ESPN’s Mike Greenberg joined me today to discuss his new novel, My Father’s Wives, and of course all things sports (including the Browsn. Tribe and Cavs, even though he is a Jets, Jankees and Knicks fans):
HH: We go to ESPN’s Mike Greenberg. Mike, welcome to the program, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you.
MG: Well, the pleasure is mine. Thank you very much for having me.
HH: I was more than a little surprised to learn you’re a novelist. And so when I went out to get your novel this week and I started reading it, I said I’ve got to talk to this guy. This is really good. And I read about 50 pages of it and stopped. I’m saving it for an airplane. But I want to know when did you start writing novels?
MG: Well, we’re talking about My Father’s Wives?
MG: This is the second novel I’ve had published. I’ve actually written four novels. I can only prove two of them, because no one ever published either of the first two. But that’s what I’ve always really wanted to do, to be honest with you. I got into broadcasting as a way of paying the bills until I could start making a living writing. And sometimes, life takes you in unexpected directions. But I have been writing all my life. Both my parents were writers. My parents owned a bookstore in New York City all through my childhood. So I just always grew up around books. And it’s what I’ve really always wanted to do more than anything else. So I guess I’ve been writing all of my life. But I wrote my first published novel, which is called All You Could Ask For. That came out in 2013, and it was totally different from this one. That one was one that I wrote in honor and in memory of a very close friend of my wife’s and mine who’d died of breast cancer. And we are donating, we have donated and continue to donate 100% of the proceeds to breast cancer research. And then this one was a lot more personal. This was really sort of the first one that I wrote where the narrator, the first person male narrator, the voice was very similar to mine. So while the life experience of Jonathan, who is the protagonist in this book, has nothing whatsoever to do with mine, his voice and his sensibility are very much mine.
HH: And I want to tell the audience, and they’re used to, Mike, you wouldn’t know this, I don’t know if you listen to the show ever, but people like Daniel Silva and Brad Thor and C.J. Box are regulars on this show, Alex Berenson. And I love novelists, thrillers, though. But when I started reading My Father’s Wives, I said wow, this is really good. I thought you know, some people do one-offs, and they’re not so good. This is really good. It’s about fathers. You begin by having your protagonist, John, Jonathan, a husband of Claire and father of Phoebe and Andrew saying “Fathers are complicated for me,” he says to his boss. “‘And you got that from your dad.’ Bruce turned back. ‘Johnny, we get everything from our fathers,’ and I cringed. Not me, unfortunately.” It’s a book about fathers, but it sounded to me from what I could research about you, your dad, even though he gave you the middle name of Darrow, nevertheless, you seem to have gotten along well with him.
MG: My father actually wanted to name me Clarence Darrow. My father was a lawyer, and his idol was and remains, I’m actually visiting my father. I’m speaking to you right now from Carlsbad, California, which is where my father lives now. He’s 83, and I still talk to him every day. And I always tell him that with two exceptions, one, that he did not encourage me to play golf when I was little, and two, that he sort of stuck me with my lifelong support of the New York Jets, which has caused me more angst and suffering in my life than probably anything else. But outside of those two, he was about as good a father as you could ever ask for. So my dad and I remain very close. The character and the relationship between Jonathan and his father couldn’t possibly be more different from mine. Jonathan’s father was married six times. And that actually came about, if you want to know the story, it was purely by chance. I was having dinner in Los Angeles with a group of people, and I was seated next to a fellow that I had never met before, and I have never met again, and we just started talking, and he was an interesting guy. And he told me that his father had been married, he said my dad was married six times. For me, mother’s day was always the most expensive day of the year. And I thought it was a funny line. And then I thought to myself, that’s fascinating. That, I had been looking for a character that could sort of, that I could inhabit, that I could put my voice into, and I thought that sounds really interesting to me. Let’s start there. And that really is where that came from.
HH: The father, for the benefit of my audience who really will be fascinated by this, is “Percival Sweetwater, III, a five times United States Senator, a liberal lion, a legendary lothario and bon vivant, author of 19 books, sponsor of 11 legislative bills, trusted advisor to three presidents, husband to six women, and father to one boy.” And that sets it up. Now talking about novels, we don’t want to give too much away, and I’ll come back to it in a little bit. But I must say, there’s one scene, that’s when I stopped. After this scene, I said I’ve got to go slower and enjoy this where the seven year old Jonathan goes to a Yankees game with one of the richest guys in town. And the Yankees game attendee is the son of a rich, wealthy guy, and says “Your dad wants to take my dad’s money,” or something to that effect.
