Who are you?
James Dale, BA ’70, likes to be other people. So far, he’s been two Hall of Fame baseball players, a Super Bowl coach, a Congressman, a sports agent, a dealmaker, a cardiologist, and even Tiger Woods’ high school golf coach.
“I’m a ventriloquist of the written word — a listener and interpreter, part researcher, part lie-detector, and often my client’s therapist,” says Dale, a successful co-author, who assumes the persona of each acclaimed partner to help them tell their stories. “My authors tell me secrets they haven’t told anyone else.”
His eight books include The New York Times bestseller Just Show Up with baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. (“an extremely disciplined human being”); Alpha Docs with a Johns Hopkins cardiologist; The Power of Nice with agent/lawyer Ron Shapiro; Illegal Procedure with a former NFL agent; and his most recent work, 2020’s We’re Better Than This with the late Congressman Elijah Cummings.
When taking on a new client, Dale says a good co-author has to ask himself three questions: “Can I channel this person? Can I be extremely discreet? And can I get this person to tell the truth in an unvarnished way that will engage the reader?”
Writing books is a second career for the former English major. He rose from copy editor to president of the Michigan- and Maryland-based global ad agency W.B. Doner, the firm behind the long-running “Knowledge Heals” campaign for U-M’s medical system.
A chance meeting with retired pitcher Jim Palmer led to his first work, the 1996 book Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine. A newbie in the field, Dale queried five book agents. All expressed interest. The former Baltimore Orioles star sent him mini-cassettes laced with anecdotes, and in a few months, Dale had pounded out his first “autobiography.”
He enjoyed the experience so much, he transitioned to full-time author at age 48. The self-effacing Dale found the shift easy.
“In advertising, you’re not visible. You’re trying to make your client — say, Coca-Cola — top of mind desirable. You’re not important, but your work is. The writing I do now enhances someone else, not me. I’m always anonymous, even if my name is on the cover,” he says.
The Bloomfield Hills native relished his time with Cummings, who died during their collaboration. (Dale finished the book with the help of his widow and Congressional colleagues.) “He was a very true, honest-to-God, human being with passion,” Dale says. “I loved getting inside his story. Every time I talked to him on the phone, I’d come away saying, ‘I learned something. I hope to God I can convey him properly.'”
Being a good listener and being empathetic lies at the heart of Dale’s success. As he does with other clients, he first met in person with Cummings in his office in Congress. Later the duo worked by phone and traded texts to drive the book forward.
“After a few conversations, people start to open up, sometimes accidentally. You approach it openly and candidly and make it safe for the other person,” Dale says.
Dale knew Cummings had heart-valve surgery in 2017, two years before their partnership began, but physical maladies, including mysterious absences, plagued the Congressman. So Dale pressed him to talk about his health struggles.
“He got testy,” the writer says. Then, finally, Cummings came clean. “He took a lot of deep breaths, and he told me he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer 25 years ago, and I said, ‘You’ve been able to beat this thing,’ and he said, ‘No, Jim, I’m losing slowly.’
“That was a complete shock.”
The two talked about what to do with this information. “He said, ‘It’s time to tell it,’ and he said, ‘I know you’ll tell it gently.’ He knew I would tell it in his voice, not like a reporter uncovering a little nugget. You get people to open up to you because they trust you. They’re trusting their voice to you.”
It takes Dale at least a year to write each book, with even more time required to find a new subject and strike a deal. It’s impossible to predict whether a biography will be a hit, he says. “You always think you’re going to take the world by storm. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.”
His book Illegal Procedure documented the life of a sports agent who was stripped of his license for improper behavior. The Wall Street Journal gave it a strong review, but “It sold, like, ‘meh,'” he says. Meanwhile, his collaboration with high school coach Don Crosby, Tiger Woods Made Me Look Like a Genius: Five Simple Ways to Take Ten Strokes Off Your Game, sold steadily for over a decade.
Dale never suffers from writer’s block. “If I feel stuck, I’ll write it anyway. Nobody sees it but me,” he says. “My style is to write things long and then cut them. I don’t try to write short and fatten them up.”
He taps away on a slate grey Mac laptop amid photos of his wife, children, and grandchildren, dividing his time between Maryland and Martha’s Vineyard. Long walks with his wife, Ellen Small, provide inspiration, as does early morning coffee. “A lot of coffee,” he says.
The work is not always solitary. For The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback, Dale interviewed more than 30 former players, coaches, and even Harvard economists to understand the complicated process. How athletes think fascinates him. “I learned a lot talking to education and psychology experts. Athletic IQ can be compared to a fighter pilot processing information in real-time. It manifests in processing input fast and turning it into action.”
Meeting of the minds
Dale is currently negotiating co-author deals with a politician and an entertainment figure. “I’d like to have written a book with Barack Obama,” he says. “He’s one of the very few highly accomplished people in the non-literary world who writes well.”
The writer says he has to like the people he writes with. “I don’t want to glorify people I think are terrible.”
One client who got away was the late Tommy Lasorda, the winner of two World Series as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager. The two men met in the steamy therapy room during spring training while the gruff Lasorda enjoyed a whirlpool bath. Later, with only a towel slung across his lap, the champion manager (“not terribly wonderful to look at,” Dale says) debated with himself whether he wanted to do a book.
“He said, ‘If I do a book, I want it to be a good book for everybody, a book for kids. I want to be a role model. No dirty language. I don’t want none of that stuff,'” Lasorda growled. The phone rang, apparently a call from a scout, and the nearly naked manager, according to Dale, barked, “‘You tell that #$*%#! he can #$@%*@!’ He hangs up, turns to me, and goes, ‘Now where were we?'”
The meeting fizzled out when Lasorda, declaring he did not need the help of a co-author, said, “I’ve written stuff. I don’t need a writer. I just need somebody to put in the commas and sh*t.”
Dale marvels at the memory. “I wrote it down, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll never a write a line that good myself.'”
He often politely turns down requests to serve as a co-author. Most life stories lack enough dramatic or thematic tension to sustain the 60,000 to 100,000 words needed for a book, he says. So he advises would-be autobiographers to create an outline and then try to pen their life story themselves or hire an out-of-work journalist.
Dale tells disappointed would-be clients what he always told his ad agency employees: “Get it on paper or on the screen. Write it badly. You can always write it well later.”
(Lead image, outside a Manhattan bookstore, courtesy of Jim Dale.)