It’s official! I’m going to Seattle in late July for the Mariners’ African-American Heritage Day so I can cover Herb Simpson (the dashing fellow above) being honored by the team for his status as the last living member of the 1946 Seattle Steelheads.
The RBI Club, the Mariners’ booster group, is finding me accommodations while I’m there, which will be July 24-28, and the club is providing a $200 travel stipend toward a shockingly cheap $350 round trip — and non-stop, I might add — flight from NOLA to the Jet City on, surprisingly enough, Alaska Airlines. It’s hard convincing many New Orleanians that Alaska is, in fact, a real place and not a product of fairy tales about this “snow” business.
I’m thrilled and beyond honored by this development, to be honest. Out of all the New Orleans media the Seattle club could have to whom the Mariners club could have extended this offer, it chose me, which is both flattering and humbling, and I plan to make the best of the opportunity.
I’m also extremely excited for Herb as well. When he makes the trip in a couple months, he’ll be just shy of his 94th birthday, so this will most likely be his last trip to Seattle for this annual fete. The rigors of travel are just too rough to go through on a yearly basis, despite the fact that he’s being accompanied by his nephew for help. Heck, flying is a stressful pain in the butt for my 41-year-old fanny, and probably for people of all ages.
While this is happening, though, I’m kind of having an existential crisis as to why, exactly, I do the work that I do. Because, at the heart of it, I’m a journalist first. I was trained as a journalist, I have two degrees in journalism, and I’ve spent the majority of my professional career as a news reporter/writer.
And on top of that, I’m a freelance journalist, which is basically the worst kind of journalist you could be, financially speaking. I’m dirt poor. Paying rent is a nail-biting trial on a monthly basis. And, as a result of such fiscal realities, freelance journalists, to be truly successful, have to be willing to write anything for anyone, within the bounds of one’s own personal ethics. (Yes, we journalists do have ethics.)
But at this moment I choose to fill a very specific niche — Negro Leagues (and, to a lesser extent, general minority sports history) journalism. I choose to focus on historical journalism because I have fallen in love with the research process of it. I love blending historical research with interviewing human experts and other sources to, I hope, create a product that presents history in a style and manner that is both appealing to research junkies and to the general public. That’s my task as an historical journalist.
But, as you can probably guess, convincing the average editor of a magazine or newspaper to commission an article on the Negro Leagues is, to say the least, a tough sell. “What’s the news hook?” “Why should this publication run this story now?”
So, no matter how deeply I, as a historical researcher, am enthralled with a certain subject — say, this topic — to a sports editor at the LA Times, the reaction is, “So what? Who cares about a single game that took place three-quarters of a century ago on the fringes of baseball? Why is that important to our readers now? Get outta here, dork, you’re buggin’ me.”
Therein lies the crux of the problem: If historical research I do won’t bring me an assignment and, therefore, income, should I continue doing it? Is it worth proceeding with the work for the sake of the work and for my love of it? Or do I bag it and pitch articles about town board meetings and school beauty pageants? What’s more important: Paying the bills or doing what I love?
It’s unfortunate that quite frequently that’s what my career comes down to a various points. And I hate it. It tears me up on just about a daily basis.
So what does this have to do with my impending trip to Seattle with Herb Simpson? Actually, I’m honestly not really sure. I’m really not. Or rather, I can’t put it into words. I can’t explain it or even consciously make sense of it.
What I do know is that Herb Simpson is an incredible, inspiring man, and every time I’m in his presence I feel honored and humbled. And I’m psyched about going to Seattle, just because it’s quite a humbling honor (notice a running theme here?).
But make no mistake: I will try to make as much money as I possibly can from my voyage to the Pacific Northwest. I’ll hustle like hell to see as many stories about the event to as many publications as possible. The trip is thus both a sign of how much I’m respected and liked as a writer and a researcher, but also a chance to make beaucoup bucks so I can pay my cell phone bill. The data overages just kill me.