And I thought, I flashed to my one Yankees game, and we’ll get to the fact, I mean, you drew on, you’ve drawn hell as far as I’m concerned. You’re a Jets fan, a Yankees fan and a Knicks fan. And I’m a Browns, Cavs and Indians fan. And I’m like Golic. But I went to one Yankees game with David Eisenhower, sat behind Richard Nixon and George Steinbrenner. I was working for Nixon at the time in 1980. And I never saw anything, because Steinbrenner and Nixon were on their feet the whole time, and David and I were behind them. So I’ve experienced the Yankees in that kind of a way. But did you ever, ever as a kid, see a Yankees game from the box that you’re describing in this book?
MG: Yes, that actually is also, that is a partially true story. When I was growing up, and it was actually a girl, her name was Lee Harper Marshall, which at the time, I didn’t recognize the Lee and the Harper, but she was named after Harper Lee.
HH: Yeah, Kill A Mockingbird, for the benefit of…
MG: Right, but her dad was this incredibly rich guy, and he invited me to go to a Yankees World Series game with them, and took us there in a limousine, and I had never experienced anything like that before. I went to a million Yankees game with my dad. Both my parents are from the Bronx, so I went to a million Yankee games when I was a kid, and we would sit upstairs in the upper, the nether regions, if you will, of the old Yankee Stadium, but certainly had never sat in a box or anything like that until that one experience. And what I remember about it is a foul ball was hit right in front of us. And like a seven year old kid not realizing any better, I dove down to try and get it, and before I got anywhere near it, I was absolutely engulfed by a sea of humanity. And Lee’s father, this incredibly rich guy, had to come down and try and drag me out of there to make sure that this boy he had taken to this baseball game didn’t get killed trying to catch a foul ball. So that actually is based at least partially on a true story.
HH: Now you’re forgetting your radio rules, because you used the term Harper Lee. And we have Steelers fans, so we have to explain. That’s the woman who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, all right? We’ve got to slow down for them, and let’s make sure we do that. You ended up at Northwestern. First, you went to Stuyvesant [High School]. I think that David Axelrod went there.
MG: Yes, he did. Lots of people went to Stuy, yeah.
HH: Yeah, he was on the show a few weeks ago doing an hour on Believer, his wonderful, new memoir, but you are, you’re a pure New York guy. You end up at Northwestern, which is where my daughter went, go Wildcats, Guy Benson went there. What did you do at Northwestern? Were you in the sports broadcasting thing like Benson, who called every play of every sport to get into his profession. He was a play by play guy for women’s softball, you name it – track, football, of course. Did you do any of that when you were there?
MG: Absolutely none. I went there and majored in journalism, but I did not do any extracurricular, and I regret this greatly, and if there are any aspiring broadcasters out there, you should learn from my mistake. I didn’t write for the Daily Northwestern, which is an extremely prestigious college newspaper.
MG: I did not work for WNUR, which is an exceptional college radio station. I spent my entire college career trying to find a girl who would give me the time of day. And that was a full-time job. So I really didn’t pursue nearly…I had a good time in college, but I didn’t do nearly as much in the way of preparation as I probably should have. I’m very fortunate that didn’t wind up costing me, because there were a lot of opportunities available to me at Northwestern that I didn’t take advantage of.
HH: Did you, 30 seconds to the break, did you ever go back to Medill, because like Benson and Dave Weigel and Del Wilbur, all the Medill mafia are all over D.C. Do you ever go back there?
MG: All the time. I spoke there last year. There’s a ton of them in my business, too, Michael Wilbon and Christine Brennan and many others.
HH: That’s an extraordinary school.
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HH: When I’m not listening to political talk in the morning or watching CNN to do show prep, I’m listening to Mike and Mike, as is everybody I know. And one of my buddies, Bligh, is the seller of my show, Mike. And he is a big Knicks fan, and he was very happy when J.R. Smith got traded to the Cavs. I don’t know if you watched the game last night, but J.R. Smith is a different J.R. Smith who played for the guys you root for.
MG: Well, the hilarious thing about J.R. Smith, and by the way, great song choice. I don’t know if that was done on purpose or not.
HH: It is. It’s in your book.
