A favorite pasttime of mine is reading the works of other Iowa authors, and I’m delighted to recommend the novel Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball by Tommy Murray.
The Murray family was well known among us Catholics in Burlington, Iowa, because with 10 kids in their family, you were likely to have a Murray in your class. They were all nice kids. Tom Murray (the oldest) was in my sister Tracey’s class, Mary Murray was in my brother Drew’s class, and Jean Murray was in my class and group of friends. All of us graduated from Notre Dame High School in the ’70s.
Tom’s novel was published in 2017, and it’s a great read. The characters are complex and real, and the plot is full of surprises. I have to admit I also learned quite a bit about baseball strategy from reading it. In some ways it’s a “coming of age” story, and in other ways, it’s a story about “coping with aging.” Tom manages to present both themes with humor and empathy.
Tom is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis Public Schools who lives with his wife, Mary Ann, in Shoreview, MInn. They have four adult children who are baseball and softball legends in the Shoreview area. Because I liked his book so much, and because I admire fiction writers, I invited Tom to answer some questions for this blog.
Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball involves three elderly coaches and some of the key members of the varsity baseball team at Holy Trinity High School. How did you come up with the plot and characters?
In 1973 I was a junior scrub on the junior varsity football team early in the season at Notre Dame High School in Burlington, Iowa sitting on the bench against arch-rival West Burlington when my big football opportunity manifested itself. My coach told me I could report into the game on defense under one condition: After the ball was hiked, I should race in three feet and hold my position. It seemed simple enough. However, he still made me model that attack strategy for himself and the group of my teammates that awaited the spectacle. When the coach was certain that I understood, he anxiously sent me into the game. On my second and last down as a football player at Notre Dame I watched the quarterback run away to the complete opposite side of the field. Instead of holding my ground as I had been instructed, I raced after him at which point West Burlington executed a deft reverse resulting in a speedy runner easily sidestepping me and eventually escaping right through the hole I had been ordered to plug. It’s a continuing nightmare I still have to this day, watching that guy run 89 yards for a West Burlington touchdown.
My football career was over. Banished to a solitary perch on the bench, I had the rest of the season to observe my coaches, all older men (two retirees from Burlington High School and a crazed priest from St. Patrick’s Church in Burlington), and the fathers in the bleachers living vicariously through their sons on the field. Like many of those boys, I played for my hero, my father. And also like many of those boys who battled for victory and glory in athletic contests, I wished that I had known my father better. Sometimes I felt I didn’t know him at all.
Way back then I filled my empty head with dreams of a story where the old men were coaching, and fathers were cheering on their sons, but instead in another sport in which I was also a miserable failure—baseball. It’s true that those who can’t play baseball write about it. I’ve been thinking, writing, editing and eventually publishing and promoting this story since 1973.
In the book, you write in-depth about the game of baseball and strategy. Did you play and/or coach baseball?
I was a terrible football player and even worse at baseball. Though I was always the tallest player on the field I was also always the slowest. I also had one other huge impediment. I was deathly afraid of the ball. Instead of charging in and genuflecting in front of a hard ground ball I would stand to the side, out of harm’s way and wave my glove in the general direction of the ball and hope by some chance it would get tangled in its webbing.
I was even worse at bat. As the pitcher began his windup I was already moving out of the batter’s box and taking a giant step toward third base. By the time the ball reached the plate I was always far away, almost in a different ZIP code. In my junior year of high school, for the sake of the coaches and fans and myself, I quit playing baseball.
That action, raising the white flag, absolutely broke my father’s heart. He was devastated. Like most fathers he didn’t see my inadequacies and obvious failures. He only saw my potential, future glory and most of all the fulfillment of my legacy. My legacy was determined before I was born, when it was decided I would be named for my uncle Tommy Murray.
You dedicate the book to your grandfathers, your uncle Tommy Murray and your father. Tell us about them and their influence on your life and love of baseball.
I begin all my readings by telling the story of my Uncle Tommy, my namesake, and explaining his legacy. Iowa, like Minnesota, originally had two different paths to a high school state championship—one for public, the other, private. In 1943 all schools were combined into one tournament. Uncle Tommy led an undefeated Bancroft St. John team to the Fall Iowa State Baseball Championship game and then pitched and won that game. St. John became the first private school to win a championship of any sport in Iowa. He was a hero in Bancroft, a baseball star who excelled despite suffering from severe juvenile arthritis. He parlayed that success and charm to finagle my grandfather to influence the Army to accept him during World War II despite this obvious deferment. In gratitude he trained for the most dangerous position in the Army, portable flame thrower. He was killed in the Philippines in November 1945.
All of northwest Iowa was devastated by my Uncle Tommy’s death. Fort Dodge Public High School was scheduled to play St. John on the very day of his passing. They called my grandfather to offer their sympathies and cancel the game. My grandfather explained that nothing could ever bring back his beloved son and that the game should go on. In Bancroft, Iowa, baseball is more than a game. It’s a life and death passion. Baseball is a religion.
So that night my Grandfather watched his nephew and son (my dad) compete and win the baseball game against Fort Dodge Public. Life goes on, especially and no matter what, the life of baseball.
