I was a teenager when I first met Charlie Einstein through his writing and his work editing the "Fireside Book of Baseball", easily the best anthology of baseball writing ever been done. In fact, the first three Fireside books may be the best anthology of any writing I've ever seen. Charlie wrote regularly for Sport Magazine and something about his stuff always attracted me. He had no pretense in his writing and he seemed to find a unique way of looking at his subjects, a way no one else seemed to have thought of.
And several years later I met Charlie by his voice as we became telephone friends. He had just written the single best biography of an athlete that I have ever read, "Willie's Time", a biography/memoir of Willie Mays and a history of America's times while he played in the big leagues. Again, as different an approach to baseball and American history as there is. It was and is brilliant. I tracked down his phone number in Mill Valley, CA, and asked him to write something original for us at the NY Times to mark Willie's coming entry into the Hall of Fame. Asking Charlie to write something original was like asking him to breathe. There was no other way.
We became pals. Conversations never began with hello, but with his latest joke and he seemed to know every single one ever written or told. I thought he liked talking to me so that this California-based New Yorker's ears could get their regular fill of a Noo Yawk accent. He told me about being at the Polo Grounds the day Bobby Thomson hit his Home Run Heard Round the World in 1951. And he told me about Willie Mays, and New York City and the entertainment industry and gambling and the newspaper business and all kinds of stuff. We talked a lot.
He'd write regularly for us at the Times, always baseball because no one knew it better. He saw things and thought things about the game like no one else. One time he called and said: "Here's the headline, do you want the story?"
Usually you sell a story idea, the story's written and last it gets a headline.
Sure Charlie, I said, I'll bite. What's the headline?
"Baseball: So Good They Can't Screw It Up."
Perfect. He then proceeded to write a wonderful piece about all the things that Major League Baseball was then doing wrong and made his case that the game of baseball could and would survive the latest idiocy.
It was the night before Opening Day, a few years after Charlie and I became phone pals and as my family sat down for dinner, I reminded my girls, then 8 and 6, why tomorrow was so important. And then I got a copy of Charlie's latest anthology, The Baseball Reader, from my shelf and proceeded to read the girls Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" routine. After some strange looks they started to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all--both their dad's performance and the old comedy act itself. I said to my wife that I hadn't talked to Charlie for a while and since tomorrow was Opening Day, I'd call him to mark the occasion. But I was too late. When I got to the office, there was a message from Charlie Einstein: He had just moved back east to take a PR job and he wanted to get together.
That began the greatest lunch date I'll ever have. We started a little club with Sports Illustrated's marvelous baseball writer Bob Creamer (he wrote "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life" and you must read that, too). On a regular basis we would get together and on a rotating basis each of us was responsible for three things: the reservation, an interesting fourth person to join us and the bill. I have to say, I liked having the fourth join us, but I really loved having lunch with just those two.
When you talked to Charlie, he'd ask questions you wish you had asked and give you answers you could only dream of coming up with. When I called to tell him I had taken a new job as Vice President Public Relations of the National Hockey League, he said: "Sounds good, but is there a President of Public Relations?"
He told me he played basketball as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago when the school was still trying to compete at a high level. Then he'd hold up this smallish hand of his and say: "This is a good reason why Chicago had to leave the Big 10."
In his matter of fact way, Charlie told about his show business roots, his father a successful radio performer and vaudeville comedian with the stage name of Parkyakarkus. Really! His half brothers changed their last name and became quite successful in show biz, too. One brother changed his name from Albert Einstein (can't imagine why) to become the actor, writer and comedian Albert Brooks. His brother Bob was a writer and performer on the old "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and then adopted the persona of Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhouser on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and Larry on "Arrested Development."
Charlie wrote about gambling as well and a book on blackjack got him barred for a while from the Vegas casinos as a potential card counter.
No more jokes, no more stories, no more calls now. I heard from Charlie's son Mike this week that his father had died at the age of 80.
I wanted to tell FanNation about Charlie Einstein and hope that a few of you will go out and get and read "Willie's Time". And that a few of you will find a library that has copies of the Fireside Books, which are almost impossible to get anywhere else even though there were some 85,000 published of the first volume. You will be rewarded.