Skip to main content

Aaron Sorkin: The Writer Behind 'The Newsroom'

HBO's new behind-the-anchor-desk drama follows in the footsteps of Sorkin's hit series The West Wing. "I like writing about heroes that don't wear capes or disguises," he says.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 27, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2012: Interview with Aaron Sorkin; Interview with R.A. DIckey.


December 27, 2012

Guests: Aaron Sorkin – R.A. Dickey

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year, and up next we have our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He's the creator and writer of the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which premiered this year. Sorkin has been known for his verbal fireworks ever since he wrote Jack Nicholson's famous line - you can't handle the truth - in "A Few Good Men."

He created the series "The West Wing," won an Oscar for his screenplay for "The Social Network," and co-wrote the film adaptation of the book "Moneyball." Sorkin's series "The Newsroom" is set at a fictional cable news network and stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a news anchor who gives up his straight-down-the-middle approach for a more hard-hitting show that will, as his producer says, speak truth to stupid.

"The Newsroom" is set in the recent past and draws on real news events, but the characters are fictional. In this scene, during the 2010 midterm election campaigns, Will McAvoy interviews two leaders of the fictional group The Riley County Tea Party Express.


JEFF DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) You describe the Tea Party as a grassroots movement, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Absolutely. We have no central control, no traditional power structure, and that is something that seems to confound the media.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I'm sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) That's what confounds the media. It's what the media doesn't get. We are not being run by a George Soros-type figure. We are we the people.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Where does your funding come from?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) What little funding we have comes from private citizens who mail in $5, $10, $1, whatever they can spare.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) OK, have either of you ever heard the name David Koch?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm sorry?

AARON SORKIN: (as McAvoy) David Koch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) No.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Charles Koch?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Koch Industries?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Are you talking about Coca-Cola?

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) K-O-C-H. Have either of you heard of Koch Industries?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I think that very soon you will. Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the country, bigger than Coca-Cola, and the Koch brothers' personal wealth of $50 billion is exceeded only by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and they could buy and sell George Soros 10 times over. They own dozens of companies and industries, including oil and gas, refining and chemicals, minerals, fertilizer, forestry polymers and fibers and ranching.

(as McAvoy) You two both attended the Texas Defending the American Dream Summit over the July 4th week?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yes.

DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That summit was paid for entirely by Americans for Prosperity, AFP, which has two founders, David and Charles Koch. In the last six months, they've bankrolled Tea Party candidates in excess of $40 million. Cheryl(ph), Mike(ph), are the Koch brothers average Americans whose voices are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests? I'm confounded.

GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SORKIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: I've got to say I'm really enjoying the show. It's, like, so much fun to me to watch a series where there's drama about booking guests and conducting interviews.


GROSS: So what about you? Why did you want to, like, set a show in a newsroom?

SORKIN: I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that's usually looked at cynically, the way journalism is now, you can get something fun out of it.

GROSS: Why do you like writing idealistically? Another example of that would be "The West Wing."

SORKIN: Sure. It suits my style. I like writing about heroes that they don't wear capes or disguises. It's aspirational. You feel like, gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world. Why can't that be the real world?

You know, in this case, throughout the series, really, the metaphor of Don Quixote is used, a metaphor, all kinds of lost imaginary cities are used. The name of the company is Atlantis. They talk about Camelot. They talk about Brigadoon. And the show was meant to be a fantasy set against very real and oftentimes very serious events.

GROSS: So in this interview that you and I are doing right now, I get to ask the questions, you get to give the answers. In the interview clip that we just heard from "The Newsroom," you got to write the questions and the answers.


SORKIN: That's the great part about being a writer: You get to decide what everybody says.

GROSS: Yeah, so tell me how you wrote that interview.

SORKIN: What I did with that interview, which is what I do with every interview like that on the show - first of all, I just want to make it clear, real people don't make cameos on the show. They only appear when they're in news footage. And, you know, we'll roll tape of plenty of real interviews and real statements.

When I'm making up a person in order to represent people, for instance those two people in that clip, they're from the Riley County Tea Party Express, which is fictional. But what I do is I look at a ton of interviews with Tea Party people that were conducted, and I try to as fairly as I can take their answers to questions.

And then what I'll do is I'll have Will ask the follow-up that was never - that I thought was never asked. In the episode a week ago, which is the episode where that scene took place, in Episode 3, Sam Waterston's character tells us that the idea is that Will is a fantastic prosecutor and that they're going to harness that strength and that the studio is going to become a courtroom and that he's going to treat guests like they're witnesses on a stand. And I like that because I like writing courtroom drama.


