Daniel Okrent: Swinging For The Fences

Jun 28, 2013
Originally published on December 26, 2013 8:17 am

Daniel Okrent has managed to achieve an omnipresent status in the media world. He's written and edited for several magazines, newspapers and book publishers, on any number of topics, including the Rockefeller Center, the Prohibition Era, and baseball history; the latest is American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. But Okrent is perhaps best known for creating a game played by millions, year after year: Rotisserie (Fantasy) League Baseball. All the while, he has squeezed in several bouts in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. For the record, he prefers to practice with the crosswords found in The New York Times.

Okrent took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with host Ophira Eisenberg about his former role as The New York Times public editor, and how he came up with the idea of Rotisserie Baseball. His latest creation, Old Jews Telling Jokes, is an off-Broadway play that pays tribute to and puts a twist on old Jewish jokes. When asked about the basic nature of Jewish humor, Okrent said the jokes are usually told by schlemiels, or unlucky people. "It's about being a loser. It's about life being bigger than you are, and being tougher than you are. It's mostly self-deprecatory."

It only seemed right that we pitted the father of fantasy baseball against a sports junkie who plays in three fantasy leagues: Mike Pesca, NPR's sports correspondent and panelist on Slate's "Hang Up and Listen" podcast. In a game called The Boys of Summer, Okrent and Pesca answered questions from Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton about quirky moments in baseball history. The stakes were high: Besides bragging rights, the winner got the right to change the loser's fantasy team name.

About Daniel Okrent

The various stops in Okrent's 44-plus years in the media business include nine years in book publishing; 10 as a magazine editor (including four as the chief editor of Life); 25 as a magazine writer (for Time, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and others); 12 writing books (among them Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, cited by the American Historical Association in 2011 as the year's best book of U.S. history); and 1 1/2 as the first public editor of The New York Times.

He has also acted in films (a speaking part in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, as well as what he calls "a mumbling part" in Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax); appeared repeatedly on television (most notably in two Ken Burns epics, Baseball and Prohibition); taught at Harvard's Kennedy School; curated a museum exhibition (for Philadelphia's National Constitution Center); and most recently co-wrote and co-produced the off-Broadway hit Old Jews Telling Jokes.

In the video below, Okrent tells a joke for the Old Jews Telling Jokes Web series, in which a man breaks the news to his brother that his cat has died.

This story originally ran on June 28, 2013.

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is author and editor Daniel Okrent.



DANIEL OKRENT: I'm very happy to be here, thank you.

EISENBERG: Now, I mentioned all these amazing things that you have done and created and written but I did not mention that you are a crossword puzzle nut.

OKRENT: Well, I think nut is not a very friendly word to use. It's something that I do do every morning, but there are many things we do every morning and we don't make fun of them in public, right?

EISENBERG: That's true. That's true.


EISENBERG: But I actually met you at this year's...

OKRENT: This year's crossword puzzle tournament which was the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which I had my worst performance ever. I finished...

EISENBERG: Oh really?

OKRENT: Yeah, it was really terrible. But I'm getting old and I'm not as fast as I used to be.

EISENBERG: Wait a second...

OKRENT: I don't have the consonants I once had. I used to, you know.


EISENBERG: What is your puzzle of choice? Are you a New York Times...

OKRENT: That's the only one that I do. The only one that really matters is the one that we measure ourselves against.


EISENBERG: Well done. And so...

OKRENT: People are doing other ones. I say that's not a crossword puzzle, get out of here.

EISENBERG: Yeah, like USA Today.

OKRENT: Ridiculous.


EISENBERG: People magazine?

OKRENT: I can't talk about it because they pay me for something.

EISENBERG: Okay, good. So they have a very good one?

OKRENT: Yeah, it's superb.



EISENBERG: You like the New York Times crossword puzzle and you, for a year and a half, were the public editor.

OKRENT: I was the public editor for a year and a half. It just felt like it was five or six years.

EISENBERG: What is a public editor?

OKRENT: It's really kind of internal affairs. It's the cop. My job was to find what the paper was doing wrong and write about it in the paper, and have people who were written about or people who objected to things in the paper, they would come to me with complaints. Then I would take them to the editors and the writers and then I'd write about it in the paper that they worked for. They really loved me.

EISENBERG: That's a tough job.


OKRENT: It was just wonderful.

EISENBERG: So, I mean, that sounds like a pretty tough climate, obviously. It doesn't sound like a fun place to go every day.

OKRENT: It wasn't. No, not at all. Not at all.

EISENBERG: But you lasted a year and a half.

OKRENT: I managed to have my office at the end of a corridor on the 15th floor. There was nobody behind me. And I could see everybody coming in advance. So it was sort of like I was standing in a machine gun nest to protect myself.


EISENBERG: And then...

OKRENT: I lasted 18 months because when I signed up for the job I said I'm only going to be here for 18 months. I wanted it to be a term certain so that people wouldn't think I was being nice to the paper to keep my job. So I announced in my first column that I was leaving in May of 2005, not that I wanted to keep the job.

EISENBERG: Oh, so you were very strategic about the whole thing.

