Exclusive: How the world's most notorious ballhawk Zack Hample turned catching baseballs in the stands into a jobView transcript
No one on Earth has caught more baseballs, at least as a fan, than Zack Hample. The hobby started when the current 43-year-old was a child, and grew steadily over the years into an obsession. Now it’s his livelihood.
Every season, he treks around the country, attending dozens of games, posting videos to his YouTube channel, and snagging hundreds of balls. His total is 11,578 — including Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit, a home run which he caught in Yankee Stadium in 2015.
Hample attracted massive flak after initially declining to return the ball to Rodriguez, who was sort of a PR minefield at the time, and coming off of a steroid scandal. But he soon agreed to give it back to the Yankees in exchange for a $150,000 donation to a charity, PItch In For Baseball & Softball.
The episode cemented Hample’s fame, but also turned him into one of baseball’s most controversial fans. (We will not repeat some of the terrible things that have been said or written about Hample. I’ve been a friendly acquaintance of his for years and I don’t believe them.)
The leap from having an eccentric hobby, to braving a national spotlight, to becoming a full-time online content creator wasn’t a big one.
Hample was already an author -- he’s written three books, including The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals and Secrets Beneath the Stiches, Watching Baseball Smarter, and of course How to Snag Major League Baseballs. (Cliff’s Notes version: He catches a lot of balls during pre-game batting practice, or by asking players to throw them. He’s also mobile, roving around stadiums to find the best spots, and standing in aisles or tunnels rather than staying in a seat. He also pays a lot of attention to where each player tends to hit.)
We caught up with Hample, during a brief hiatus in the season, and he offered more perspective on his unusual route to Internet stardom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How this whole baseball-catching thing started00:00:00
Business of Business: I'm with Zack Hample...Zack is one of the most interesting people I have met in New York City. In terms of his background and what he does. Can you briefly explain just what it is you do?
So I have business cards or you know, contact cards that I hand out from time to time and they say "professional baseball nerd" at the top right underneath my name. So that's sort of like the umbrella for everything. I'm a YouTuber. I work in baseball, but not for Major League Baseball. I just do my own thing. I've written three baseball books, I have some world records and oddball nerdy claims to fame and yeah, my main thing right now is definitely videos going to stadiums running around and catching baseballs as a fan in the stands, and posting those on YouTube.
Right. Your your headline claim to fame is you have basically caught more baseballs than any other human on this planet, right?
Yeah, as a fan in the stands. I mean, you know, a major league outfielder may have caught more balls during games and during batting practice, but as far as, as a collector, yeah, I'm number one. And that's how many now as of this moment, 11,560 baseballs [Editor's note: By time of publication, the number had risen to 11,578], and that does include warm ups, toss ups, foul balls, home runs before games, during games, after games, it's even possible to get baseballs. So yeah, you know, catching a home run is the most exciting, but there are many, many other ways to get baseballs throughout the day. And I've written about it, I do videos about it. And that's sort of the guiding narrative arc behind all of my videos. It's not just running around and catching balls, but that's it's sort of like the backbone or the template that that everything spins off of from there.
Right. And you've written a book, you've been on TV, and have many pieces explaining how you do this, the mechanics of it. I'm a little bit more interested in why. Why did you get into catching baseballs?
It started when I was really little and watching baseball on TV, and the cameras would zoom in on fans grabbing baseballs and celebrating like it was the best thing that ever happened to them. And it left some kind of impression on me. But then again, there are 10s of millions of kids that have watched baseball over a number of decades. So why did I end up being the most insane one about it? You know, I went to my first game when I was six. I didn't catch my first ball till I was 12. So lots of times going home empty handed and pretty bummed out.
"There's the perception that I don't work or 'it must be nice to go to baseball games for a living.' No, I edit videos for a living and I answer emails and social media comments...and I help sell products and promote brands...I mean, being at a baseball game is almost the easy part.”