GROSS: Right. So I know you know Keith Olbermann and that "Sports Night" was inspired by the show Olbermann used to co-anchor, "SportsCenter," and a lot of people assume that he's one of the inspirations for your new show, which you've denied. You also know Lawrence O'Donnell because he used to be a consultant, right, on "The West Wing," and he anchors a show on MSNBC.

So how much time did you spend at MSNBC in doing the research for your new series?

SORKIN: I've met Keith Olbermann. I don't know Keith Olbermann. We've met twice. He - once "Sports Night" was on the air, I got a call from him asking if he could visit the set, and that was the first time I met him. And the second time I met him was when he was really gracious. He allowed me to hang out at MSNBC when he was the host of "Countdown" for a couple of days.

And I just spent time being a fly on the wall, mostly speaking with junior staffers. You know, all I knew was that I wanted to do a show set in a newsroom. And I didn't know anything more than that. And my big worry was making up the news, writing fictional news, that it was just going to take us too far away from reality.

And I didn't want to have to make up news events, make up an earthquake someplace, make up an assassination attempt, make up a stock market crash, that kind of thing. I did want it to be set against real news events.

But I was sitting at "Countdown," and I was on my second day there, kind of despairing because I was about to give up on the idea, but while I was thinking that, I was staring at a monitor. And the monitor was showing - I don't know if you remember the spill cam, it was an underwater camera attached to BP Deepwater Horizon that could show you 24 hours the oil spilling out of there. And this was day 55 of the oil spill.

And I was sitting there staring at it, and that's when I got the idea that I could set the show in the recent past. Now, originally all that was was something that solved the problem that I was having: Here's how you don't make up the news, set the show in the recent past.

But it's sort of a gift that kept giving because you have the fun of the audience knowing more than the characters do. In the pilot episode, for instance, when they get the news about two-thirds of the way through that there's been this explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and nobody quite knows what's going on, the audience wants to shout at the screen: This is a real story, take this seriously, I know what the end of this is going to be.

I know that this device, the dramatic device of setting the show in the recent past, has bothered some people, particularly people in the news, who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters smarter. That - again, that wasn't the idea.

I'm aware that I get to control everything that happens in my universe, in my fictional universe, and in real life, people don't get to control anything that happens.

GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the HBO series "The Newsroom." He also wrote the movies "Moneyball," "The Social Network" and "A Few Good Men." We'll talk about his NBC series "The West Wing" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He created the HBO series "The Newsroom," which premiered this year, and he created "The West Wing," which was famous for its smart, witty dialogue and hyper-verbal characters. This is an example of the kind of (unintelligible) scene that became known as the walk and talk. Here's Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, the deputy White House communications director, walking through the West Wing talking to Charlie Young, a personal aide to the president played by Dule Hill.


ROB LOWE: (as Sam Seaborn) Charlie, listen, how do I look?

DULE HILL: (as Charlie Young) You look good.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) I went to the gym. I rode the bike, had a shower and shave, even got my shoes shined, too. You know why?

(as Young) Sam....

(as Seaborn) I'm going to the Beijing Opera tonight, which I imagine will be excruciating, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.

HILL: (as Young) Sam, tomorrow is the assistant transportation secretary's 50th birthday, and Leo wants you to write a message from the president.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) He wants me?

HILL: (as Young) Yeah.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) He wants me to write a birthday message to the president?

HILL: (as Young) Nancy Becker(ph) needs it tonight.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) Are you sure he doesn't want someone who, you know, isn't staggeringly overqualified for the job?

HILL: (as Young) He specifically asked for you.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) What time is it?

HILL: (as Young) Ten after seven.

LOWE: (as Seaborn) Somebody, anybody, write a two-page memo on the personal history and professional accomplishments of the assistant secretary of transportation. I've got this under control.

GROSS: A lot of the dialogue in "The West Wing" became known as the walk and talk, where two or more of the characters would be talking to each other, exchanging strategy or whatever, as they walked through the hall. And, you know, in reality a lot of this dialogue would probably be, a lot of these conversations would probably be held behind closed doors, as opposed to in the hallway. So how did the walk and talk come into being?

SORKIN: I'll tell you exactly how. First of all, I don't write a lot of action. My first movie was "A Few Good Men," which was based on my first play. And there's a scene in the movie where Tom Cruise is in his car, he pulls his car over to the side, to the curb because he wants to hop out and buy a copy of Sports Illustrated at a newsstand. He does. He hops out. He buys the copy of Sports Illustrated at the newsstand. He gets back in his car and he drives off. That is my action scene. That's as close as I've come to writing an action scene.


