Tuesday, November 15, 2022


In November I attended two back-to-back literary festivals in St. Petersburg. The first took place on the grounds of an African America museum on November 5. A week later on November 12, the other was held in a darkened theater originally built as a Christian Science church. The first was filled with the gleeful shouts of kids. The second drew a more subdued, older crowd. The first was free. The second cost $25 ($50, if you bought the VIP ticket). The first, St Pete Reads! Lit Fest, was brand new. The second -- the Times Festival of Reading --  I helped launch three decades ago when I was the book editor at the St. Petersburg Times

The first made me want to be a kid again, trekking to the library to fill my wagon full of books. The second, a slimmed down version of those first festivals that we held on the Eckerd College campus 30 years ago, sadly reminded me of just how strapped local journalism has become in this Internet age. But it also reminded me that the love of reading never grows old.

I wrote about the two festivals in two separate stories for Arts Coast Magazine. Below is my story on the first annual St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida. I'll post the second one on the Times festival next week. Watch this spot!

A Lit Fest for Kids Makes its Debut

Story and Photos by Margo Hammond
. . .


The first annual St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest — described as a celebration of all things literacy — was hosted by Cultured Books Literacy Foundation in partnership with the Barbershop Book Club and St. Petersburg College at the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

Aimed at kids and their parents, it was the brainchild of Lorielle Hollaway, founder of the pop-up children’s bookstore that gave rise to the Cultured Books Literacy Foundation, dedicated to promoting books and literacy in the South St. Pete community.

The Barbershop Book Club, one of the festival’s sponsors, with some of the books read by the club.

The day-long festival was a cacophony of activities — author and educational booths, art making, photography, poetry, dancing and music — that more than lived up to the foundation’s mission to make literacy a family affair. Admission to the festival, underwritten by generous donors, was free. Organizers also distributed free bottles of water, free lunch bags with chicken, free book bags that read “Whatchu Reading?” – and, best of all, free copies of children’s books.

“Isn’t this great?” I heard a young boy say to his mom as she maneuvered her way across the lawn in her powerchair.

Picking up a bracelet at the Friends of the James Weldon Johnson Community Library booth
Book bags given out free at St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest

It’s not surprising that that kid felt, well, like a kid let loose in a candy store. The fest offered non-stop activities throughout the day for children from toddlers to middle schoolers. They got stickers at the St. Petersburg College booth and bracelets at the James Weldon Johnson Library stand. At the Creativity Corner they learned to illustrate their own books with visual artist Myiah Moody.

The Friends of the James Weldon Branch Library touted their own upcoming Literary Festival on March 18, 2023

In the morning on the story stage Jamecia Buggs read her book I Can Yoga and led a community yoga session. Later in the day Keep St. Pete Lit’Miesha Brundridge offered kids poetry.

Among the educational, non-profit groups with booths at the first annual St. Pete Reads! Lit festival – Keep St. Pete Lit....
.... and Sing Out and Read

Authors drew kids to their booths with giant posters of their book covers and promises of good storytelling – Sunny Y. Royal-Boyd (Naturally Amazing), Stephanie Claytor (Kyler Treks to Ghana and Blacktrekking: My Journey Living in Latin America), Calvin Reynolds (Harold Gets an F and and Jayce the Bee), Victoria J. Saunders (The Chonky Alphabet), L.B. Anne (Five Things About Dragonflies), Tameka Harris (Destined for Greatness and Inspiration from A to Z), Lola B. Morgan (The Butterfly and the Bully), Takeya Trayer (My Mommy Is My Daddy), and Iva Price & Tiara Spann (ABC’s To Entrepreneurial Me).

Booths on Author’s Alley at the St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest: Sunny Y. Royal-Boyd (Naturally Amazing) ....
....  L.B. Anne, author of Five Things About Dragonflies ....
.... Victoria J. Saunders, author of The Chonky Alphabet ....
.... and Calvin Reynolds, author of Harold Gets an F and and Jayce the Bee

Throughout the day, kids were invited to “Tell Your Story” on a giant book set up on the grounds with a DJ providing a musical backdrop.