But I finally figured out when I was 12 that I could go early to batting practice, and that would maximize my chances. And sure enough, the first time I showed up early I got two baseballs. And my dad always described that moment as if I was a baby shark tasting blood for the first time. And I was hooked and just wanted to go to games all the time. For all of my teen years pretty much baseball was the only thing in life that I cared about. And I was just a miserable loathsome person. If I was not at a baseball game, it was just like, a waste of being alive if I was not at a game. And now it's kind of the opposite. It's sort of like, I get ultra stressed out during the baseball season. And my favorite time of year is when there's no baseball, and I can unplug from it all and relax. So it's it's very strange. I've done a 180.
Yeah, it's funny, I was Googling and one of the first things that comes up is with Zack Hample is "Does Zack Hample have a job." And what I thought was funny was, you know, you have actually turned catching baseballs and being a fan into a job. Can you kind of explain that a little bit more?
Yeah, it is very much a job. There's the perception that I don't work or "it must be nice to go to baseball games for a living." No, I edit videos for a living and I answer emails and social media comments. And I deal with sponsors for a living and I read contracts, and I help sell products and promote brands for a living. That's what I do. I mean, being at a baseball game is almost the easy part. And that's me having to be on and perform for five hours for the camera. And I love it. Don't get me wrong, but there's a lot of work.
For every minute of video that I post on YouTube, you can assume that I spent about half an hour editing. And my average videos this year have been about 15 minutes, so seven or eight hours on average. To edit a video I've spent as much as about 12 or 13 hours on one video. And what I'm going to six games in six days at three different stadiums in a different time zone and there's flights and rental cars and hotels. And then trying to fit editing into that. It's pretty tough.
So I've been working over the last few years with some different editors, I'm doing most of it myself right now, because I am a little bit fussy, and I have a very specific way that I want things to be. So that's probably something for me to work on is to loosen up the reins a little bit. But yeah, I've been doing all this stuff. And it's, it's full time and a half. But I can tell you that as soon as the baseball season is done, when the World Series is over, I'm taking five months off, I'm just, Nope, nothing. So I may have a few videos already in the can that I'll post at some point. But, you know, teachers get the summers off. And I think I'm just going to take the fall and winter off from now on, because I do well enough with it during the season.
What I think is so interesting about what you've done is just within the past few years, we've heard this buzzword, the "creative economy." You see a lot of people now trying to be YouTubers and trying to turn things like just making content into a profession, essentially. You started way earlier. How did that idea come together for you?
I gotta give credit to my dad, who was a writer. And he suggested that I write a book, way back when I was in college after my freshman year. And he suggested that the book teach people how to catch baseballs at games. So that really launched everything. And I feel like I've gotten lucky along the way and stumbled into some stuff. I randomly met someone back in 2008, who was a professional photographer and videographer. And he really just started off taking pictures of me at games for free as a friend that I could post on my blog. And eventually he suggested that we do a video at a stadium and I was like, really what? why? He's like, "I don't know, might be cool." So posted that on YouTube, in 2012 was the first video that I did. My channel wasn't monetized. I wasn't even thinking it was possible to make money from that I thought you had to be an A-list celebrity and get billions of views to earn $100. So for me, it was just another fun way to tell my story and share the madness of my hobby.
So the videos ended up taking off. Really, in 2016, I started doing a few more. And that was after I snagged a very historic home run ball. And that brought a lot of attention my way, not all of it good. But it definitely launched the whole video element of what I did. And suddenly I was getting so many views. And I realized that there was serious potential to make money. So that's when I decided this is what I'm going to do full time. I'm done writing books, I'd already written three at that point. And I turned my attention toward video. And then I had to get more involved with social media because that helps promote the videos. And really, everything has spun off from there, and YouTube is at the center of my world now.
Wow. And what was the historic ball that you caught?
That was Alex Rodriguez's his 3,000th career hit, which happened to be a home run. And yeah, I was at Yankee Stadium, June 19, 2015. And he sent that ball flying exactly in my direction. I'd like to say that I somewhat skillfully chose that spot, but there was a ton of luck involved. And you know, not even just the fact that he hit it in my direction. But there were so many people and I did not catch it on the fly and people were just falling all over themselves. It was like a it was like a fumble in an NFL game. And, you know, I even got lucky out of that the ball just kind of trickled right to me. I don't know what happened in the universe to to make that happen. I don't believe in fate, I don't believe in God. I don't believe in any of that stuff. Karma can all go stuff it where the sun don't shine. But that was just an extreme case of luck. That worked out for me. And it truly launched my career as a YouTube without that. I'm not sure if I'd be doing this or if I if I were I'd probably have a fraction of the views and subscribers. So it's just one of those oddities that worked out in my favor.
Catching A-Rod's 3,000th hit — and becoming baseball's most controversial fan00:09:25
Right. And unfortunately, you know, that amount of attention also generated controversy. Can you explain what happened?
It generated a ton and I brought some of that upon myself, unfortunately. I posted a negative tweet, either the day before or the day of the game when A-Rod hit that baseball someone asked me, you know, what would I do if I get the ball? Would I give it to him? Because there's there's an expectation, which I think is unfair that when a fan snags a historic home run that the ball should be given to the player who hit it. And sure it's nice for the player to get that baseball. But it's also nice for a random civilian who bought a ticket to a game to end up with a six figure baseball in their hands, that could be life changing money, especially if the guy who hit it is worth half a billion dollars, as was the case with A-Rod.
So I don't think it should be assumed that the fan will will just give something for free to an A-list multimillionaire, so whatever. A-Rod had been busted for steroid use, and there were lots of controversies. I was not a fan of him at that point. So I was trying to be snarky on Twitter. And I did not assume I'd get the ball and and so I basically responded like, "you know what, give him the ball? No, I'll give him the finger and a dummy ball." And I said, "That man deserves favors from no one. Least of all a fan."
So then guess what, hours later I snagged the ball. And that tweet got screenshotted and went viral. And the first person that I talked to, after I got the ball on the phone was my girlfriend at the time. And the first thing she said was, "Yeah, so about that tweet you posted earlier..." And I was like, "Oh my God, oh my God. Oh my God." I dropped some four letter words, which I won't say here. It was really bad. And that just set things off in a very negative direction.
Yankee fans hated me, the fans of the other 29 Major League teams thought I was great because I was being mean to A-Rod. But yeah, somehow in a story about A-Rod, who was suing everybody, who had cheated, like, I was the villain somehow in this narrative. It was so bizarre. And yeah, things just really got off to a bad start. I was I was being dragged through the mud by the media untruthfully. And unfairly. I had a deal worked out with the Yankees within a day or two after getting the baseball that I would give it to A-Rod in exchange for the Yankees donating $150,000 to a children's baseball charity. I wasn't going to get any money from it. I wanted the money to go to charity.
But the Yankees, by the time I had this deal, they had left on an eight day road trip. So I couldn't give A-Rod the ball [immediately]. And the Yankees didn't want me to say anything. They wanted to break the story when the Yankees were about to come back to New York. And so there was a solid week of me just getting crapped on by the media. I mean, Forbes posted a story called something like "Memorabilia Leeches are Ruining the Sport." And it was pretty much all about me and how greedy and selfish I was, by which point I had already agreed to give this potentially half million dollar baseball to A-Rod for nothing, personally, no personal gain. And I just have to sit there and take it.
So the hate being generated really was out of control. According to some friends, I got death threats on Twitter. I was getting 100 Twitter notifications per minute, the first weekend that I got that baseball, so I couldn't even keep up with it. And it's just as well. The eyes of the world were on me and it was nasty.
It's like you get all the good and all the bad and just one giant dose.
What happened to the ball?
Two weeks to the day after I snagged it. I took it back to Yankee Stadium with me July 3, 2015. And I did a press conference with A-Rod at Yankee Stadium in front of a ton of media. And I handed him the ball and the Yankees presented one of those big oversized checks to the charity the the director of the charity was there. It's called Pitch In For Baseball and Softball. They provide baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids and communities all over the world whether it's you know, whether it's communities that are that just don't have much money in the first place and they can't afford equipment or it might be places where natural disasters have occurred floods or hurricanes and it might wipe out an entire storage facility. This charity steps in and helps gets kids out in the field playing ball, so it's a it's a very good cause and I was glad to support it.
"But again, you know, 99% of the media coverage after the A-Rod thing was how much of a greedy selfish jerk I was and how mean I was to A-Rod. And just a fraction of it was like the follow up stories on the charity getting money, so that's that's the media cycle for you.”
I've been working with them for years prior to getting this baseball. But again, you know, 99% of the media coverage after the A-Rod thing was how much of a greedy selfish jerk I was and how mean I was to A-Rod. And just a fraction of it was like the follow up stories on the charity getting money, so that's that's the media cycle for you. You know, negativity sells, the first thing that people see is what gets the most attention and it just kind of fizzles out after that.
So it was a tough lesson to learn with the media. I've made a lot of mistakes with the media over the years done some bad interviews. But you know, I've there been a lot of successes as well. And overall, I do consider myself very lucky to have just gotten to do so many cool things in the baseball world to connect with so many people to be part of baseball history to make a living, going to baseball games and making videos, even though it is a ton of work and a lot of stress at times. It's super fun. And I do feel lucky every single day for sure.
Favorite experiences over the years as a "professional ballhawk" and fan00:15:28
So how is this season going? How many games have you been to? And how many balls have you caught?
[As of the time this interview was conducted] I've been to 74 major league games. And as far as the number of balls, let me look that up quickly because I don't have all this stuff memorized. So this year 376 baseball's including five home runs during games, and 21 foul balls during games, which is a lot for me. So it's good. I've been to I think 18 different stadiums, I have a few more coming up. I've been to all 30 stadiums in one season for different seasons.
And while I certainly could do that every year, I've decided it's not it's not worth pushing myself. The travel is really exhausting. So now I'm sort of in the maybe 20 to 25 stadiums a year, which we'll probably end up doing this season. And yeah, I've put out dozens of videos. The videos are doing better than ever. I think in part because I have I have an intern now for the first time, which is pretty cool. And this is someone who is very smart with social media and YouTube and that whole world.
So he's helped me be much more thoughtful about thumbnails and titles for the YouTube videos, which I realize, I think, unfortunately, determines so much of how many views something gets. And I say unfortunate, because I think there's a lot of bad content out there, that ends up going viral just because of either clickbait or because of some stupid, catchy hook. Whereas I feel like my videos which are like 15 minutes there, they are so good. I can admit that.
I'll admit that the first book I ever wrote is garbage. How to snag Major League Baseballs, don't buy that, don't read it, it sucks. So now that I've said that, I feel like I'm allowed to say that my videos are really good. But sometimes there's just not that, that one hook to reel people in. And I feel like, some of my videos just don't get the views they deserve. It's just like a beautiful flowing journey for 15 minutes, a lot of action. But what's that one singular moment?
But my intern, Eric, got to give him a shout him out. He's great. He's helped me find those moments and package things up better. So, you know, pretty much I think all but two of my videos this year have gotten at least 100,000 views. And the two that haven't are this close. And I have some that are, you know, coming up on a million views just from this year.
So yeah, I feel good about the views, good revenue. I think my sponsor is happy. The biggest one that I work with is SeatGeek. I've done a whole bunch of promos for them. So it's, it's just madness. It's it's like non stop stuff. I feel like if every day was 124 hours long, I could fill it up just with baseball stuff. So I have to really be selective about where I spend my time and what I focus on.
