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Battles with the Best - Meet Author Lenny Wagner

Author Lenny Wagner

Author Lenny Wagner shares all about his new book Battles with the Best: One Man's Journey Through the Golden Age of Sports. Lenny Wagner is the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, NJ and has been the curator of several of the organization’s most popular exhibits including “Sports Legends of Moorestown” which was presented in 2010. It was during the preparation for this exhibit that he first became acquainted with the story of Walter French.

Tell us about the book:

Before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, there were only nineteen men, throughout history, who played in the Major Leagues of baseball and in the National Football League, in the same season. One man from that group, Walter French, can lay claim to having played for a World Series winner and an NFL Championship team. In 1925, he starred for the Pottsville Maroons in their win over the Chicago Cardinals, in what was believed to be the NFL championship game, only to see the title stripped by a league office decision, a move still being argued about today. Then in 1929, he was on the Philadelphia Athletics when they beat the Chicago Cubs in five games to win the World Series.


Walter E. French was born in Moorestown, New Jersey in 1899 and he just might have been the best, but least known, all-around athlete to emerge from the decade of the 1920’s, commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Sports”.  One analyst ranked him as the fastest man in football at the time, even placing him ahead of Red Grange.


Although his exploits have dropped from the consciousness of all but the most ardent of sports fans in the last one hundred years, in his day, his status as a two-sport star had him constantly in the news. He played with and against the biggest stars the decade of the 1920’s had to offer, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and twenty- seven other ballplayers who would eventually wind up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In football, he went up against the likes of Notre Dame’s George Gipp, the Four Horsemen, Curly Lambeau, George Halas, Ira “Buck” Rogers and many more. The top sports writers of his day, from Grantland Rice to Ed Sullivan, made regular mention of him in their columns. Other well-known figures from the period such as Paul Robeson, Knute Rockne, Connie Mack, and General Douglas MacArthur make appearances in this book.


The reader will also learn about the origins of the great football rivalry between Army and Notre Dame, the stolen NFL championship of 1925, the Dutch Leonard Affair, the baseball team that Sports Illustrated would label as “The Team That Time Forgot” and the impact of the Great Depression on professional baseball.


What inspired you to write a book on a little known sports star?


I first became aware of Walter French and his story while working on an exhibit for the Historical Society of Moorestown called “Sports Legends of Moorestown”. Unlike the other athletes featured in the exhibit all of his descendants had moved from New Jersey many years earlier, and as a result there were very few people in the town that knew of him and his exploits. He was even overlooked by the South Jersey Baseball Hall of Fame until I brought the oversight to the group’s attention. After writing about a 10,000 word piece on him for the Society of American Baseball Research’s Biography project, I realized that I had just scratched the surface on his amazing story. As soon as my wife let me retire I began to work on it in earnest in 2021.


How many books have you written?


Although I don’t think it will be my last book, Battles With The Best: One Man’s Journey Through the Golden Age of Sports is my first attempt at writing a book. It has been a great experience and one that I hope to repeat. I found that I loved every step of the process. I equally enjoy doing the research and the actual writing. I got to spend time in the special archive sections of the libraries in places like the United States Military Academy at West Point, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and more. I had some fascinating conversations with experts on a wide variety of subjects.


What is the significance of the title?


The title was actually inspired by a line from a short song by Mark Knopfler called “Heart of Oak” about an aging athlete which goes “a mighty shoulder to the wheel, to join in battle with the best”. What makes the story of Walter French so interesting is the fact that he played with, for, and against the greatest players, of the greatest decade in sports history. “Battles with The Best” can mean fighting side by side with the likes of Ty Cobb and Lefty Grove, or it can mean going up against stars like Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth.


Tell us about the process for coming up with the cover?


Because the title does not automatically indicate to a prospective reader that it was a book about a special athlete, I felt that we needed to have Walter pictured on the cover in a way that showed that he played more than one sport. So I suggested to the publisher, Brookline Books, that we use a picture of French playing for the Athletics and one in his Army Football uniform. From there Duncan Ingram, the talented designer at Brookline, created the cover using the photos that you see. He also colorized the pictures which really sharpen it.


If your book was to be made into a movie, who are the celebrities that would star in it?


In 2009, Dave Fleming, from ESPN, wrote a book about the 1925 Pottsville Maroons called The Breaker Boys: The NFL’s Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship. For the longest time it appeared that the book would be made into a movie. Fans of the book, myself included, would speculate on what actors would play the parts of various members of the team. Walter French was a key member of that team, and I can remember at the time lobbying for Taylor Kitsch, who played Tim Riggins in the show “Friday Night Lights”, to portray Walter.


The interesting thing is however, that if this book were to be made into a movie there would be more than enough parts to go around. In addition to casting for Walter, some one would be needed to play Paul Robeson, Knute Rockne, George Gipp, General Douglas MacArthur, Connie Mack, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and the list goes on and on. It would be a very big cast.


What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?


The biggest challenge I faced when writing this book was that everyone who had first hand knowledge of my subject, everyone that actually knew him, knew him as an older man, a grandfather or uncle. Even his daughter Anne, who is in her nineties was only a baby when he played his final Major League baseball game in 1929. It was further complicated by the fact that he was a very humble person and not one to regale his family with “back in my day” tales. If he ever did brag about playing against Babe Ruth or George Gipp those stories are lost in time. Luckily that was not the case with the written material., along with the libraries of Rutgers University, West Point, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame are full of first hand accounts of his exploits.


Who is your favorite author and why?


It is hard to answer this question. It seems I have a number of favorites and my most favorite changes from time to time. Having said that, however, if I just look at our bookcase it becomes obvious who is at the top of my list. I have read every book written by Nathaniel Philbrick starting with Heart of The Sea right through to his latest book Travels With George. I heard him speak once and I found it interesting that he said he was not an “historian” but rather a “story teller”. I don’t think that anyone can tell a story better than him.


I would also have to mention Mark Frost, who is best known for The Greatest Game Every Played which was about Francis Quimet’s improbable victory in the 1913 U.S. Open. His writing served as a template for what I was attempting to do with Battles With the Best. Although the Frost book is about Ouimet it is also about the other players and the state of the game of golf on both sides of the Atlantic at that time.


What was your favorite book when you were a kid?


When I was a kid I loved the books by Clare Bee. Bee was a longtime basketball coach at Long Island University and after he retired he wrote a series of books for young boys. The central character in all of the stories was Chip Hilton. Chip was a perennial high school underclassman who excelled in football, baseball, and basketball. He appeared in books published from 1948 to the early 1960’s but he never seemed to get past the tenth grade. I guess that Bee thought that it would appeal to his readership to have Chip closer in age to those of us reading them.  The books had catchy titles like “Payoff Pitch”, “Hoop Crazy”, and “Freshman Quarterback”.


When I first learned the story of Walter French the first thing that came to my mind was that he was a real life Chip Hilton.


Where can readers purchase your book?


Battles With the Best: One Man’s Journey Through the Golden Age of Sports will be released on September 15, 2024. Pre-sale purchases may be made now through Amazon.

About Lenny Wagner

Lenny Wagner is the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, NJ and has been the curator of several of the organization’s most popular exhibits including “Sports Legends of Moorestown” which was presented in 2010. It was during the preparation for this exhibit that he first became acquainted with the story of Walter French. He is also a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABRE) and is a contributor to the organization’s biography project. He lives in Moorestown, NJ with his wife Cheryl.


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