In the afternoon, Mayor Ken Welch paid a visit. On the story stage he gave a dramatic reading of I Am Enough by Grace Byers, with pictures by Keturah A. Bobo as kids gathered round in rapt attention.

When he got to the line, “I know that we don’t look the same, our skin, our eyes, our hair, our frame,” he playfully took off his cap to show the kids that he doesn’t have any hair. “But that does not dictate our worth,” the mayor continued, picking up the book’s verses. “We both have places here on Earth. And in the end we are right here, to live a life of love, not fear.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch reads “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers on the story stage.

There also were plenty of activities at the Lit Fest where parents could learn a thing or three.

At a talk by Antwan Williams, St. Petersburg author of Mansa’s Little Reminders: Scratching the Surface of Financial Literacy, parents got tips on how to teach their children financial literacy.

Headliners at the St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest included Antwan Williams, author of Mansa’s Little Reminders: Scratching the Surface of Financial Literacy
Getting free books at the st. Pete Reads! Lit Fest – Mansa’s Little Reminders by Antwan Williams

At a talk by Greg Neri, the Tampa-based author of Concrete Cowboy (which became the basis of a Netflix movie starring Idris Elba) and its sequel Polo Cowboy, they learned never to give up on a kid, even one who is acting out in middle school.

Every child could choose a book

Two panel discussions, both entitled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Childhood Literacy But Were Afraid to Ask,” reinforced the idea that it takes a village to get a child reading. The first was aimed at parents and caregivers with preschoolers. The second was for those in charge of middle schoolers.

Unisha Bullard, at left, multitasking, feeding her newborn while moderated the panel discussion Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Childhood Literacy But Were Afraid To Ask for parents of preschoolers. She is with fellow panelist Tabree Fort, owner of the Learning Fort.

The first was moderated by Unisha Bullard, a teacher at Mt. Moriah Christian Academy in South St. Pete for grades 6-8 and a new mother. She masterfully guided the discussion with her newborn on her lap.

Marcus A. Brooks, executive director of the Center for Health Equity, and Ronesha Roberson, founder of Speechology, participating in the panel, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Childhood Literacy But Were Afraid to Ask for parents of preschoolers.

The other panelists discussing how to get younger children interested in reading were Ronesha Roberson, a speech pathologist and founder of Speechology serving children up to five and their parents; Marcus A. Brooks, executive director of the Center for Health Equity and self-described “Black husband, Black father (of two sons), Black Man,” and Tabree Fort, “owner, lead teacher, maintenance person and chef of my own small licensed home pre-school called The Learning Fort,” for kids from 3-5.

From left: Greg Neri, Coretta Scott King honor-winning author of teen fiction; Sapheria Emani, a first year teacher at Johns Hopkins Middle School; Dr. Maurie Lung, co-founder of Life Adventures for All, and moderator Marcus A. Brooks at the panel Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Childhood Literacy But Were Afraid To Ask, for parents of middle schoolers.

Brooks moderated the second Everything You Wanted to Know panel, which gave out great advice on how to encourage reluctant middle schoolers to read. The other panelists were Sapheria Emani, a first time teacher (8th grade) at Johns Hopkins Middle School, and Dr. Maurie Lung, co-founder of Life Adventures for All, a mental health community organization and parent of 7-year-old triplets and a nine year old.


Greg Neri, a Coretta Scott King honor-winning author who is based in Tampa

Neri told a touching story both during the panel discussion and at his own individual talk about how one of his books — Chess Rumble, a graphic novella in free verse about a troubled boy whose life was turned around by a game of chess  — changed the life of a troubled kid in Tampa who is now getting his PhD. (Read the story here in the School Library Journal’s “The Author, the Poet, and the Librarian”).