Right, right. Apart from the A-Rod thing, which of course was a pretty singular experience. What are some of the other really notable, you know, experiences you've had over the years doing this?
As far as catching baseballs? Sure there, there have been big ones. But there's just so many experiences outside of stadiums that are baseball-related. I mean, probably my favorite ball that I've ever caught was the last home run that the Mets ever hit at their old stadium, Shea Stadium in 2008. That was just the happiest I've ever been just the biggest freak out. There was hit by Carlos Beltran. That was a very, very historic ball. I still have it. I was glad that the Mets did not ask for that baseball because I might have, I might have said "no" and that might have pissed people off even more.
I really still enjoy owning that baseball. But, like, getting to visit the Rawlings baseball factory in Costa Rica. That was one of the coolest experiences ever. And I was researching that for the last book I wrote which is called The Baseball, which is all about balls. That factory is not open to the public and it is so remote. It's up in the hills. I mean it's hard to find, and there's a barbed wire fence and security guards just to get inside the parking lot of this factory.
So there hadn't been anybody even from the media who had visited for seven years prior to me. So I really felt like I was seeing something special. So just getting to do stuff like that. A lot of the TV interviews that I've done, you know, being on "The Tonight Show "with Jay Leno, which was great, and with Conan O'Brien, which was bad. He's he's a he's a lousy human being, thumbs down to Conan. But it's still just an awesome experience.
"[I've had] so just so many wild experiences, like getting to talk baseball and physics with Neil deGrasse Tyson for 20 minutes when I was preparing to set a world record by catching a baseball dropped from a helicopter more than 1,000 feet high.”
Yeah, all the media, all the fans, I mean, just, just even a week and a half ago in LA, I had a wild experience, which was positive at first, but then negative at Dodger Stadium, Dodger security shut me down. Because I was signing too many autographs for fans. It sounds ridiculous. There's video evidence, you can go to my YouTube channel. I think I called it a, you know, "the Dodgers got mad at me for being too famous?" I don't like to boost myself up. But that's, that's actually what happened. They said it was causing a scene because so many people were gathered around, and they actually told me to stop signing autographs and stop taking selfies. And they told my videographer that he couldn't even film with his nicer camera.
So you know, part of me it's like, I want to pat myself on the back. It's like a testament to how big my channels gotten. But it was, it was really lame to be treated that way by a Major League team. They should be embracing me because I do a lot to promote the game. But it's just to step back from it and be like, "Wow, this is this is my life." Like, I'm in LA, where actual celebrities are just milling about all the time. And I'm too big for the Dodgers. Like what is going on. I had an ego boost, but kind of a bummer at the same time.
[I've had] so just so many wild experiences, like getting to talk baseball and physics with Neil deGrasse Tyson for 20 minutes when I was preparing to set a world record by catching a baseball dropped from a helicopter more than 1,000 feet high. I mean, there's just wacky, wacky things over the years that I've gotten to do. And again, I feel very lucky and special to have had all these experiences.
Growing up in the literary lap of New York City00:22:15
You touched on this a little bit briefly, but I'm really curious about your your literary family and kind of how they impacted you and what you decided to do with yourself. Talk a little bit about your family.
I mentioned that my dad was a writer. He mostly wrote children's books. He had over a couple dozen books published. But he also wrote plays, screenplays, television, and he had to syndicated cartoon strips. The more famous one was called "Inside Woody Allen. "He was friends with Woody going back to Woody's early days in stand up, when nobody knew who he was. And yet he pitched the idea to Woody and what he was like, "yeah."
So I think from 1976 to 1984, my dad had this strip. And I was very young at the time, but I remember sitting on my dad's lap while he was illustrating it with an actual, I forget, I don't even know what you call it one of those pens that you dip in a little tub. Yeah. And he was drawing his cartoon strip and I was sitting there watching. So he was wildly creative and talented. A great artist, very funny, just a larger than life character.
