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Conversations with Clayton: Charles Leerhsen, author of Butch Cassidy & Ty Cobb Biographies

Author of fantastic Ty Cobb biography returns with great new biography of Butch Cassidy

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Butch Cassidy Photo by Jonathan Blair/Corbis via Getty Images

In this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I chatted via email with Charles Leerhsen, former Sports Illustrated executive editor turned author of some of this era’s best biographies.

In 2015, Leerhsen came out with Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, a fantastic biography of the “Georgia Peach” which helped dispel some of the more notorious aspects of the Hall of Famer’s legacy.

Leerhsen’s latest book is Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw, which was released in July.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Charles discusses his new book, Ty Cobb’s impressions of Cincinnati, and “Obstructed View” seats at the Polo Grounds.

Clayton Trutor (CT): What drew you to the story of Butch Cassidy?

Charles Leerhsen (CL): The topic was suggested by my editor at Simon & Schuster when I was looking for my next book after Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. I didn’t know much about the history of the West but I liked that Butch Cassidy fit into my favorite era in history, the period between about 1880 and the First World War. To me that’s the most exciting time in American history because of all the technological innovations—electricity, the telephone, automobiles, typewriters, airplanes, etc.—and all the resulting societal changes, such as increased leisure time (for movies, vaudeville and organized sports), the rise of women’s rights, a surge in the literacy rate and the advent of psychoanalysis to relieve the anxiety caused by all of the above.

CT: I was surprised to learn from the book that Butch Cassidy grew up in a Mormon household. How did that shape his outlook on the world?

CL: It shaped his life only in the sense that it gave him something to push away from. Robert Leroy Parker (to use his real name) was a big reader as a child and when he learned about life beyond the Mormon community in Southern Utah he decided he wanted to explore those possibilities ASAP.

CT: Can you describe your research process? Having written biographies of both Butch Cassidy and Ty Cobb, you’ve dealt with figures that have immense mythologies surrounding them.

CL: That’s true but with Cobb and Cassidy it’s night and day. Ty Cobb’s sport was called “organized baseball” for a reason. There are a certain number of teams, the teams have rosters and schedules and everywhere they played there were as many as six or seven newspapers (in those days) covering the game, and covering the team on travel days and rainouts. The information is there if you look hard enough. With outlaws like Cassidy, you’re talking about people who are trying to be unpredictable and evasive. And you’re also talking about the newspapers of the Old West, which were to a great extent undependable. Cassidy was reported dead more than 50 times and when he finally did die he was reported to be still living. The best you can do is use your judgement and rely more on letters, court documents and the personal testimony of people who knew Butch.

CT: Can you describe your writing process?

CL: I get up every day, read a little, then write, or try to, for at least five or six hours. Seven days a week unless there’s a family obligation.

CT: What were Ty Cobb’s impressions of Cincinnati?

CL: He seemed favorably disposed toward the Queen City of the West. On his first trip from Georgia to join the Tigers in 1905, he had a layover in Cincinnati and used it to hop a trolley and see the sights, which included the Ivory Soap Factory and the Reds’ stadium, called the Palace of the Fans.

CT: What advice would you give to young journalists and writers about interviewing people as part of your research process?

CL: Without saying too much (or anything) about yourself, try to make it into a conversation that will be pleasant for the person being interviewed. Don’t act like a schlub. Dress well and have a nice pen. Don’t keep showing the subject the top of your head as you bend over to take notes. If you don’t like the answer, don’t write it down, and make sure the subject sees you not writing it down. If you don’t like the answer, respond with silence. Silence can be a powerful suction device.

CT: Using whatever criteria makes the most sense to you, who is your dead ball era starting nine?

CL: I’m going to pass on this question. We know who the great players were, but distinguishing between them at this distance is impossible to do.

CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of ____________.

CL: Attending the sentencing of Pete Rose in 1990. It was for tax evasion but it felt like an execution. He got five months.

CT: Describe the worst seats you’ve ever had at a sporting event.

CL: When I was about 8 I attended an Army-Syracuse game at the Polo Grounds. My ticket had the words “Obstructed View” kind of superimposed on it. I remember thinking that was interesting. The seat, in what would have been far right field during baseball season, was directly behind a green pillar that had a sign on it that told you what to do in case of an air raid.

CT: Describe your greatest sports video game victory.

CL: I have never played a sports video game. All my time is devoted to writing and filling out questionnaires.

Follow Charles Leerhsen on Twitter: @Charles Leerhsen

Buy his great new book too: Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw