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The Yankee from Chelsea

John Wooley gives ‘Right Down the Middle’ the upper hand

John Wooley’s “Right Down the Middle” was published last August

In his country home on the eastern edge of Rogers County, writer John Wooley tapped on my RCA digital recorder and wondered about its functionality. 

“I still use cassette tapes,” he said. “It’s like going to your grandma’s house.” 

Not quite. His writing office overlooking the sun-soaked plains is stuffed with several decades’ worth of memorabilia, folders, and posters, and in the middle, an elegantly structured book-pile divides the room into two paths like a kitchen island. If it sounds like chaos, it somehow lends the office a strange navigability. The millions of items of media create a cozy atmosphere for the author, who locks himself in the office each morning to do his work. (My grandma, for what it’s worth, owns a few well-hidden romance novels and uses Facebook more than I do.) 

Wooley speaks with a gravelly baritone that belies his easy demeanor; it can quickly slip the mind that this is the man who wrote Wes Craven’s biography, or whom Garth Brooks once called
a star.

“A lot of people want to write,” he said. “But you’ve really got to want it.”

His latest book, “Right Down the Middle,” was published by Müllerhaus at the end of last year. It’s an as-told-to biography of Ralph Terry, a star pitcher for the 1960s New York Yankees from Chelsea, Okla., 50 miles northeast of Tulsa.

In the wrong hands, the sports memoir is ripe for bland writing, overblown stories, and endless braggadocio, meant for no one but fans and fellow players. But with Wooley’s capable storytelling, this spin on the autobiography takes on a high degree of sophistication and accessibility. Terry’s rise to fame, alongside the likes of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, is recounted in exquisite detail as the narrative teases out every pitch, every strikeout, every home run. 

Sports fans and general readers alike will delight in the rendering of the famous 1960 World Series, where Terry threw the losing pitch, to the 1962 World Series, where he threw the winning one—the only player in baseball history to ever do so. 

Honed down from just a few hours of interviews, Wooley dove into Terry’s life story, from the dirt lots of Chelsea, a town of barely 2,000 with “cattle grazing in the outfield,” to the lights of Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, all the while keeping Terry’s strong, personable voice at the forefront.

“Part of it,” Wooley said, mentioning his 20 years of entertainment reporting for the Tulsa World, “is just knowing what
to ask.” 

Reading the book feels like having a three-martini lunch with Ralph himself: to the point, and a little vulgar when it adds to the story. Central to the narrative is the access to a mind imbued with a singular passion, and the reader sees him elated, confused, furious, and compassionate, all revolving around his great love of the game.

“We’re all Chelsea boys,” Wooley said, referring to his own upbringing in the small town. “We all knew who Ralph was—he was a hero. One day, in the early 60s when he was with the Yankees, he came down to my backyard where we were playing ball and pitched to us. I was 11 or 12. He was catching balls behind his back, that sort of thing; he was a big deal to us in Chelsea.” 

That starstruck kid never thought that he’d one day get the chance to work with one of his heroes. 

“If anyone had told me when I was 12 years old that, one day, I’d have a book with Ralph, telling his story,” he said, “I would’ve said, great! I want to be 60 right now!” 

“I continue to be optimistic about human nature in the face of,” he paused to laugh, “contrary evidence.” 

He’s suffered his own dark nights of the soul, just like Ralph does in “Right Down the Middle,” just like any of us do in the headlights of our lives’ myriad tiny crises. But out of Wooley’s dark nights came a startling revelation, a viable mantra for the life of a writer, or any person looking to lead a life of value.

“You either wear them down, or they wear you down,” he said with a smile. “That’s the equation. And I wasn’t going to let anyone wear me down.”