We definitely had our feuds, a lot of father/son tension, but he was great overall. So I learned a lot from him. He was on TV a lot. Going back to I mean, when he was a young adult in Buffalo, he was on Captain Kangaroo. You know, he he just did so much stuff. And he was a good role model and advisor to me getting my writing career started and and also just being on TV and helping me handle that whole process of being in the spotlight.
My mom and her two sisters own a big independent bookstore in New York City, which my grandfather started in 1925. So it's it's the oldest bookstore in New York. It's called Argosy, right in Manhattan, on East 59th Street, it's six floors. There's a whole floor of prints and maps, there's a whole floor first editions, a whole floor of autographs. So it's, it's a place that's filled with treasures. I've worked there on and off over the years.
Once the YouTube stuff really took off, in 2017, I decided that that would be the only work that I would do moving forward. So people still think I work at the bookstore. I haven't worked there for four years, but I still visit often and hang out there. And you know, if a phone is ringing and no one's answering it, I can grab it and certainly point people in the right direction or ring up the occasional sale at the cash register. But yeah, it's It's just a magnificent place.
"And so, yeah, between my mom and my dad, [I grew up in] a world of writing and a world of books. And also, you know, neither of them ever complained about their careers or complained about bosses. They could take any time off that they wanted, although they were very dedicated to their careers and worked hard.”
And so, yeah, between my mom and my dad, [I grew up in] a world of writing and a world of books. And also, you know, neither of them ever complained about their careers or complained about bosses, they could take any time off that they wanted, although they were very dedicated to their careers and worked hard. So I, I'm sure that shaped me in some way.
I've never done well working in an office working for other people. I know that a lot of people hate that. And it works. For some people, I know that some people like to have a routine and a guaranteed paycheck. But man, I just, I did not do well having to show up early in the morning in an office and answering to other people. And so again, I feel very lucky to have found some other way to make money and and to spend my time. So I hope that YouTube continues to be a thing, because I definitely want to keep riding this wave.
And would you give any advice to anyone who wants to follow in a similar path, maybe not catching baseballs, but you know, trying to turn some other passion into a full time gig?
I think the key is, well, obviously to stand out somehow. And for me, it's kind of easy in a way, because my entire hobby of catching baseballs is very media-friendly. And just simply catching a ball at a game, if it's during the game, odds are that the cameras are on you. So if you catch enough of them, people start to notice and they're like, wait a minute, that's the same guy that caught this ball here, you got another one. So I kind of stumbled into a lot of the recognition.
But I think just in general, you got to find something that sets you apart from the crowd, you either have to be the very best in the world at it. Or you need to have some sort of trick or niche. Or even if you look different, you know, I always think of that, that celebrity chef guy theory or theory, I'm not sure how to pronounce it, but with the spiked Platinum hair, like if not for his hair. I feel like he'd be half as recognizable. And, you know, I always wear this baseball cap at games. And I feel like this makes me super recognizable.
So whether it's how you look or what you do, like you got to stand out somehow, and you have to be good at it. Evidently, being a YouTuber is the number one dream job among kids today, at least in America, I don't know if it's, if it's a global thing, but more than rock star athlete astronaut, like kids want to be a YouTuber. And it's wild that like I am the thing that people want to be. And I see a lot of videos that kids put out and they're just so bad, I'm sorry to be mean. But like, come on, kids, you got to step it up. It's just bad camera work. It's shaky shots, and it's wasted seconds. It's just, it's clips that just drag on. Like, you don't need to show something for eight seconds, if the viewer can get it in two seconds.
And so just from a YouTube advice standpoint, like good camera work and tight editing goes a long way that'll put you ahead of 90% of all the other kids out there that are trying to be YouTubers. So you know, I think just do it better than other people and find something unique and special that also stands out and if you can combine those two things, you're gonna get noticed somehow.