“You never know what one book can do,”  Neri says.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Baseball Stories: Out of the Mouth of Babe and Other Gods From the Sport's Golden Age

By Margo Hammond

Here's a book of baseball stories that take us back to the so-called Golden Age of the sport, written by someone who insists that there is no such thing. "Every day of every year is the Golden Age of baseball," says Peter Golenbock, St. Petersburg's most famous baseball writer. I may not be as big a baseball fan as Golenbock (his beloved Rays didn't make it to the World Series this year -- Game One between the Phillies and the Astros is on Friday), but I agree with him on one thing: Of all the sports, baseball has the best stories.

 . .

Inside-baseball (adj.) American slang, referring to the minutiae and detailed inner workings of a system that are only of interest to experts, insiders and aficionados. First used in 1890 to describe a particular way the game of baseball was played – one that involved singles, walks, bunts and stolen bases rather than power hitting.

Whispers of the Gods by St. Petersburg’s most famous baseball writer is not just an inside-baseball baseball book.

Sure, the book includes some “minutiae savored by the cognoscenti, delicious details, nuances discussed and dissected by aficionados,” the definition of inside baseball offered up by William Safire, who for years wrote a New York Times column about the “inside baseball” of language. But Whispers of the Gods by Peter Golenbock doesn’t just appeal to the expert steeped in the stats and history of the sport. Like the best of baseball books, it offers up stories and baseball lore that even a casual baseball fan can’t help but find compelling.

The material comes from old cassettes of interviews Golenbock did for his long-list of published books – eight New York Times bestsellers, including Dynasty, a history of the Yankees from 1949 to 1964 and oral histories of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, and New York Mets.
. . .

. . .
For each book Golenbock interviewed dozens of players, executives and journalists, from Superstar Stan Musial who played his whole career with the Cardinals to Jim Brosnan known as The Professor, who pitched in the major leagues from 1954 to 1963 for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and the Chicago White Sox.

Many of the details, facts, anecdotes and histories from those cassettes of course ended up in the body of his books. But some of the stuff remained in the tapes unused. Now some of the juiciest tidbits left behind have been revived here – tales of club rivalries and unresolved grudges, unexpected friendships, conflicting memories about what really happen on the field when Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball and, of course, money. In nearly every interview, the players bring up money — how much (or more often how little) they were paid in those early years of baseball.

Tales, as the book’s subtitle puts it, from Baseball’s Golden Age, Told by the Men Who Played It.

Red Sox superstar Ted Williams, at 89, makes an impassioned plea for the rehabilitation of disgraced baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson who, along with seven other Chicago White Sox players, was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Gene Conley reflects on how he managed to play for both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association simultaneously. Pitcher Jim Bouton opens up about how hurt he was that his own book, Ball Four, an honest look at behind-the-scenes in baseball, earned him lifelong shunning from Mickey Mantle and the Yankees. Roger Maris puzzles over the resentment he stirred up for breaking Babe Ruth’s record 60 home runs in a season.
. . .

Babe Ruth. National Baseball Hall of Fame. From “Whispers of the Gods” by Peter Golenbock, published by Rowman & Littlefield.

. . .
And speaking of Babe Ruth, Ed Froleich serves up some of the book’s best stories when he talks about the Yankee great. A trainer for the Yankees when Ruth was on the team, Froleich reports, for example, that when he told the Babe that some people in Chicago were still repeating the legend that he pointed to center field before hitting his famous home run in the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth debunked the canard – “‘You tell those people for Baby’—he always called himself Baby —‘that Baby says they’re full of crap right up to their eyes. I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb. I’m going to point to the center field bleachers with a barracuda like Root out there? The next pitch they’d be picking out of my ear with a pair of tweezers.’”

Froleich wryly comments on Ruth’s unique stance on the field. “Have you seen films of Babe hitting?” he asks Golenbock. “He had his ass to the pitcher, and he would only be looking at him with the corner of his right eye. This is a direct contradiction to the theory that you see something better if you look at it with both eyes. If I were ever going to coach a hitter, I would tell him to have both eyes on the pitcher. Stan Musial did that. Not Ruth. And Babe had a dip in his swing, a little hitch, and if you advised a batter, you’d tell him he could never hit with a hitch. And for most people, this is true. But such advice is for the ordinary person. When you’re Babe Ruth, the ordinary doesn’t apply.”
. . .