OKRENT: Yes, I was very - it was sort of like doing a crossword puzzle.

EISENBERG: Right. So if you're in between these two people, obviously, you're like the cop, as you said, between those two bodies. Is there anything you learned from that experience at the New York Times that particularly surprising?

OKRENT: Well, I guess the most surprising thing was how intensely people felt about the paper. People, particularly people who like the paper, who counted on it, when it disappointed them, they were really, really crushed by it. It played a very important role in their lives.

And this was shortly after, it was only two years after the Times had fallen down on the job on the walkup to the Iraq War. So there were a lot of people who had much to be angry about.

EISENBERG: You are known as the creator, co-creator of fantasy baseball.

OKRENT: No, creator, actually.

EISENBERG: Creator, very good.


EISENBERG: Want to make sure. Rotisserie baseball, as it was originally called.

OKRENT: Yeah, it was originally called rotisserie baseball after the lousy restaurant where we first - where I handed down the rules.

EISENBERG: What was the name of the restaurant?

OKRENT: It was called Rotisserie Francaise. It was on East 52nd, between Third and Lexington. It went out of business about three or four months after we were first written about in the newspapers, and I think that maybe there was an association.


EISENBERG: How did this happen? You were just hanging out with some friends?

OKRENT: No, it was the summer of — I'm sorry - the winter of 79/80, between seasons and I was missing baseball and I was on a flight to Texas and I just had this kind of crazy idea. And I got off the plane in Texas and went to some friends there. I had a consulting arrangement there. And they thought I was crazy.

And I came back to New York where nobody would think I was crazy and found a bunch of people who were willing to do it. And within, you know within just a couple of years, there were millions of people playing it and I had made a vast fortune from it.

EISENBERG: Wow, okay, you made a...

OKRENT: No, not okay.


OKRENT: I didn't make a penny off of it because the rules were so simple.

EISENBERG: I was going to say.

OKRENT: I'm the schmuck who could not make money out of something that everybody loved to do.

EISENBERG: For any of our listeners that don't know what it's like to be part of a fantasy sports league, can you just give a brief rundown?

OKRENT: No, absolutely not.

EISENBERG: You don't want them part of it?

OKRENT: It's just terrible. I feel a little bit like J. Robert Oppenheimer having invented the atomic bomb. It's really not a very nice thing that I brought into the world.


EISENBERG: You have created an off-Broadway play called...

OKRENT: "Old Jews Telling Jokes."

EISENBERG: Now that is fantastic.


EISENBERG: That sounds like a lot of fun. You have famous comedic actors that are either retelling these jokes or they're doing scenes with these jokes.

OKRENT: Yeah, it's actually a play. Well, I don't know, maybe that's an insult to the word play. It is actually dramatized. You know, if it's a joke about a mother and a daughter, instead of a standup comedian telling the joke, one actress plays the mother, one actress plays the daughter and it becomes a scene, a show. And we just had our 400th performance the night before last.

EISENBERG: Congratulations.

OKRENT: Yeah, it's really great.


EISENBERG: So what makes as joke a Jewish joke?

OKRENT: If the character's name is Kaplan.


EISENBERG: That's it? It's just...

OKRENT: The basic nature of Jewish humor is it's about being a loser. It's about life being bigger than you are and being tougher than you are. It's mostly self-deprecatory. And there's always somebody in it who's a schiemiel. And often it's the person who is telling the joke who is the schiemiel.

EISENBERG: Do people in the audience mouth along to some of the punch lines of the jokes?

OKRENT: Yes, they do. They get a little bit ahead of us sometimes. But, you know, it's part of the fun. There is also the guy who got up one night, in the front row, in the middle of the show, elbows his way to the aisle, takes two steps up the aisle and says "where's the bathroom?"


EISENBERG: My wife said we should hire him and have him do it every night.

Right, showstopper. It was like there's a real one. That is a real...

OKRENT: Yeah, exactly.

EISENBERG: Well, Daniel, I can tell that you are the kind of guy that's kind of up for anything.

OKRENT: Well, what do you have in mind?

EISENBERG: I have in mind...

OKRENT: Oh that, sure.

EISENBERG: An ASK ME ANOTHER variety of games.

OKRENT: Yes, I'd be delighted to do it.


OKRENT: Yeah, let's play ball.

EISENBERG: Perfect. How about a hand for our VIP Daniel Okrent?

OKRENT: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Daniel, it's clear you've been a longtime fan of this nation's pastime, baseball. So we thought we'd put you up against another expert, NPR's own Mike Pesca.


EISENBERG: Mike, you're a sports correspondent for NPR and you're a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." But let me ask you this, Mike.


EISENBERG: Do you play fantasy baseball?

PESCA: Although I don't like to brag about it, I do.


PESCA: I'm in three leagues right now. I'll say this, look, the most boring sentence in the English language is let me tell you about my dream. And the second most boring is let me tell you about my outfield.

EISENBERG: Okay, well, we're going to pit you up against Daniel in this game. And here's what we decided: whoever wins not only gets bragging rights, of course, but the winner gets to change the loser's fantasy team name for the rest of the season. That's what we call stakes on ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm gong to bring back our one-man house band, Jonathan Coulton.



