SPRING 1992: A SPOTLESS BLUE-AND-white kitchen in a lovely house in a picture-perfect New Jersey town. A plate of fresh-baked brownies on the counter. A Jeep Wagoneer and a Saab parked in the circular driveway. A man and his wife, their fresh-faced 12-year-old daughter, Libby and their strapping 17-year-old son, Willie, dressed in baseball cap and high school letter jacket. This is suburban America. This is Little League territory.
And this is the land of Bill Geist, chronicler of all things suburban, originally as a newspaper columnist and now as an offbeat correspondent on CBS’s Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and the Sunday edition of CBS Evening News. Geist is the kind of man who, about to start his 10th year coaching Little League in his hometown of Ridgewood, N.J., has dared to write Little League Confidential, a sort of drug-free, laugh-filled You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again for the Volvo-and-catcher’s-mitt set.
As he tells it in this mock-confessional and how-not-to guide, the rites of the Little League season in Ridgewood take on the importance of scarification rituals in India—every kid plays, athletic ability or no, for the whole neighborhood to see. And every proud parent becomes obsessively involved. These are parents who, when their 7-year-old actually catches a ball, immediately set their sights on the majors; these are parents who sue a coach to get more playing time for their child. “Everyone in town’s trying to find themselves in the book,” says Geist. “The kids love it, but I’m getting a bit of a cold shoulder from some parents.”
Geist, 47, a regular Joe with unruly red hair and a goofy braying giggle, remembers his own years in Little League with horror. “I spent too many car-in the minor leagues in Little League,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I coach—to make sure my daughter gets to play first base.” Or, as he writes, “You conic to realize that if you don’t do it, some…twit…will.”
Little League Confidential, in fact, is populated with twits, cheaters and crybabies—and those are just the parents. Willie, Geist’s son, who has graduated from Little League to be cocaptain of Ridgewood High’s football and basketball teams, puts it this way: “Some of the dads are just out of hand, yelling at little kids to do things they can’t do.” Geist, according to his children, is a pretty good sport. “[He] only yells at other dads,” says Willie.
Ridgewood provides Geist the amateur anthropologist with limitless material. Confidential originated as a piece on CBS about Libby’s team, and Geist recently brought the cameras into her ballroom-dancing class (stay tuned for Foxtrot Confidential). Over the course of 20 years, Geist has also tackled the subjects of trickor-treating, lawn ornaments and white picket fences. “A journalist who sees a woman arrested for watering her petunias during a sprinkling ban, then placed on probation for two years, is never quite the same,” he once wrote.
Geist spent his youth in Champaign, Ill., where his father taught high school printing and photography. According to his mother, Marjorie, young Bill always had “a gang of kids around, playing baseball in our backyard. Third base was a new tree by our living room window—it got uprooted more times than I can remember.” He was a pretty good pitcher, she recalls maternally. Not so, says Bill Hay, now a doctor in Denver, who played Little League with Billy for U. of I. Drug Store (purple uniforms courtesy of the local pharmacy): “Billy was a mediocre player. We had a terrible team.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois (where he met his wife, Jody, who now sells real estate), Geist spent a year in Vietnam as an Army photographer: “I told them I was an expert. I knew nothing about it, but that’s fine in the Army.” He got a journalism degree at the University of Missouri and went to work in the suburban office of the Chicago Tribune. In 1980, in search of larger playing fields, he landed a job at The New York Times. His Times columns, affectionate looks first at suburbia and then the city, were islands of color in that sea of gray print.
Then one day in 1987, Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS’s 60 Minutes, called him at home to ask if he’d like to do a screen test for CBS. Says Geist: “When the producer of 60 Minutes calls, you say, ‘Why, yes, I have thought about doing TV’ (for the last five seconds).” He moved to TV for good “when Kuralt called me and said, ‘Come on, it’ll be fun.’ That’s all anyone has to say. I’m a sucker for fun.”
After 4½ years in the new job, Geist says he’s no longer “nervous as hell” before he goes on-camera, and he confesses to fantasizing about Andy Rooney’s job. Meanwhile, he’s waiting for Little League season to begin in Ridgewood (he’ll be coaching the Fighting Realtors, with Libby at first base) and contemplating his next book, a novel about, yes, grownup life there. “Someone once said that I coach baseball to get material,” he says. “The opposite is true. I’m making home movies that happen to be aired by CBS.”