. . .
Some of the most contradictory memories in the book are about how ballplayers reacted when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed up Robinson as the first African American to play in the Major Leagues. Cardinal shortstop Marty Marion vigorously denies that Cardinal players threatened to strike if they had to play Robinson. “Striking?” he says. “We thought that was ridiculous. Sure, we didn’t like Jackie Robinson. We didn’t like anybody on the Dodgers. But that had nothing to do with Jackie Robinson being Black.”

Pitcher Kirby Higbe, on the other hand, freely admits that he was one of the Southerners on the Dodger team who went to general manager Branch Rickey to plead with him not to add Robinson to the roster. Higbe contends, however, that that was not why he was traded by Rickey a month into the ’47 season along with Dixie Walker and Dixie Howell, the other Southerners who opposed Robinson’s signing.

Rex Barney, a player from Omaha, Nebraska who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Robinson was on the team, recalls just how difficult a time Robinson had that first year. “That first season that Jackie was with us, we went to Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, the first trip around the league with Jackie, and a lot of players on other teams wanted to strike. They didn’t even want to go on the field. In those days, 90 percent of the baseball players came from the South. Now they come from the West, California and Arizona. But there were a lot of redneck people. They would look at you and say, “My ancestors, my kinfolk, they’d kill me if they found out I was playing with a Black man.” And they didn’t say ‘Black man,’ but it’s the only kind of talk I can use. That’s the way they were. It was ridiculous.”
. . .

. . .
Another fascinating interview was with Monte Irvin, the man that could have been the first Black player in the Major Leagues, but, says Golenbock, Irvin turned the Dodgers down. “He felt so angry at his racist treatment by white superior officers in the army that he told the manager he wasn’t psychologically prepared to take on the abuse that Robinson would absorb,” Golenbock writes. Irvin finally ended up signing with the New York Giants in 1949. “This was two years after Jackie,” says Irvin. “They had gotten used to seeing an African American on the field. It wasn’t a picnic. We heard the names. But we didn’t have it as tough as he did.”

Golenbock includes excerpts from his 1981 interview with pitcher Roy Campanella for his book Bums on the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campanella was the second African American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, joining the Dodgers in 1948. Just before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles ten years later, his career was cut short by a car accident that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Golenbock describes him as “one of the kindest, sweetest men.”
. . .

. . .
There aren’t many witness still around from baseball’s Golden Age era, usually considered to be from about 1920 to 1960. “All of the baseball cards are dying,” sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann said when Hank Aaron died in 2021. (Olbermann is quoted by John Thorn in his introduction to Golenbock’s book). All of the 16 players Golenbock includes in Whispers of the Gods have passed on.

But in Whispers of the Gods, their stories come alive.

“Baseball is a backward-looking institution,” writes Thorn who has the impressive title of the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball. “It pleases us to think that giants once strode the earth and their like will not be seen again. This is baloney of course. But serve it up between two slices of bread, with a shmeer of nostalgia, and count me in.”
. . .

Three Questions for Peter Golenbock

. . .
Traditionally, the Golden Age of Baseball is said to span between 1920-1960. What have been the Golden years for you personally?

Golenbock: For me there is no Golden Age of baseball. Every day of every year is the Golden Age of baseball.

I was in awe when I went to Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees of Mantle and then Thurmon Munson and then Derek Jeter. I am in awe now when I go to the Trop and watch the Rays, one of the finest defensive teams in baseball today. Every era has stars and excitement and gold.

Which current player do you think would make the most interesting interview subject?

Golenbock: Many players would make for interesting interviews. I would love to talk to Albert Pujols, who is about to hit his 700th home run, joining Barry Bonds, Hark Aaron and Alex Rodriguez in that exclusive club. Aaron Judge would also be interesting, as he attempts to break Roger Maris’s record for home runs in one season hit by an American Leaguer.