MG: The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is, in my opinion, the most romantic rock and roll song ever written, and I did put that in the book. Here’s the thing about J.R. Smith. J.R. Smith actually said something that might in its own way be one of the most unprofessional things you’ve ever heard a professional athlete say, which is that he’s playing much better since he got traded to Cleveland because the night life was such in New York that he didn’t work very hard. He was out every night. He was having fun all the time. There was so much to do that he didn’t work as hard at his game, and he wasn’t getting sleep, and all those things that a professional athlete should be doing based upon his own professionalism. But in Cleveland, these are his words, they’re not mine, there’s nothing else to do but play, workout and sleep, so that’s all I’ve been doing, and I’m playing much better. Now I think he meant that at the time that he said it to explain why he’s playing so well, he meant that as a positive thing.
HH: Yeah, but you know, Johnny Football…
MG: But you could look at that another way.
HH: Johnny Football would have to disagree with that, and since I’m Johnny Radio, we know what Johnny Football was up to during his one year in Cleveland thus far. So I think that might be a little understatement. Hey, I’ve got to ask you, Golic is a Cleveland guy, right? He’s a Browns fan and a Cavs fan and an Indians fan. He went to St. Joseph’s. so you probably hear this all the time, but we hate the Yankees. We hate all your teams. Gabe Paul took Nettles and Chambliss, we got back Charlie Spikes and a dozen nobodies. Were you aware of just abusing Cleveland throughout your growing up?
MG: Well, I think that when you were a Yankee fan, and you leave New York, you become aware quickly that everyone hates the Yankees. So it’s not just Cleveland, but certainly, if you go to Boston, it’s even worse. And other places like that, there are significant rivalries. I happen to love Cleveland. We go at least once a year to do shows from there. We go usually to Progressive Field and do a show with the Indians. I’ve been there, I mean, I love Cleveland. I know that this might be a negative word based upon your previous comments, but Cleveland, Pittsburgh, cities like that to me, those are places where the fans wear their passion on their sleeve. You get into a cab, and all you ever talk about, the cab drivers immediately want to start talking about the team. I love that stuff. You know, I grew up in a place where people’s interest were sort of on a million different things. And when you go to Cleveland…
HH: It’s sports.
MG: …it is just wall to wall Browns and Cavs. And you know, I’ll tell you what, I mean, the return of LeBron, that team is going to win a championship. I think if Kevin Love was healthy, I think they’d win it this year. In his absence, they probably won’t. But before LeBron is through there, they’ll win at least one if not more than one.
HH: After last night, I think it’s this year, because the way that they play without Kyrie, and he’ll be back. But how, what year were you born in, Mike?
HH: Okay, so you’re ten years younger than me. So I don’t know if you knew how you ripped off Nettles and Chambliss, but you might have grown up listening to Pete Franklin like I did….
MG: I did.
HH: …because he left Cleveland to go to New York. And I listened to Pete Franklin three hours every night with a transistor radio, and I think I do radio the way I do…do you think Franklin had an impact on you?
MG: Oh, on everybody. I mean, he really started all of this. There is a debt of gratitude that all of us who do sports talk on the radio owe to Pete Franklin, because he really started it. The people at WFAN in New York get most of the credit for it, and they deserve a fair share of it. Certainly, Mike and the Mad Dog became a template that many people have followed/copied, including us. But Pete Franklin, I think, was really the first. And as far as Nettles and Chambliss, I don’t recall them arriving in New York, but I certainly, they were, that was my favorite team. The 1976-77-78 Yankees, those were the teams that I grew up on. In 1976, the Yankees got swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds, and I remember my favorite player was Thurman Munson. And I remember crying as a nine year old boy, because they were stealing bases, the Reds were stealing bases so easily on Munson. And I was just crushed by that. And Nettles was phenomenal, Chambliss, the home run he hit, obviously, in ’75, and so many others. So I remember those teams like they were yesterday. Nettles, I still say, was the best defensive third baseman I ever saw.
HH: See, you’re killing me.
MG: And I don’t remember seeing Brooks Robinson.
HH: You’re killing me, Mike, because these are the, I don’t have any championship playoff or any memories at all of the 60s, 70s or 80s, actually, because Nettles and Chambliss got traded for a bunch of know nothings to New York.
HH: Do you think Cleveland has the longest-suffering fans? We’ve got 151 collective years without a championship for the Browns, the Tribe and the Cavs.
MG: Yeah, I don’t, it’s not even something that you think. It has been statistically proven.
MG: What is it, ’63 with the Browns, and that is the longest drought of any city that has at least three major sports teams, teams in three major professional sports leagues. That is the longest that any city has waited since last winning a championship.
