George Von Benko, Author, Memory Lane 2 and Sports Talk:
You’ve been busy – with two new books – one which came out in June – Memory Lane Volume 2, and one titled Sports Talk that releases in November. Tell readers first about Memory Lane Volume 2 – what it covers and what inspired you to write the book?
Memory Lane Vol 2 follows the format of the first book Memory Lane, both books are compilations of some of my favorite Memory Lane column that I have penned for the Uniontown Herald Standard. Once again the subject matter is some of the great athletes that have come out of western Pennsylvania. Vol 2 casts a wider net, some athletes from Greene County, Washington County, Westmoreland County and Fayette County. The first book Memory Lane fared so well that I decided to do Vol 2.
How did you choose what interviews to include in the book out of all the interviews you’ve conducted over the years?
For Memory Lane Vol 2 I tried to cover most of the Fayette County High Schools and then branched out into the surrounding counties. For Sports Talk I used some of my talk show interviews over the years, some held up well over time and some did not. There is some very interesting sports history covered in the interviews, guys like former Pirates pitcher Harvey Haddix on the 30th anniversary of his 12 perfect innings in Milwaukee and Don Dunphy the great boxing announcer. Sport Talk is just filled with history.
Western Pennsylvania has had such a rich sports tradition – what from your interviews and experiences helps explain why that is?
Talking to many of the athletes about their work ethic and what drove them to succeed, for many sports was a vehicle to an education and a better life. Sports truly was a way of life in many of the small western Pennsylvania communities.
What are some of the common themes that tie many of these personalities and interviews together?
Work ethic and community pride are front and center in both Memory Lane books. Another factor in both Memory Lane books was the great playground culture that existed in western Pennsylvania that has disappeared to a great extent.
In the Sports Talk book we are involved in a perfect game, Super Bowls, NBA championships and many great sports events through the years. It is a great snapshot of some great athletic careers.
Who are some of the people that impressed you most but are less heralded/known to readers, and what makes them so impressive for you?
In Memory Lane Vol 2 I was fascinated by guys like Gene Hasson from Connellsville who played for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics. Fran Boniar who twiced batted over .400 in the minor leagues. Ace Grooms who ran out of high school eligibility in Pennsylvania, but when on to star for Ohio powerhouse Massillon High School. John Denvir who never played high school football, but went on to play college and pro football. Uniontown’s mighty 1965 WPIAL AA football champions who earned the highest numerical index ever in Dr. Roger B. Saylor’s Pennsylvania scholastic football ratings. Dick Gray who hit the first home run in Los Angeles Dodgers history, and Russ Grimm who went on to college and NFL stardom as an offensive line, but played quarterback in high school.
Your Sports Talk book was written after you discovered your interviews in a closet after your father’s death in 2011. How surprised were you to find the interviews?
I was very surprised to find the interviews in a box. I thought they had been lost during several moves the family made. Dad saved them and it was a treasure trove. Some of the interviews were on old reel to reel tapes. Many survived in playable condition and some did not. It was a trip back in time for my broadcasting career.
The book is in the Q&A format that you used for your radio show. What led you to decide to keep that format and how does it affect the reader’s experience, do you think?
I kept the format just like I was interviewing the guest on the radio show. It was really the best way to convey the theme of the book which is Sport Talk radio. I think the reader will find it interesting and easy to follow. You can see the interview unfold.
You’ve done both print and radio interviews. How do the interview styles differ and which do you prefer?
I have always loved the sports talk radio format and I think I have thrived in that format. In my interviews for print I still interview to some extent just like I did on the radio, but with limited print space I then have to pick and choose the quotes I want to use in the article. Sometimes because of print word counts you wind up not using some good material.
What surprised you most as you went through these interviews, and how so?
What surprised me most was the sports history in the interviews, Harvey Haddix revealing the Milwaukee Braves were stealing signs throughout the game and still couldn’t hit him. Segments when Bobby Orr talked about some of the players he played against. There is some really interesting historical tidbits throughout all of the interviews.
Pittsburgh sports teams have often been some of the most innovative and culturally progressive – why do you suppose that is?
The city has been blessed with great athletes and great coaches and to some extent great team ownership. For example how many hockey franchises have been blessed with a Mario Lemieux and a Sidney Crosby, we truly have been very lucky.
Looking back on these interviews, how has Pittsburgh’s sports culture changed over the years, and has it been for the better or worse?
I mentioned it the last time that you interviewed me, the relationship between the media and the athletes has changed. It is now more like adversaries, that real came through in listening to the interviews for Sports Talk, you could notice a change through the years in doing the interviews, from the early ones in my career to the later ones. Social media has also changed things with athletes and the media. In the past you could cover up a mistake, not anymore it is front and center with instant coverage and commentary.
Where can readers purchase your books?
The Memory Lane books are available at all eight Bradley’s Book Outlets in western Pennsylvania. Online at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and the Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame website: www.fayettecountysportshalloffame.com – there is a link on the right hand side of the front page.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Just to say that I have been very lucky to have interacted with so many sports fans on radio through the years and my column Memory Lane seems to have struck a chord with sports fans. It has been an interesting ride for me and it continues to this day.