SORKIN: And because there's very little of visual interest in what I write, visual interest has to be created. And it was created by Thomas Schlamme, my partner on "The West Wing," the principal director of "The West Wing," the guy who came up with the look for "The West Wing," and it happened right off the bat in the pilot episode.

What I had written was a series of scenes in different rooms in the White House all involving John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, the chief of staff. And Tommy came to me about two days before shooting began and said listen, I want to walk you through something because I'd like to try doing this in one, as it's called, in one continuous shot using a Steadicam, that Leo - John Spencer - can go from this room into this room, do this thing here, stop at Josh's office, walk through the corridor, come down here, do this here, and finally we sneak a peek at the Oval Office and we walk through here.

And Tommy choreographed the whole thing and that was the day the walk and talk was born.

GROSS: So there was a really funny parody of the walk and talk on "30 Rock" and you were in this scene.

SORKIN: Yeah. That's right.


GROSS: So I want to play the scene. So let me give the setup.


GROSS: So Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, has just found out that the show she writes for is going to be put on hiatus. So she's applying for a writing position on a TV singing competition called "The Sing-Off" hosted by Nick Lachey...

SORKIN: Nick Lachey.

GROSS: ...who became famous as a member of the boy band 98 Degrees. So while she's in the waiting room waiting for this job interview, she's shocked to see you, Aaron Sorkin, waiting too. So here's the scene.


TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Do I know you?

SORKIN: (as himself) You know my work. Walk with me.

(as himself) I'm Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing," "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network."

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) "Studio 60?"

SORKIN: (as himself) Shut up. Do you know Nick Lachey? I hear he doesn't even let you sit in the meeting. He just screams at you to see how you react.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) But you're not really applying for this job, are you?

SORKIN: (as himself) Of course, I am. You got to take work where you can find it, especially now. Our craft is dying while people are playing "Angry Birds" and poking each other on Facebook. What is poking anyway? Why won't anyone do it to me? I'm cool.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) So it's really that bad out there. I mean you're Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of "Angry Birds," do you know how to beat 11-4? It's just a red guy and a green guy.

SORKIN: (as himself) The key is to not use the green guy as a boomerang.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Did we just go in a circle?

SORKIN: (as himself) Listen lady - a gender I write extremely well if the story calls for it. This is serious. We make horse buggies. The first Model T just rolled into town.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) We're dinosaurs.

SORKIN: (as himself) We don't need two metaphors. That's bad writing. Not that it matters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Mr. Sorkin, Mr. Lachey will see you now.

SORKIN: (as himself) Mr. Lachey, huge fan. Huge fan. I have all your albums.

GROSS: That's so funny.


SORKIN: Yes. Well, it was a lot of fun to do. It's a great crew over there.

GROSS: Did you write any of that yourself? Did you have any input?

SORKIN: Absolutely not. That script was written by Robert Carlock, who is great. I also had a chance to - I've played the jerk version of myself a couple of times and I got to do it on "Entourage," too.

GROSS: So there's a line in there where she's giving all your credits and she says "Studio 60" and you say shut up.


SORKIN: Yeah. That's actually the only tweak that I made because I thought that Robert Carlock, who wrote the script, was trying to be a little too respectful of me. So I just pitched the line to Tina who then went over to Robert and everybody there laughed, so Tina came back and said yeah, let's do that.

GROSS: OK. And for people who don't get the joke, you had a show that premiered the same season that "30 Rock" did called "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And like "30 Rock" it was a behind-the-scene show about a sketch comedy show, kind of like "Saturday Night Live."

But yours was a drama and hers, you know, was a comedy. And a lot of people thought that hers was not going to make it and yours would, but it ended up being the other way around. What did you expect when you found out that there was another show doing a different take on the same kind of theme?

SORKIN: I didn't think that the two shows were anything alike. I didn't think anything more about it than when "The West Wing" and "Spin City" were on the air at the same time or "ER" and "Scrubs."

I thought that - and still do think that - "30 Rock" is great but a completely different show than "Studio 60," and "30 Rock" deserves all the success that it has had.

GROSS: So we've just heard you're very good at playing yourself. You used to play other people, as well. You started off as an actor before you became a writer. Is that what you really wanted to do when you were growing up was to act?

SORKIN: I think saying that I started off as an actor might be misleading. There was...

GROSS: Should I say you started off trying to act?

SORKIN: I didn't even give it much of a try. When I was very little all I wanted to be was an actor, and I acted in all the school plays, and I was the head of the drama club, and I acted in community theater. And then when I went to college, I auditioned for a conservatory program at Syracuse University and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in, of all things, musical theater.