HH: Yeah, ’64, to be exact. Let’s be precise for the benefit of my Cleveland fans.
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HH: I’m taking all my music bumps from his new novel, My Father’s Wives. I always do that when I get a novelist on. Mike, before I forget, anyone could talk sports with you all day or listen to you, and I try not to do too much sports on my show, because it’s more culture and politics. When you became a sports guy, your dad’s this accomplished lawyer. They own a bookstore. Did you run into heavy weather, because a lot of kids listen to this show, a lot of people who want to be in this business, and their parents must always roll their eyes at them and say are you out of your mind, you’ll never make a nickel?
MG: Well, I’m really pleased to tell you that my parents were remarkably supportive of it. I can tell you that my grandmother, my grandma who lived well into, I mean, she lived until seven or eight years ago, and she died at the age of 96, when I told her I wanted to be a sports broadcaster, she said why can’t you be something good?
MG: So it did meet with some resistance. But my parents are huge, both were and are, both of them, huge sports fans. And sports is really the one way that my family has always related to each other. My parents, my brother and me grew up with sports being the primary topic of conversation in pretty much every setting. So I think both my parents thought it was a really good idea, and were very supportive of it. And if they hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been able to do it, because I needed a lot of help when I first started, that’s for sure.
HH: Now a lot of sports guys, not even Jimmy Haslam, whose brother is the governor of Tennessee, will come on a political talk show like mine, because there’s no upside for their franchise to do politics, right? They just, the coaches stay away from it, everybody stays, and I understand that.
HH: But do you and Mike ever do politics? I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk politics.
MG: Very little, for exactly that reason.
MG: You know, for example, like Woody Johnson, who is the owner of the New York Jets, which is the team that I root for and have been a season ticket holder of, literally, for all of my life, because my parents had the tickets before I was born. I believe he is going to be the national chairman of Jeb Bush’s campaign. And that’s going to meet with, you know, he’s got a fan base that I think 50% is going to be put off by that. So I don’t know what the upside is. Now if he believes in it, then God bless him. He should do whatever he wants to do. But I think people will be put off by that. One of the reasons that we don’t do it is that not only there is no upside, but there’s also, I don’t think people come to us for that.
HH: They don’t, yeah.
MG: Now I will say, we’ve had, we have, we were guests at the White House of President Bush, George W. Bush. He had a night celebrating baseball. He invited us. We were involved in a T-ball game on the lawn. We met him. He couldn’t have been nicer. We’ve interviewed President Obama. We had Senator McCain on when he was running. So we have done interviews with politicians, but always, we keep it away from, like for example, I’ll give you a quick story. During the 2008 presidential campaign, we had Senator McCain and then-Senator Obama on. And we made sure that we put them at exactly the same time slot. We kept them for the same amount of time. And we asked them basically the same questions, because we didn’t want anyone to be able to accuse us of showing favoritism. And we asked them questions about sports and the sports world. And I thought one really interesting thing came out of it. We asked McCain who his sports hero was growing up, and he knew Ted Williams. We asked Obama, then-Senator Obama, who his sports hero was growing up, and he said Dr. J. And I thought to myself isn’t that fascinating? Ted Williams is my father’s generation, and Dr. J. is my generation.
MG: I grew up idolizing Dr. J, and I thought that in our own way without meaning to, we really did paint an interesting picture of those two. So we’ve had politicians on, but never to talk about politics.
HH: You know, that is, I have all the Republicans on, and they come on a lot. Next time on, I’m using that question. You mentioned in passing there God. Are you a believer in God in any way?
MG: You know, I don’t know. I struggle with that, because I don’t know. I was raised in a purely agnostic home, and I think it is difficult sometimes when you were raised without any faith to develop that later in life. But I think I’m…
HH: So that makes this question, this makes this question more interesting…
MG: The best answer I can give you is sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.
HH: So what do you think about the religious athlete, the ones like Tebow and others, Deion Sanders, other people who have been known for their religiosity? What’s Mike Greenberg thinking when he sees that?