There are many interesting Latin players today, but my Spanish isn’t very good, and understanding their answers would be hard. When I interviewed Sandy Amoros, the left fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he understood English but spoke only Spanish. He spoke to me in Spanish, and I brought the tape to my mother, a high school Spanish and French teacher, and she translated the tape for me.


Since 2002 baseball has celebrated Roberto Clemente Day on September 15 to honor the Puerto Rican superstar who died in a plane crash while attempting to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This year, the Rays made history with an all-Latino starting lineup on September 15, which was also the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month. Were you surprised?

Golenbock: On Roberto Clemente Day last week, every member of the Rays starting lineup was Hispanic, which was a first. Was I surprised? When I saw that Ji Man Choi, Yu Chang and Taylor Walls weren’t in the lineup, I started to do the math, and I saw that every player came from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.

I thought back to when Major League teams wouldn’t take players because of the color of their skin, and it made me smile.

This piece originally was posted in Arts Coast Magazine, the online journal of Creative Pinellas, on September 22, 2022.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Natalie Symons: Double Literary Threat




 Double threat: n. a person who is skilled at two things 


Meet Natalie Symons. Like a running quarterback on the football field, she is a double threat in the literary world: an award-winning playwright and a top-of-the charts literary thriller writer.

Last September Symons’ play “The People Downstairs” premiered at American Stage after its opening had been delayed by the COVID shutdown. 

It’s her “masterpiece,” declared Peter Nason in Broadway World, a theatre news website based in New York City covering Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional, and international theatre productions. In 2021 “The People Downstairs” had received the Broadway World Regional Award for Best Original Script of the Decade. 

Also last September Symons published her first book of fiction, Lies in Bone. The literary suspense novel won a slew of book awards, including The Royal Dragonfly Literary Award, the 2021 Best Book Award from American Book Fest, the Eric Hoffer Literary Award, the NIEA Award. The book also was the 2021 Somerset Grand Prize in literary and contemporary fiction at CIBA (Chanticleer International Book Awards).


And last May when Lies in Bone came out as an audiobook, it soared to Number 1 across all categories on Audible, besting such blockbusters as Where the Crawdads Sing, Viola’s Davis’ memoir Finding Me, Matthew McConaughey’s memoir Greenlights and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — and became an international best-seller on Amazon.

When she was a little girl growing up in Buffalo, did Symons dream of being a playwright or a thriller writer?


 “Neither,“ she laughed when I reached her by telephone. “I wanted to be an actress.” Her pursuit of a career on the stage eventually did lead to her successful career as a writer for the stage, but it took a pandemic and a theater shutdown to turn her into a thriller writer.

I first saw a Natalie Symons’ play at an “after hours” performance at American Stage in 2013 with a posse of friends that often travel together (the woman who launched the group dubbed us the Wild Women and the label has stuck). The play, Lark Eden, which had been workshopped at Seattle’s Theatre Schmeatre in 2011, certainly offered the Wild Women an appropriately wild journey.


Lark Eden traces the life-long friendships of three Southern women, described in the playbill as “girls with skinned knees catching frogs who turned into wizened grandmothers.”  In our production the trio was played by Bonnie Agan, Roxanne Faye and Monica Merryman.

Written in epistolary form with the women writing notes, letters and telegrams to each other over the years, from the Depression era through the early years of the 21st century, the work had us crying and laughing, often at the same time.

“It sneaks up on you,” wrote the Seattle Times at Lark Eden’s premier there. “What begins as a pleasant romp gradually activates more and more emotions.” Critics compared it to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Symons’ next three plays — The Buffalo Kings, Naming True and, her most recent, The People Downstairs — have all been comedies, some darker than others, but each one carrying a similar emotional punch in the gut as Lark Eden. The Buffalo Kings and The People Downstairs are set in Symons’ hometown of Buffalo while Naming True takes place in a Florida motel room, but all three, like Lark Eden, offer its audiences the healing power of laughter. Laughter, it would seem, is Symons’ trademark.

Natalie Symons, the playwright, that is.

Not so for Symons, the thriller writer.  