But I realized pretty early on that when everyone around me was learning how to act, for some reason what I was learning was what a play was. And I again, very early on, loved writing dialogue. I just loved writing it. And so when I came to New York it was to be a playwright.

GROSS: So you got your BA in musical theater. You loved musicals...

SORKIN: BFA, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.


SORKIN: I have absolutely no liberal arts background at all, and really no, no higher education to speak of at all. Like I said, my four years of college was a conservatory training program in theater where we weren't allowed to take that many credits, that many academic credits.

GROSS: Do people expect that you will know the great books, and actually you don't?

SORKIN: Yeah. I am often mistaken for somebody who knows something. and I'm not. I create characters who know things. And I'm not just being self-deprecating. I think this is important. You know, the reaction to "The Newsroom" has been polarized.

There are a number of television critics who did not enjoy themselves watching the first four episodes. There are a number of television critics who loved the first four episodes. And I think that the critics in the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is they think that I'm showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don't have.

And just to be very clear, I'm not pretending to have it. I know that I don't have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I'm not one of them. The characters I create would have no use for me.

GROSS: So we've established that you love musicals...


GROSS: ...and that, just going back for a step, and that you have a degree in musical theater. Are you a good singer?

SORKIN: I am awesome in the shower. But that's...


SORKIN: I think I'm a good singer. I don't think anybody else would say that I am.

GROSS: So I know for while you did singing telegrams.


GROSS: What were the telegrams?

SORKIN: They were, I worked for a company called the Witty Ditty singing-telegram company and they would call you in the afternoon and say, you know, OK, I got a job for you. It's an anniversary. You're going to go to this fancy restaurant. Come here and get the lyrics.

And it would just be set to the tune of, you know, of a famous song, and you'd have to walk into a fancy restaurant holding a big thing of balloons and you're in a red-and-white-striped jacket with a straw boater and a kazoo. And, you know, you're thinking here's my parent's tuition money hard at work. And even the songs themselves, you know, they would change two words of the song. It would be like...

(Singing) Rocky mountain high, happy Birthday.


SORKIN: It was remarkably uncreative. And I even remember thinking, you know, is it OK if I maybe rewrite some of the songs, but I didn't want to insult the person who wrote the song.

GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SORKIN: It's really good to talk to you, Terry.

GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, recorded last July. He created the HBO series "The Newsroom," which is scheduled to begin its second season in June. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending 2012 by featuring some of our favorite interviews from the year. Pitcher R.A. Dickey had an incredible year in baseball. He won the National League's Cy Young Award, which is given to the best pitcher of the year in each league. He was the subject of a documentary film, published a memoir and this month he was traded by the Mets to the Blue Jays.

Dickey, is somewhat of a baseball curiosity, the only guy in the big leagues who relies on the knuckleball, a pitch that dips, dives and swerves in ways that make it hard to catch and harder to hit.

Dickey explains how he mastered the pitch in his memoir. He also writes about his troubled youth, being sexually abused as a child, and his retreat into the refuge of sports.

FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Dickey in April, after the publication of his book. It's called "Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball." Dave asked Dickey to read an excerpt describing a turning point in his career.

R.A. DICKEY: (Reading) I'm 31 years old and darn tired of being mediocre. Anne and I have two young daughters and a baby boy on the way. I'm living in a Hyatt and getting around on a borrowed bicycle because I don't want to spend money on a rental car. One part retread, one part restoration project, I am a decade removed from my years studying English Lit at Tennessee, forgetting a lot of Faulkner and firing a lot of fastballs.

I have become the quintessential 4A pitcher, baseball code for a player who is too good for AAA but not good enough to stick in the majors. I had already spent two full, extremely undistinguished years in the big leagues. I know that I cannot reasonably expect to get another shot if this doesn't work out.

You want to know how desperate I am? I have turned myself into the baseball equivalent of a carnival act, maybe not a two-headed turtle or a bearded lady, but close. I am trying to make a living throwing the ugly stepchild of pitches, a pitch few in the game appreciate and even fewer understand.

Almost nobody starts out planning to be a knuckleball pitcher. When was the last time you heard a 12-year-old Little Leaguer say: I want to be Hoyt Wilhelm when I grow up? You become a knuckleball pitcher when you hit a dead end, when your arm gets hurt, or your hard stuff isn't getting the job done.

Tim Wakefield was a minor-league first baseman with a lot of power and a bad batting average. That's when he made the switch. I made mine when the Rangers told me in the middle of 2005 that I was going nowhere with my regular stuff, an assessment that I could hardly argue with.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, R.A. Dickey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the knuckleball. Not many people throw it. Now, you know, most - there are a lot of pitches that pitchers throw, conventional pitches that are designed to break or dip or dive. What distinguishes the knuckleball from all those other pitches?