EISENBERG: And of course, our puzzle guru and resident expert, John Chaneski.


EISENBERG: One important statistic for baseball players is OBP, or on base percentage, which is a measure of how often a player reaches base. Eddie Gaedel, who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, had the highest OBP possible, a perfect 1.000. Why?



PESCA: He was a little person. He drew a walk the only he was up because he crouched, because he had no strike zone.

EISENBERG: That is correct. That's right.


OKRENT: He was 3'6" tall.

PESCA: And his uniform number was?

OKRENT: One-eighth. Do I get a point for that?

EISENBERG: Yes, you do get a point for that because that was our next question.

PESCA: I knew all this stuff.

COULTON: Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown and Antonio Alfonseca both pitched for the Chicago Cubs in their careers. Brown in the early 1900s and Alfonseca nearly 100 years later. They also had very unusual but similar nicknames. What were those nicknames?


OKRENT: Three finger and six finger.

COULTON: Yes, that's correct.


COULTON: Do you want to tell me what the situation with their fingers...

OKRENT: Well, it was really interesting, one of them had three fingers and the other one had six fingers.


OKRENT: Mordecai Three-Finger Brown, Hall of Fame pitcher. Antonio Six-Finger Alfonseca, not Hall of Fame pitcher.

PESCA: The polydactyl hall of fame.

OKRENT: Polydactyl hall of fame.

EISENBERG: The three fingers was actually an asset.

OKRENT: The three finger was presumed to be an asset but nobody knows because nobody else had three fingers.


EISENBERG: That's a very good point.

PESCA: The league allowed anyone to chop off two and find out. No one took them up on it.

COULTON: It's very hard to have a control when you're running that experiment.

PESCA: That's right.

EISENBERG: On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter. An impressive achievement, particularly since Ellis admitted years later that he did it in what altered state?



OKRENT: He was on LSD.

EISENBERG: He sure was, yeah.


COULTON: Speaking of offbeat players, what relief pitcher said, "I'm a certified ninja. It happened in a dream. Normally it takes a lifetime, but I did it in 12 minutes?" It could be anybody.



PESCA: Turk Wendell.

COULTON: That might be a good guess. I don't know who that is. Daniel?


OKRENT: Mike Pesca.

PESCA: The certification is pending.

COULTON: I'm sorry; it was San Francisco Giants' pitcher Brian Wilson.

OKRENT: He was a good singer with the Beach Boys too.

COULTON: Yeah, that's right.

EISENBERG: A famous curse or jinx began in 1954 when Braves' third baseman Eddie Matthews broke his hand, just one week after being the first major leaguer to do what? Stumper, huh?



OKRENT: Oh, yes, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, the very first issue.

EISENBERG: That's right.

OKRENT: August 1954.

EISENBERG: In a swimsuit, I take it.


COULTON: In the 1980s, the front office of the Oakland A's realized they had a one million dollar surplus. After some head scratching, they figured out that it was Ricky Henderson's fault. What did the legendary base stealer do or rather, not do?



PESCA: He didn't cash his checks.

COULTON: That's right.

He was given a one million dollar check and instead of depositing it, he framed it.


EISENBERG: Did he just assume it was fake?


PESCA: No. He went to a pizza place, saw the buck on the wall, decided it's a good business strategy.

COULTON: Got my first million dollar check.

OKRENT: Shows you don't need to be smart to steal bases.

EISENBERG: Until 1887, the home plate could be made from either of two materials. One is whitened rubber, that we're familiar with. What's the other?



PESCA: Ivory.

EISENBERG: Wow, that is quite some home plate.

OKRENT: Everybody knows this one, gefilte fish.

EISENBERG: Gefilte fish.


COULTON: Marble.


COULTON: Home plate could be made out of marble.

Which of the following was once the name of the name of the Los Angeles Dodgers when they played right here in Brooklyn? The Brooklyn Perfectos, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, or the Brooklyn Orphans?


COULTON: Daniel?

OKRENT: Bridegrooms.

COULTON: Oh no, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, that was Mike who rang in.

PESCA: They were also the Perfectos.

COULTON: They were both.

PESCA: I think they were both.

JOHN CHANESKI: Mike, you have to pick one. What do you choose?

PESCA: I'll say Bridegrooms.

CHANESKI: Bridegrooms is correct. Yeah, that's right.


CHANESKI: I know, I'm sorry.

OKRENT: And Mike, you're welcome.

CHANESKI: They were named that way because seven of their team members got married around the same time. They were like, hey guys, let's call ourselves the Bridegrooms.

PESCA: Under the same nomenclature, today's baseball teams would be known as the strip clubs.

COULTON: That's right.


CHANESKI: Well, by my count, our MVP on LSD is Daniel Okrent. Way to go, Daniel.

EISENBERG: Well done.


EISENBERG: That means you're going to be able to rename all six of Mike Pesca's...

OKRENT: Do I have to?

EISENBERG: Yes, you do. Thank you so much, Mike Pesca. Give him a huge round of applause for coming all the way down to join us.


EISENBERG: And one more round for our VIP Daniel Okrent.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.