When I picked up Lies in Bone, I was expecting to find the same quirky humor that runs through all her plays. But laughter isn’t what drives the narrative in this gothic story of dysfunctional families set in a grim, fictional Pennsylvania steel town called Slippery Elm. What pulls you in is dark suspense, the intriguing story of an unsolved case, the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a child 20 years before the novel begins.

Lies in Bone does include some scenes reminiscent of the striking images Symons uses to such great effect on the stage. The opening scene of the novel features two brothers, the eldest dressed as Spiderman, the younger one in a goofy Huckleberry Hound costume, bicycling through a toxic fog on Halloween eve (one of them becomes the cold case of the novel). The novel also has its share of the kind of quirky characters that memorably people Symons’ plays. But while the exchanges between the narrator of the story (a girl goes by the name of Frank) and her wry, gay friend Ray are amusingly snarky, they never have you laughing out loud like Estelle does in The Buffalo Kings or Miles does in The People Downstairs.    

Why such a stark difference in the use of humor in her plays versus her first novel? 


“When I have a play read, even if there are only five people in the audience, or just the director and a lighting operator, I can see if its landing, especially the humor,” explains Symons. Not so with her novel. She wasn’t there when her beta readers read her book. 


“Beta readers,” Symons says, are what she calls the people who agreed to read her book in progress and offer gentle criticism (“I can’t take anything too harsh,” she laughs). When her beta readers were reading those first drafts, unlike at her live play readings, she couldn’t see if a scene was “landing” or gauge when and if her readers  were getting bored. She had to rely on what they told her they liked or didn’t like. She admits, based on that feedback, she did kill “a few darlings” from those first drafts. But she was never compelled to add humor. 


Perhaps writing the novel in isolation during a pandemic drew Symons into a darker place. But despite the lack of humor in Lies in Bone, the literary thriller does have one element in common with all her writing. Like her plays, it celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. “To me, they are all life-affirming stories,” says Symons.


Symons also points out an important commonality that links her first play with her first novel: the presence of a dog. 


“I can’t get enough of dogs,” admits the playwright/thriller writer. She and her husband Jim just added a second rescue dog, which they named Ted Danson, to her household. “We don't know what he is (a pocket-sized Leonberger? A pocketberger?) but he's ridiculously sweet and he has even helped Chloe get over her thunder anxiety!” she wrote in her newsletter to fans.

Does Symons plan now to toggle between playwriting and book writing? 


She certainly isn’t planning to abandon her first literary threat. She is co-writing a play titled Nightsweat with local actor Matthew McGee and is developing a limited series for television. Next February The People Downstairs will have its Western premier in Seattle.

She admits, however, that her current passion is to pursue more novel writing and is working on her next novel. 

Hopefully, she says, that novel will snag a New York publisher who could help her drum up maximum buzz for the work. With Lies in Bone Symons says getting the word out about Lies in Bone was a lot of work. She had to handled most of the publicity push since she opted for a small publishing house (Boyle & Dalton) with a limited budget.

Despite the extra work though, publicity director may be Symons’ third super skill in the literary world. I counted no less than 17 blurbs included in the paperback copy I read, an impressive number for a publicity novice. There is a rave review from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lane DeGregory on the cover (“I didn’t know Lane, but I admired her work, so I asked her to read my book. She was incredibly generous”). Inside there are six pages of praise from St. Pete Catalyst editor Bill DeYoung, duPont Registry Tampa Bay Magazine David Warner, fellow authors Lori D. Shannon, Paul Wilborn, Hannah Benitez, Diane Chiddister and Greg Fields, fellow actors J. Elijah Cho and Matthew McGee, fellow playwright and actor Roxanne Fay, The ‘Burg podcaster Cindy Stovall and feature writer Julie Garisto as well as positive reviews from Kirkus, Readers’ Favorite and Broadway World, and Independent Book Review.

And then there was that Number # spot her first novel grabbed on Audiobook, a pr dream.


On second thought, make that Natalie Symons, triple literary threat.

This article on Natalie Symons originally was posted in Arts Coast Magazine earlier this month.