DICKEY: Well, the knuckleball is very unique in that as a conventional pitcher, you throw a fastball, a curveball, a slider, a change-up, and those pitches are all thrown with a certain amount of spin on them. You're trying to impart spin on the baseball in order to manipulate the break whichever way you'd like.

With a knuckleball, you're doing the opposite. You're taking spin completely off the baseball, and you're kind of leaving it up to the physics of air resistance and seams on the baseball and the way that the air impacts the leather, and the indentations on the baseball make the ball move.

And so when you throw a knuckleball, a perfectly thrown knuckleball has a little less than a quarter-rotation from the time that it leaves your hand until the time that it gets to the catcher's mitt. And that's a very tough mechanic to get down. It's a very hard pitch to be consistent. And so that's why you don't see a whole lot of knuckleballers around, I think.

DAVIES: Right. And if you execute that well and get the ball started toward the plate without spin, how does it behave? Why is it effective?

DICKEY: Hmm. Well, I've heard it said that, you know, a knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon. You know, it shakes side to side, it may go straight left on one pitch. It may go down and in to a right-handed hitter on another pitch. It may stay on the very same plane the whole way on one pitch.

So the thing that makes a knuckleball effective is that you cannot predict which way the ball is going to move, which makes it an extremely hard pitch to hit, as

DAVIES: Right. Now, how do you grip it?

DICKEY: Well, I grip my knuckleball in the way that Joe, Phil - Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield grip theirs, and I tutored under Charlie Hough, who was a longtime knuckleballer for the Dodgers and the Rangers, the White Sox and the Florida Marlins.

And I take my pointer finger and my middle finger, and I dig my fingernails beneath the horseshoe of the baseball. There's a seam on the baseball that runs over the circumference of the ball, and it makes a shape of a horseshoe on one particular part. I take my fingernails, and I dig them in the leather.

And I take my thumb, I put it on the side and my index finger on the other side, and I use those points as stability points, so that when I throw the baseball, I keep my wrist very stiff, and when I release it, I try to release it at the opportune moment where there's no spin on it.

And so if you can do that over and over and over again, then usually you're going to have a pretty good game. It's when the ball starts rotating a little bit or tumbling forward, and the hitter can pick up that tumbling and predict where the ball is going to end up and hit it very hard.

If you through a good knuckleball, you can make the best hitters in the world look very foolish.

DAVIES: Yeah, have you had particular moments that you enjoyed them flailing away at your - a good knuckleball?

DICKEY: Indeed, indeed. I've thrown a few times, a pitch, a knuckleball, to a left-handed hitter in particular where I've thrown the pitch and it had zero spin on it, and they've actually swung the bat, and the ball has broken after they've swung and actually hit them.


DICKEY: So they've swung, and it's hit them either on the back of the leg or the back foot. Or one time I hit a guy in the waist, and he swung at the pitch. And when they're swinging at the pitch, and it ends up hitting them, you know you've got some pretty good movement that day.

DAVIES: Yeah, and they often lose the bat, right? It's just so out of control?



DICKEY: Yeah, oftentimes they'll sling the bat into the stands, which has happened on a few occasions, as well.

DAVIES: Now, the conventional pitcher is always trying to hit a spot. I mean, you work the corners of the strike zone. You don't want to leave it in the fat part of the plate. The knuckleball is a pitch that, by design, is unpredictable. What do you aim for?

DICKEY: Well, I try to get it started at the right height. I think for me, that's what's most important. It's impossible in any knuckleball pitch - a true knuckleball pitcher will tell you it's impossible to, you know, be able to throw a knuckleball on the outside corner. You just simply get it started in the right direction, at the right height, and the ball's going to do what the ball's going to do.

I aim for about two baseballs above the catcher's helmet, and if I can get the ball going on that trajectory, I know, more or less, if it's going to fall within the strike zone. And the key to throwing a knuckleball, and Charlie Hough told me the first day I ever worked with him, he said it took me one day to learn how to throw a knuckleball and a lifetime to throw a knuckleball for strikes.

So you've got to be able to throw strikes with the pitch so that the hitter can - will respect you. That's the rub. And so I start my knuckleball about two balls above the catcher's helmet.

DAVIES: How many of your pitches these days are knuckleballs? Do you still have other pitch.

DICKEY: Yes, I do, and in fact, that's one of the things that helps me to pitch deep into games is when I have innings when I don't have a good knuckleball I can kind of rely on my sinker or my cutter or my change-up to help survive the innings when I don't have a good knuckleball going.

