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write handed player
Former baseball phenom, Alan Steinberg '68, now makes outstanding catches in the celebrity literary field
Alan Steinberg, B.A. '68, admits that he has always craved the spotlight, beginning with his Jerry Lewis impressions as the class clown of P.S. 114 in New York. This extended to his devotion to baseball, first as a Brooklyn Dodger fan in the
1950s, then as an infielder-outfielder on the high school playing field. It was in the outfield of Babe Ruth Park, behind Yankee Stadium, that he got his initial dose of fame: He made a spectacular bare-handed catch of a would-be grand-slam home run atop the fence that preserved his team's play-off victory in their championship semifinal game.
The next day-June 9, 1963-his feat made headlines in all seven New York daily newspapers. On his way to buy the papers in his native Rockaway Beach on Long Island, he passed a favorite hangout, Sam's Delicatessen. In the picture window was a six-foot handwritten sign boasting, "Alan Steinberg Eats Here." It was a heady experience for the 17-year-old senior, surpassed the next day when, standing in a long line in a Jamaica, Queens, motor vehicle bureau with his license application in hand, the young girl behind him peered over his shoulder at the name on his form and asked, "Are you the Alan Steinberg?"
That rush of stardom sealed his interest in sports and celebrityhood-two powerhouse components that Steinberg combined for a career in which he has written both about and with famous personalities, including best-selling books and dozens of articles in publications like Inside Sports, People, the New York Times, Penthouse and the Saturday Evening Post.
Capturing celebrities on the page wasn't Steinberg's original intention when he transferred to UB after a year at Hofstra. "I focused on girls, baseball, flag football, and finding my identity," he said during a recent interview from his Chicago residence. It wasn't until his junior year that he began pursuing a major in English.
Steinberg refers to his days at UB during the mid-'60s as a "fantastic, formative" experience. "You're looking at the most turbulent period, socially, in American history," he recalls. "Martin Meyerson, the former acting chancellor of Berkeley, was recruited to become the new president of UB when I was there, and he instituted a much more open policy. It was a riotous time on campus and one of the freest times I can remember in my entire life for creative expression and for learning about yourself.
"I discovered Bob Dylan and the poetry of the Beat writers and, boom, who do we have on campus while I'm there, but four of the best poets-'New Poets,' they were called at the time-in the United States: John Logan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder. And they were able to attract such notables as [Allen] Ginsberg, [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti and others to campus. What a liberating influence. I didn't know anything about Beat poetry, and I was an English major. This was not only Beat poetry, it was teaching me about life.
"UB had this great tide in its sea of ideas," he continues. "Here was John Barth teaching creative writing. I wormed my way into his class. There were only 12 of us. He's still one of the better-known American writers. He attracted people like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller and John Updike in their heyday to come and give lectures. The cultural atmosphere at UB was clearly even above what you could get in Greenwich Village. It was tremendously rich, and anyone who was there at the time will tell you that. Radical ideas were really in vogue and the atmosphere was just incredibly stimulating."
Another creative awakening in Steinberg's life was his involvement in an independent theatrical troupe of future Hollywood luminaries that staged innovative adaptations of Stalag 17 and Dracula in the Millard Fillmore Room of Norton Union. It was another university experience that helped inspire his decision to turn to writing.
"I was seeing that creativity was a part of life that I had never known. When I played baseball in high school, it was all I cared about. I didn't realize that creativity could add a dimension to your life like it did [at UB]. My friends were studying exotic languages. They were writing short stories and poetry. I started going to poetry readings at a friend's house at 11 Merrimac Street [in Buffalo], a really old wooden home where poets like Ginsberg used to show up and smoke grass and read poems. It was exhilarating."
Steinberg and Peter Riegert, a fellow English major and actor in the renegade theatrical troupe who would go on to star in such films as Animal House and Local Hero, spent time in the student union encouraging each other to write novels.
"I thought, 'Well, writing would be great fun, wouldn't it?' but I had no idea how to go about it," Steinberg recalls. "I had already written on sports for my high school newspaper. I had written a bunch of stories for John Barth's class that got me really psyched about writing fiction. So I decided that writing was my strength."
Steinberg subsequently pursued his chosen craft with as much passion as he had invested in his ballplaying. He gained increasing prominence in national magazines, carving a niche for himself as a writer of unusually revealing profiles, many of athletes.
he names of his sporting subjects read like a Who's Who: Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Mickey Mantle, Billie Jean King, Dennis Rodman, Reggie Jackson, Olympian Bonnie Blair, Al Kaline, and-his only idol-Duke Snider. His subjects developed a rapport with Steinberg, who was able to draw deeper, unexpected comments from them. He learned that he could coax stories from celebrities "that they told no one else." For instance, Don "Murder" Murdoch, the first National Hockey League player suspended for drug use, granted Steinberg his only magazine interview after dodging the press for seven years. When tennis prodigy Andrea Jaeger quit the tour for good, she called Steinberg, not her parents, and read 22 pages of her journal to him.
"I was getting people to talk to me on such an intimate level that I was startled. I didn't have a strategy, I was just glad to get the assignment," says Steinberg. "I realized that they trusted me because I showed interest in them as people, not stars. My pieces ended up being less about their careers than about their character, personal conflicts and inner life. No matter who, I'd get stunning tidbits they never told other writers, including, several times, their biographers. So my credo became: I will get something no one else can get."
Over the past 10 years, Steinberg has shifted his focus to books. He helped Dave Pallone, the National League umpire who was fired for being gay, write his controversial autobiography, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. It was a surprise best-seller of 1990.
He authored Rebound: The Dennis Rodman Story, which focused on the National Basketball Association superstar's extraordinary college years under the guidance of the white family that practically adopted him in tiny Bokchito, Oklahoma. "He was notorious for being very difficult to talk to, but he managed to trust me and we became friendly. It was ironic because I later became Dennis's biggest defender in Chicago. I wrote huge pieces about him in the Sun-Times and the Tribune and got besieged by radio and TV interviewers."
Steinberg's current best-seller is Black Profiles in Courage, a collaboration with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They shared a compelling interest in African-American history and wrote enlightening stories of mostly obscure black patriots and heroes, from Estevanico, the first black to explore the New World, to Lewis Latimer, who perfected the incandescent light bulb-for which Edison took credit. "We found astonishing things about the way history had been distorted and stolen from black people," declares Steinberg, who adds that, just that morning, he and Abdul-Jabbar had signed with documentary filmmaker George Colburn to adapt the book into a 10-part TV series, probably for PBS, with Abdul-Jabbar as the on-screen narrator and Steinberg as head writer. Colburn, whose credits include Carl Sagan's Cosmos, happens to be a former fastpitch softball teammate of Steinberg.
Today Steinberg is a 51-year-old write-hander who continues to show his versatility and depth by playing a variety of positions via articles, books and now screenplays-all inspired by the creative drive and insightful clout he developed on his own field of dreams at UB.
Jim Bisco is a writer whose home base is Buffalo.