MG: I have absolutely no issue with it. I think, you know, Tim Tebow, whom I know personally, not well, but well enough to tell you that he is a genuinely great guy. He’s a terrific person. There’s nothing phony about him. He’s not using his religion to try and gain some other gain. He’s just being purely who he is. So I celebrate it. I think that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with him demonstrating his faith. He doesn’t do so in a way, in my opinion, that is trying to convince anyone they should live their lives any way other than the way they choose to. And so I don’t understand why people have a major problem. I know that some people do. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. But I’ve never fully understood why people are so offended by that. He’s not, to the least of my knowledge, and anytime I’ve spent around him or anytime I’ve ever seen him in any sports setting, I’ve never seen him try and suggest to anyone they should feel any way other than the way they do. For example, I’ll give you a quick example. I remember the press conference when he was introduced when he signed with the Jets, or when he was traded to the Jets. Someone asked him a question about a religious issue. I don’t recall what it was now. And he said this isn’t the time and the place for that. I am certainly happy to talk about those issues, but this is a football press conference. And we should talk about football now. And so I don’t know why anyone would be offended by that. I think sometimes we get offended very easy. We’ve made sort of a cottage industry of being offended in our country, and I think it generally works to our detriment.
HH: Oh, you’ll really like Guy Benson and Mary Katharine Ham’s new book, End Of Discussion. I love talking to sports guys, by the way, broadcasters, because Vin Scully came on a couple of years ago, and when he says quick story, he really means quick story, and he can hit the mark. A quick football controversy, Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns, suspended for 26 games over two years for some dope and legal drinking while on suspension. And you’ve got Tom Brady suspended for four games for cheating in the AFC Championship and getting to the Super Bowl. Is that fair, Mike Greenberg?
MG: Well, that’s a really good question. Is it fair? I don’t know that either of them, I think, is fair. You know, there’s been a lot of discussion about the issue of marijuana, and pardon me for the noise. A truck just pulled in next to where I’m sitting, so I’m moving. The issue of the use of marijuana in pro football has come up heavily during this year’s draft, because there were two players, Josh Ray and Randy Gregory who were involved with it, and before the draft, and people were speculating will that affect their draft status? And I’ve heard suggestions that somewhere north of 50% of the players in the NFL use marijuana, and I’ve seen many smart people who have written columns suggesting that he National Football League should stop testing for marijuana.
HH: And 26 games.
HH: He’s a kid with a substance abuse problem, and they’re ruining his life. Hopefully, you’ll pick that up.
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HH: In Mike Greenberg’s brand new book, My Father’s Wives, there is this paragraph. My mother loves Bob Dylan. In his lyrics, she says you can find the answers to just about anything. I listened to Dylan on my iPod all the way into the city that day, but nowhere in his songs could I find what a man is supposed to do when the only promise he really cares about has been broken. There’s an aching scene in the beginning of your novel, Mike, where he can’t get out of the shower, and it’s about infidelity and what a guy does after he’s encountered it. And I’ll just, I’ll leave it at that. People should go read My Father’s Wives. But I am curious, you have music in the first 50 pages everywhere. How important is music in your life? Obviously, it’s important in your writing.
MG: Very, and one of my great frustrations that I discovered with my first novel is that you can’t put lyrics in the book. When I wrote my first novel, the first one that got published, I had a ton of lyrics, and I would have loved to have used the lyrics for a lot of the songs that I use on both the books and all the books, but you can’t use them without permission. And getting permission is a complete hassle. But I mean, to me, music, particularly lyrics, I like the lyrics more than I like the music. I do like the music, but someone like Paul Simon, if you would have asked me to list the greatest writers, I’m a huge fan of John Irving, I’m a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger, I would put Paul Simon right there with anybody. I don’t that anyone has ever written words that were as any more meaningful to me than words that he had written.
HH: How interesting. Are you a fan of John Ondrasik, Five For Fighting, who is a huge sports fan, maybe the biggest sports fan in music?
MG: Yes, absolutely.
HH: Yeah, John listens to this show every day. I’m sure, unfortunately, he’s in mourning for the Clippers right now, but he is also, there’s a big connection between music and sports which I haven’t figured out, yet. But there’s a reason the athletes are all listening on their headphones before they go into this. Mike Greenberg, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s great to watch you work every morning. And I hope sometime when you’re driving back and forth from L.A. to Carlsbad, stop by the studio and talk to us about your next project. Is it another novel?
MG: Yes, I’m working on a thriller now, so you might particularly like this.
HH: Oh, yeah, this is thriller central. I hope it’s up. Do you read Silva?
MG: I have, yes. Not all of it, but I have. I like John Sanford, is my personal favorite right now. Everything he writes, I buy the day it comes out.
HH: Well, I’ve got four of those. I’m afraid to add any more to my list, or I’ll never get any work done. Mike Greenberg, a great pleasure talking to you. The book, My Father’s Wives, is linked over at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.