If I throw 100 pitches in a game, ideally I want 85 of them to be knuckleballs, and the other 15 will be other pitches; sinkers, fastballs, curveballs, change-ups, what have you. But it is important for me, and it can be a weapon for me, if a guy's thinking I'm going to throw a knuckleball, and I through an 85-mile-an-hour fastball inside. It's hard for him to pull the trigger, and that can be a weapon, as well.

DAVIES: Now, in addition to being hard to hit, the knuckleball is hard to catch. Do catchers hate having a knuckleballer on the mound?

DICKEY: Well, you know, if you're Bob Uecker, who said the best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and go over and pick it up, then yeah.


DICKEY: But I have been blessed with some really good catchers, that have hands. You know, the key to catching a knuckleball is to try to let it get as deep as possible. Because when you go out and try to catch it before it kind of gets to you, it'll break, and you'll end up chasing it to the backstop.

So I've had a couple of guys who have really struggled with it, but for the most part, the guys really accept it as a challenge, and I work really hard at trying to do it well.

DAVIES: Now, can umpires accurately call balls and strikes with a knuckleballer? Is it harder?

DICKEY: You know, it is hard. But I have found that most of the Major League umpires really give me the benefit of the doubt because they don't want to miss a strike. It really reflects poorly on them if they missed a strike. So if there's a borderline pitch or a marginal pitch that could be a strike or a ball, a lot of times I will get that call because they don't want to be the guy who can't call a knuckleball right. They really take it as a challenge.

And the guys up there are so good, the umpires are so good that most of the time, you know, they might miss four or five a game, but over the course of a 250-pitch game, that's pretty remarkable.

DAVIES: Right. OK, so umpires, if you're listening, R.A. Dickey says you're great. So this season, give him a break.



DAVIES: You know, a knuckleball is hard to master, but the one great thing is that it's less punishing on your arm, and you see some guys throw it into their 40s, right, I guess maybe even 50s?

DICKEY: Yeah, yeah, you can certainly throw it into your mid-40s, and a lot of knuckleballers, their best years come from ages 38 to 44, right in that area. Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield all won a great number of games during that age period.

You're able to do that because I'm out there as a knuckleballer operating at about 75 percent capacity, whereas as a conventional pitcher, you're full-tilt all the time. As a knuckleballer, you know, it's much better for you to operate at 75, 80 percent capacity. That's when you get the most movement on your pitch.

So it enables you to recover a lot better. It's a lot easier on your body. So if the other parts of your body hold up well, there's no reason to think that you can't pitch as long as you want to pitch.

GROSS: We're listening back to pitcher R.A. Dickey speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This week, we're featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded in April with pitcher R.A. Dickey, who won the Cy Young Award this year and was just traded by the Mets to the Blue Jays.

DAVIES: You grew up in Nashville, you tell us in this book, and your dad left your mom early, and your mom had a drinking problem, used to take you to a bar called Joe's Village Inn. And, you know, it's gotten a lot of attention in the book that you revealed that you were abused sexually in your childhood, you know, once - well, repeatedly by a teenage girl who was your babysitter when you were eight years old and then on another occasion more brutally by I guess a 17-year-old boy. This is tough stuff. Did you tell anybody about these incidents at the time?

DICKEY: No, I didn't. In fact, it wasn't for 23 years until I uttered a word of it to anybody. I think one of the tough things about being sexually abused is you - you know, right away you feel like you've been a part of something incredibly wicked, that you've had something to do with it even. I now know it has nothing to do with any fault of your own. But you certainly feel like it was partially your fault. And so, I always just stuffed it away and would build up mechanisms for dealing with that pain.

DAVIES: Yet you became a great athlete. I mean, you were a great athlete, and you played, you know, sports, many of them, well in junior high and high school. Did you think much about the abuse at the time, or had you repressed it or thought you'd repressed it?

DICKEY: Well, I certainly had repressed it, but there's not - you can't really repress something like that to the extent that you never think about it. One of the mechanisms that I had developed was pouring myself into athletics - the baseball field, the basketball court and the football field were all kind of my refuges, places I would take sanctuary from the pain of feeling like, you know, I was a fractured, less-than-human person, you know? I mean, and that's when you're given.

When you're sexually abused, that's what you feel like. You feel like you're not worth anything. And so I would try to gain back some of that worth by pouring myself into athletics.

DAVIES: You'd become a first-round draft choice for the Texas Rangers. This was a big deal, right? I mean what did it mean to you to get that kind of an entree into the big leagues?

