A couple days before Christmas, a friend gave me Elliott Kalb’s new book, The 25 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All-Time: Ranking Sports' Most Notorious Fixes, Cover-Ups, and Scandals and I proceeded to read most of it in one sitting. Kalb touches on many different subjects, some obvious (Black Sox) and others (Was Super Bowl III fixed?) that might not be as well known.
Kalb is currently a writer/researcher on HBO's Inside the NFL and the Editorial Consultant for NBC's Football Night in America. You can purchase the book here.
You earned the nickname "Mr. Stats" from Marv Albert. How did that come about? What role did your affinity for stats play in the book?
Marv frequently tags one of his co-workers and friends with monikers ("Czar of the Telestrator," "The Fight Doctor," etc). My affinity for stats helped me in many ways. It brought some perspective to many of these conspiracy theories. Some--like the fact that there are conspiracies to keep certain people from breaking cherished records--is based on statistics, and my background helped give context and texture to the story.
What is your favorite conspiracy theory?
I don't know if I have one favorite. I like stories, and I like truth and I like journalism. So I like a lot of these stories. I like the ones that I shed light on something that might be forgotten about. It's very easy to forget that the commissioner of baseball, the league presidents at the time, the team owners, and the media all had a hand in keeping a secret agreement to keep baseball from integrating prior to 1947.
You take MLB and the NBA to task on more recent issues (Steroids and Collusion for baseball) and (Michael Jordan's retirement and the Draft Lottery for basketball). I feel like both commissioners are sensitive guys, especially David Stern. Has anyone from either league contacted you about your theories?
I didn't break new ground in reporting these stories, and I feel that in some ways, I was too easy on the commissioners. I tried to present the conspiracy theory, and also look at the other side of the story, especially in regard to the NBA stories you talk about. Bud Selig, in particular, should have no gripe with me. He is, in my interview of him for my baseball book, is such a fan of the game--as I am. We all share culpability in regard to closing our eyes for much of the early steroids era. Fans, media, team execs, "clean" players all share responsibility.
The 1985 NBA draft lottery is a favorite chapter of mine. Too many people have talked about this for years. I loved giving the background and the plausible reasons. If you read the book, you'll see I have serious doubts if the commissioner would do anything immoral, illegal, or unethical. I'm not sure others give him quite the benefit of doubt.
The first chapter I read was the one about the controversy surrounding Michael Jordan's retirement. I was only 8 when he left the game and I really don't remember anything more than his father being murdered and him going to play baseball. At the time, what was the media's reaction to his retirement? Tell me a little bit about your research on this topic.
Everyone was stunned when Jordan retired for the first time in 1993. It is extremely rare for an athlete to go out on top, as Jordan intended to. But there was a healthy amount of skepticism. One doesn't retire to spend more time with his family---and then rush off to begin a pro baseball career that requires being on the road for long stretches of time.
Talk about where the Tim Donaghy situation might land in terms of large sports conspiracies. In your opinion, was this an isolated situation?
You not only asked a good question, you phrased it right. The answer is...I don't know, and neither does anyone else if this truly was an isolated situation. No one would know, or it could cripple the economics of the game. Time gives us perspective in these matters, and for now, let's operate on the assumption that Donaghy's situation was isolated.
What are some other theories that didn't make the book?
I only wish that I could have put Spygate into the book--but it didn't happen until the first week of September. Imagine, the Patriots get caught on Sunday, the tape is seized by the NFL, they punish the Patriots and their head coach Bill Belichick by mid-week, and destroy the evidence! Wow, wow, and wow.
After reading the book, I tried to think of possible conspiracies going on right now in sports. How about Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa's role in the steroids era? Considering all the players on their teams that were named in the Mitchell Report, is it possible that they knew about what was going on in the locker rooms?
LaRussa is the great protector of Mark McGwire. He had him in Oakland, and in St. Louis. How could he not know? But LaRussa made a lot of money and won a lot of games with Big Mac. Torre and LaRussa could have suspected, and not wanted to know. But it was on their watch. Their hands aren't clean.