic gang leaders on the streets of North Minneapolis. Somehow I seem to continue to see and hear them, mostly in the persistent whisperings of those who want to be remembered — want their story to be told because they continue to live as long as I and we tell their story. I believe these holy ghosts have given me permission to embellish their stories as long as those stories illuminate their truths.
Q: You played baseball as a youth. How would you describe yourself as a player? What made baseball important to you?
A: I was always the tallest player on the field, which my father, often my coach, associated with being the strongest player on the field. Unfortunately height doesn’t always correlate to strength. I also had a morbid fear of trying to catch and hit the ball. Mercifully, for everyone except my father, I quit playing baseball after my sophomore year in high school. My father was a very quiet man and baseball was his vehicle for communication with me. When I walked away from baseball, a big part of his hopes and dreams and some part of our relationship also walked away.
It’s true that those who cannot play baseball are destined to only write about the game.
Q: Iowa is the setting for some amazing baseball stories — both fictional and true. What is it about Iowa — a state with no major league teams — that makes it such fertile ground for stories about baseball? Do you have favorite books about baseball (whether set in Iowa or not)?
A: I recently had this very discussion with a literary baseball magazine that focuses almost entirely on the major leagues. I argued that there’s so much to baseball beyond the bright lights and often domes of major league ballparks. Perhaps it is precisely because Iowa has no major league team that attention can be given to its authentic stories of real baseball.
My favorite baseball book is “Hitting into the Wind,” a collection of baseball short stories by former Algona, Iowa, resident Bill Meissner. I love his books, poems and short stories.
Q: Do you have another writing project in the works?
A: “The Empty Set” is the story of a troubled teen’s path through his freshman year of high school. My son John read it and suggested I update it from the 1970s to modern day. I’m hoping that this rewrite also doesn’t take me 40 years to complete.