DICKEY: Well, it was what - immediately what it meant was that I was going to be able to sign a contract that was at least on the frontend in the way of a signing bonus worth close to $1 million. And that was, you know, we came from a low to middle income type situation when I was growing up, so I had plans for the money to do things with and, you know, I think I took for granted the fact that I was going to be a professional pitcher, which is something that I'd always, had always wanted to be from an early age. And when I was drafted I was the 18th pick overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996. And I'd made the Olympic team and we went to Atlanta in '96 to compete for a gold medal, we ended up winning the bronze, and then that's when I went down to Texas to sign my contract and get on with my big league career.

DAVIES: And we say 18th pick. That's in the first round. I mean that is a really high quality - that's a prestigious place to be for a kid entering the big leagues. So your dreams are coming true. You're going to be financially secure in a way you never have been and then it all falls apart. What happened?

DICKEY: Well, when I flew down to take my comprehensive physical, which all first rounders do, they did this test called the Valgus stress test, where you put your elbow into this apparatus and they apply pressure from the back and they take an X-ray from the top.

And it revealed that I had a little bit extra laxity in my right elbow in that joint than my left elbow. By the time I had left the doctor's office and got to the general manager's office to sign my contract in Arlington, Texas, the doctor and the general manager had talked.

And my agent was there and we were going up the elevator and, you know, I'm thinking I'm about to throw out the first pitch of the game, meet Nolan Ryan, who was my boyhood idol, and sign my contract for $850,000. Doug Melvin was the general manager at the time called my agent into the office and I went on and stood out on the balcony and watched batting practice take place while my agent and the general manager talked.

Well, the agent comes out of the office and gets me and he's got kind of a pale look on his face and says, you know, we need to go in here right away. And I sit down across from Doug Melvin. And Doug Melvin commenced to say that they were going to take the offer off the table because they felt like there was something wrong with my arm.

And in that moment, you know, I was having a million different emotions, least of which was to jump over the table and choke him to death. Because I had spent a lifetime trying to get to that very point and he was taking it all away. At least that was what I thought.

But I quieted my spirit, and thankfully I didn't burn a bridge in that moment and I went on to see Dr. Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama, the next day and he advised that I get an MRI. So I got in an MRI and sure enough, the MRI came back that I didn't have the existence of an ulnar collateral ligament in my right elbow at all, which is the ligament inside the elbow that keeps that joint stable.

In my mind I was thinking this is great, we should get more money. I'm never going to have to have that ligament replaced.

DAVIES: Because that's a typical injury for pitchers, the...

DICKEY: That is - yeah - the Tommy John surgery is a typical injury for a Major League pitcher. But, of course, the Rangers did not see it that way. They thought they had drafted damaged goods. And I went back to Nashville, Tennessee, thinking that I may never throw for a professional team ever again because with that kind of hanging over you, you never know what's going to happen.

So my options became go back to school for my senior year and try to play well enough to get drafted again - albeit, it would not have been in a high round because of the condition that I had. And about 24 hours before my first class at the University of Tennessee, the general manager, Doug Melvin, called my agent and said we'll give him $75,000, take it or leave it.

And I prayed about it and talked about it with Anne, who is my wife now, and felt led to take the contract. And so I did and started my professional career as kind of this freak that didn't have the ulnar collateral ligament.

DAVIES: So with this bizarre injury, I mean, your dream is shattered. You don't get the $850,000 signing bonus. In the end they give you I guess a $75,000 contract. And you go to their minor league system. And you start there grinding away in the minor leagues.

DICKEY: Port Charlotte, Florida, initially then you spent a lot of time in Oklahoma City toiling away in the minors. Do you remember when you first went up to the big leagues that first game? I'm sure you do. Tell us about that.

Oh, certainly. Certainly. I had spent parts of five seasons in the minor leagues and played everywhere from Port Charlotte, Florida, to Venezuela to Puerto Rico and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then finally Oklahoma City before I got called up to the Texas Rangers in 2001. My first outing was against the Oakland Athletics in Texas and I just remember it being almost surreal.

So many people thought that I would never get there simply because of the condition I had in my elbow and I had made it and I was able to celebrate that with my family, and they were there in the stands. And I had a three up, three down inning against the Oakland A's in the ninth inning and it was just a fantastic experience all around.

DAVIES: But in the end it didn't go well, did it?

DICKEY: Well, not as a conventional pitcher. You know, I kind of was up and down for the next four years as a conventional pitcher and I was very mediocre by my own admission. You know, I never could get to that next place that I wanted to get to. You know, I wanted - I felt like I was capable of so much more but the guys in the big leagues are just so good, you know?

If you're not pinpoint your weaknesses will be revealed very quickly and mine were often revealed. And so I had to come up with something else if I wanted to hang onto the dream of being a Major League pitcher and that's in 2005 when I made the transition to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher.