Nearly all of the characters in my story are composites of loved ones that have passed on, some that I’ve never met like my Grandfather Art Murray, others that I did meet and treasure—wistful old men like my Grandfather Joe McTigue and even 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 others tell their story. I believe these holy ghosts have given me permission to embellish their stories as long as those stories illuminate their truths.
Your book is set in fictional town of Cottage Park, Iowa. What’s your connection to Cottage Park? In writing about Cottage Park in the book, did you reference real places?
I was the bat boy for my father, the baseball coach at St. Mary’s in Storm Lake, Iowa. Cottage Park is a combination of all those little towns just big enough to support two bars, a Catholic church, and perhaps most importantly a baseball field. However, Cottage Park is mostly modeled after Bancroft, Iowa a town of 727 residents also in northwest Iowa. The church and the baseball field there are open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. I wrote Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball to provide readers in that community a mirror to see themselves, and for everyone else a window to experience the joy and exasperation of small town Iowa life.
Toward the end of my father’s life he couldn’t tell you the name of the wife who mothered his 10 children, or even the names of his children, but he never forgot one detail of life in Bancroft, particularly as it related to baseball.
It wasn’t until nearly the very end of my 40-year journey of writing my novel that I learned that Cottage Park was also a metaphor for the relationship with my father.
Many people say “I want to write a book,” but few have the self-discipline and creativity that it takes to do so. How long did it take you to write your novel, and what was your process?
I am hopeful that everyone who reads this blog will carefully read my strategies for writing a novel and then, no matter what, do the exact opposite of what I’ve done.
For starters, I would rather stick darning needles directly into my eyeballs than ever write one single word. Writing is painful for me. It was something I never enjoyed doing, but I felt compelled to do at the persistent nagging of old men, now passed, who relentlessly insisted that I tell their story. I did everything I could think of to avoid sitting down and writing, which included elaborate nightly nesting rituals, mostly cleaning, picking up, and putting things in order after my four children went to bed each night.
My goal at first was to write one single word each night. I was not going to be the most prolific author, but I was going to be the most consistent. After days of writing only one word, I enlarged my goal to write at least one sentence, and then a paragraph, and finally a page. Humans are the most adaptive animals on earth.
In just a few decades I had written a novel. By the way, I’ll match the cleanliness underneath and behind my refrigerator against anyone.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
First and foremost find pictures of the author of this blog, Jane Sutter Brandt, at the signing of her memoir, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy at Burlington By the Book. The line of people purchasing the book was not unlike that of people waiting in line for Taylor Swift Concert tickets. Post those pictures on your refrigerator and it will give you motivation that your story is of great value to some if not all.
Second, talk to Jane Brandt’s sister Tracey who will give you confidence that you can and must market and promote your story, and a good place to start is at Burlington By the Book with its owner Chris Murphy, and his enthusiastic coworkers.
I know how to amass a small fortune writing a novel. My third counsel is to always start out with a large fortune. When my Uncle Pat McTigue passed, he left me enough money to purchase all the services and requirements for the publishing of this novel through an “indie” press called Beaver’s Pond Press in Edina, Minnesota.
Fourth, before you are published, choose who you allow to read your work more carefully than you choose a spouse. I had an opportunity to have the great Catholic novelist J.F. Powers read an early draft of my manuscript. I wasn’t prepared for his critique (which was savage, but entirely on the mark) and hid my story away for several years in a box in my bedroom closet. That’s one of the reasons why it took me 40 years to get this story published.
Last, write for an audience. This book is dedicated to my father. After the debacle with J.F. Powers, my hope was to publish one copy and present it to him. I couldn’t write and edit my manuscript as fast as dementia took away his memory, and finally his life. Dad never got to read the printed copy. So I wrote this story for my four children. When I went to the printer, I discovered that it wasn’t that much more expensive to print up another 200 copies.
One pleasant surprise of my writing journey is that others are liking this story too. This summer Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang requested an order for 200 copies to distribute to volunteers and contributors to his reelection campaign. When I asked him why he liked my story he responded, “Because I’m Catholic. I love small towns and I love baseball.”
I recently published a third edition of 1,000 that now includes glowing newspaper reviews.
As many authors know, actually getting published is also a challenge once the book is written. What was your experience?
As is often the case in life, many problems can be solved if you have time and money. I retired as a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2014, so I have the time. At about that same period in my life my Uncle Pat McTigue passed away and left me just enough money to purchase the services that are necessary for every aspect of the publishing of this novel, including promotions. I’ve signed on with a professional marketing company that is generating good leads in media. It helps immensely to be from Burlington, Iowa where people are unbelievably gracious and supportive.
What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel?
There’s a line in the cable television series, The Affair, where a grizzled old writer remarks to a younger writer, “Everybody in the world has one novel in them. Writing a second novel is the real challenge.”
I actually wrote a novel many, many years ago about a ninth-grader and the trials and tribulations that he must confront in his life. The Empty Set was a young adult novel before there was such a genre with subject matter about suicide, before we talked about that subject. Now it is somewhat dated, so I’m doing a massive rewrite in hopes I can make it more relevant for today.
I’m hopeful that it doesn’t take me another 40 years to rewrite and get this story published.