Since the Major League Baseball season starts for most teams this week, we thought it would be the perfect time to chat with Jeffrey Lichtman, a New York criminal defense attorney whose clients have included John A. Gotti and AIG executives named in the New York Attorney General’s probe of the insurance industry.
Mr. Lichtman is also an avid baseball-card collector and baseball fan who sponsors the pages of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Jim Bouton and others on baseball-reference.com, the premiere baseball stats site. This is second part of a two-part interview. Part one, about Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and Hal Chase, the first baseball criminal, can be read here.
You sponsored the baseball-reference.com pages of Koufax and Greenberg because they were great Jewish stars, and Hal Chase because, with his criminal behavior, he could’ve been a client. Why Jim Bouton’s page?
Jim Bouton wrote “Ball Four,” a very irreverent book that I read for the first time as a kid, and it was one of my favorite all-time books. It was kind of an “On the Road” for our generation. This was a guy who was completely off the reservation compared to everybody else. He was on the Sixties Yankees, an uptight, buttoned-down type of team, and he was laughing at everything. He was banned from the Yankees for decades by George Steinbrenner because of the perceived indiscretion of publishing this book. Basically he got blackballed from baseball as well.
When I was a kid, he was a sportscaster in New Jersey. I remember seeing him on TV and writing him fan letters. He always ignored me. I was probably 10 or 11.
A few years ago, I was at my kids’ pre-school grandparents day. One of these tony, upper-east-side, ridiculous schools that cost like $20,000 so the kids can finger-paint for four hours. I have twin boys. So I’m in this school and there are hundreds of people. Every kids’ parents, every kids’ grandparents, the place is packed to the gills. I’m late, of course, and I’m rushing in as everybody’s coming out. Then all of a sudden …
I see Jim Bouton. He was 70 now but I knew it was Jim Bouton. And I’m freaking out. Of the three heroes I have in life, this is one of them. This is a formative guy.
I didn’t know what to do. He’s going to see his grandkids. Do I leave him alone? He doesn’t want to be pestered by some asshole. And I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to bother the guy. But as soon as I left the school I had massive remorse. So I go onto his website where he hawks signed books, signed baseballs. He’s got a quirky career–he invented Big League Chew, remember that? Yeah, bubble gum. So I send him an email.
At this time I had been doing talk radio as a hobby. In the Gotti trial, one of the people I cross-examined, the supposed victim of one of the crimes, was a well-known talk-radio guy named Curtis Sliwa, who started the Guardian Angels. After I killed Curtis Sliwa on the stand, they thought it funny, at the radio station, to have me do stuff with Curtis, and Curtis was cool about it. Then I started doing my own shows on occasion; I’d fill in whenever I had some free time. I enjoyed it. I liked ranting and forcing people to listen to me.
So I write to Jim Bouton and say: Listen, this is what happened today. I saw you at Park Avenue Christian. I didn’t want to hassle you, man, but you’re a tremendous hero to me. I don’t want to bother you but I want you to come on my radio show a week from Friday. You can talk about anything you want, blah blah blah. He writes back and agrees to do the show.
I get him on the show and I tell ya, I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in my life. I know the book, “Ball Four,” like the back of my hand, and we were going over it piece by piece and he was giving me little anecdotes that were not in the book. It was one of the greatest experiences as an adult I’ve had. It’s funny. You can win a giant case, you can get all over the paper, but every guy deep down is still a kid.
Who are your other heroes? You mentioned Bouton was one of your three heroes. Who are the other two?
Lou Reed. I actually had dinner with him once, facilitated by another New York lawyer, Gerry Shargel, who I worked for for seven years and who’s one of my closest friends. He’s like my surrogate father in the business.
And Jack Kerouac. “On the Road” moved me greatly as a kid.
That’s how it is. Sometimes people move you in a way that spurs you on. I think the reason why Kerouac and Jim Bouton meant a lot to me is they went against the grain no matter what the cost.
I graduated Duke Law School, and I don’t think there is maybe more than one or two kids in that graduating class of 1990 that are criminal trial lawyers. I remember people saying to me, “Are you out of your mind? Why would you do that? Go into corporate law. Why would you ever go into something that’s difficult and you won’t be able to make as much money?” I said, “Listen, I’m here for one reason. I’m going into a profession that I love, I’ll worry about everything else later.” That’s how I’ve dealt with my career. I take a case, I don’t worry about the political ramifications. My view is: Keep your head down, work hard, everything else will work out.