GROSS: We're listening back to National League pitcher R. A. Dickey speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. We'll talk more after a break this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: You describe the moment that you made this transition to being a knuckleball pitcher. I mean two greats of the game, you know, Buck Showalter and Orel Hershiser tell you we think, you know, you've been fooling around with this pitch, you can do it well. And then you begin in a way in this second pitching career learning it.

And it's a hard craft to master and you went up to the big leagues a few times and got - did well but also got knocked around plenty and when it isn't working it's a rough day on the mound.


DAVIES: And you ended up back in the minors again. And there's this bizarre - I don't know if we could call it a turning point in your career - that involved you trying to swim across the Missouri River in Iowa. What happened?

DICKEY: Oh, man. What didn't happen? That's exactly right, what happened. Well, you know, I had been coming - like I said, I spent so much time in Oklahoma City. One of the places we would always play was Omaha. We would play the Royals, and the Omaha Royals, which was the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

And I had been going through there for years and we always stayed at this hotel and it overlooked the Missouri River. And for years I would go up the elevator looking out over the river thinking I wonder if anybody can swim across that. Well, in 2007 I thought I'm going to do it.

You know, I've spent a lifetime of not taking any risks. I'm going to take one and try to do it. And so word spread around the clubhouse and all my teammates got out there and they watched me de-robe and get down onto the shallows of the Missouri before I took off and tried to traverse it.

DAVIES: That's a big, fast-moving river, right? What happened?


DICKEY: Well, it is big, it's dirty and it's fast-moving. And come to find out it has a significant undertow. I set out and I'd always been a pretty good swimmer. I felt like I was going at a pretty good clip. And, you know, I had gone about 100 yards upriver so that I felt like if I got across, you know, I would kind of be in the place I needed to be that would look right across the hotel to the hotel from the other side.

And I thought after I had been swimming for about, you know, what seemed to be four or five minutes, I thought I'd come up and take a peek. And so when I did, I realized all of the sudden that the river had swept me very far downriver. And my teammates who were once standing right in front of me at six feet tall just about, were now looked like little ants on the horizon.

I mean, it was a really scary moment. Well, I get out almost to the middle and by this time I'm thinking I have zero shot at getting to the other side. And so I turn around and I know at that point when I turn around that it's going to be a fight just to stay alive and things took on a much less jovial feel.

Every stroke was, you know, a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I may drown. And so I got close to the shore and I had kind of given myself over to the fact that this was it. You know, I wasn't going to make it. And I closed my eyes and started to sink.

And I remember writing a line in the book the sensation of weeping underwater was a real interesting sensation and I was praying that God, you know, would protect my family and all that. I had come to grips with dying and started sinking.

And right as I was about to open my mouth and take in all this water just to end it quickly, my feet hit the bottom of the river. And it kind of renewed my adrenaline and I surged up and I was probably about 14 feet high. Of course, the water is so deep - I mean dark. You don't really know where you are.

And I boosted myself up and did that repeatedly, dog-paddled a little more and then made one more furious attempt to try to get to the side. And one of my teammates had followed me all the way downriver, named Grant Balfour, and if it weren't for him I wouldn't be talking to you today, Dave. He stuck out his arm and I reached up and grabbed it and he pulled me to shore and I survived.

DAVIES: Now this was a near-death experience. I mean, you almost didn't get out of that river alive. And it's fascinating that after that experience your pitching got better. Why do you think?

DICKEY: I know. You know, I certainly look at it as almost a baptism of sorts. You know, I mean, I went into the Missouri River. I was hanging on by a thread professionally. I was like one in four at the time with a six-something ERA, which is not very good in baseball at all.

And I was one phone call from the general manager away from being released and never playing baseball again, maybe. And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11 and two with like 2.80 ERA and became the PCL Pitcher of the Year.

DAVIES: That's Pacific Coast League. Yeah.

DICKEY: Yeah. The Pacific - yeah, Pacific Coast League.

DAVIES: Terrific season. Yeah.

DICKEY: Yeah. Terrific season. And I say that only to emphasize the point that, you know, I think when I came out of the river I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well that I think that carried over directly into my pitching. And I just cared about each pitch singularly.

And so, you know, if one pitch didn't go well, forget it. Here's this pitch. What am I going to do with this pitch? And when I did that over and over and over again, I was able to look back and all of the sudden I was putting together a pretty incredible run. And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life.

DAVIES: Well, R.A. Dickey, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DICKEY: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: R. A. Dickey spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last April after the publication of Dickey's memoir. Tomorrow we'll continue our end of the year series featuring a few of our favorite interviews from 2012.


GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue