Bill Conlin: Write guy, right place in Baseball Hall of Fame

Conlin
Conlin
Posted: July 20, 2011

MIDNIGHT had struck during baseball's Hall of Fame weekend last year when the magnitude of it all hit Bill Madden like a Nolan Ryan fastball. One by one, as he sat with his wife Lillian in the Hawkeye Grill of Cooperstown's luxurious Otesaga Resort Hotel, those whom the New York Daily News writer had chronicled on their way to immortality walked toward him on their way to bed.

"Brett, Niekro, Seaver," Madden, last year's winner of the Spink Award, was saying this week. "Ozzie Smith. Sutton.

"They walked by my table and put out their hands and said, 'Welcome to the club.' "

There is no separate plaque on the walls of the Hall of Fame to mark Madden's membership. Truth is, they have their club, and he's in his, his name alongside names like Rice, Runyan, Lardner and Smith - and after this weekend, his friend and colleague Bill Conlin, too.

Displayed prominently in the "Scribes and Mikemen" exhibit on the first floor of Cooperstown's famed museum, The J.G. Taylor Spink Award is precisely that, given to baseball's best reporters and writers for "meritorious service to our profession, to men who helped elevate it by their literary talent, their accomplishments and their integrity."

"And that's why Bill deserves to be there," Ross Newhan, the 2000 Spink winner who covered the Angels and Dodgers for more than four decades, mostly for the Los Angeles Times, said of Conlin. "When I was traveling and a bit younger, I always looked forward to reading him."

"I always wished I could write like that," said Hal McCoy, the longtime Reds beat writer for the Dayton Daily News who won the award in 2003. "I know all the words Bill knows. I just can't put them together like he does."

Said Newhan, "He always wrote with such great flair, turned the average event into a drama. And he definitely knew baseball."

"Absolutely," Madden said. "I'm not sure how he's viewed in other parts of the country, but to those of us in New York, Bill Conlin was and is Philadelphia baseball."

As the longtime editor of The Sporting News, J.G. Taylor Spink exerted unprecedented and, in this era, unimaginable influence over baseball. His publication was often referred to as the game's "bible" but if so, it was a living, breathing bible, edited by a living, breathing god. According to his obituary in the Dec. 8, 1962, edition of the New York Herald Tribune, Spink was a man of salty language and early-morning calls to cajole correspondents, a man "who had all kinds of pipelines through the major and minor maze, and when Happy Chandler was commissioner he had one right into the commissioner's office."

Spink was The Sporting News editor during the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and is generally believed to be the ghost writer of some of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' missives at the time. He also battled publicly with Landis, baseball's first commissioner, received favors from the office that no other periodical enjoyed, and exerted influence over the game far in excess of the perceived influence multimedia giant ESPN has over today's game.

"As the driving force of the bible of baseball, Spink's editorials were, essentially, the gospel of baseball and they made him the most powerful man in the game," Madden said during his speech accepting the award last summer.

Then turning to the current baseball commissioner, Madden said, "Imagine that, Mr. Selig, a newspaper man more powerful than even the commissioner."

Conlin, those who know him will attest, is a man Spink would have both battled and bonded with, a man Ring Lardner would have marveled at during those infamous hours after the copy was sent in. More than his immediate predecessors, Conlin's two-plus decades of early morning Daily News deadlines and lasting relationships trace their lineage to the days when men like Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon had more time to think, to write, and most of all, to understand their subject matter beyond the numbers attached to their names.

"There were plenty of times I would be headed out the door," recalls 2007 Spinks winner Rick Hummel, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And Bill would still be in the press room with 'Pope' [Paul Owens], Harry Kalas, maybe a couple of scouts. He had yet to write."

Conlin, said his Spink peers, would be best served to radically alter that approach this weekend.

"Before induction weekend, Johnny Bench told me, write down everything," McCoy said. "Because you'll never remember it. And he was right. I don't remember a thing."

"So much goes on so fast," Hummel said. "Take a notebook."

"I told Bill to be ready for an exhausting weekend," Madden said. "Seaver and Niekro both had told me, 'Make sure you take in every bit of the weekend.' I tried to. But there's a lot that's still a blur."

For the first time, winners of the Spink Award, its broadcast equivalent, the Frick Award, and baseball's Buck O'Neil lifetime achievement honor will accept their awards in a separate ceremony on Saturday afternoon. Conlin, broadcast peer Dave Van Horne and longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond will deliver their speeches at Doubleday Field before leading a flatbed parade of 50 Hall of Fame players down Main Street to the museum, where a private reception will take place.

From that point on, Conlin will be introduced with "Hall of Fame" preceding his name, said his peers, which Madden and Newhan called "humbling" as well as "life-changing."

For McCoy, that change took place immediately, as he walked back into Cooperstown after the induction ceremony.

"A woman came running out of a house and said, 'Mr. McCoy, Mr. McCoy, would you sign my program?' Turns out she was Babe Ruth's granddaughter. I mean, I was so stunned."

Newhan, 74 and Hummel, 65, now have press boxes named in their honor. Hummel still writes for the Post-Dispatch, while

Newhan has moved on to writing books.

McCoy, 70, still writes and blogs despite losing most of his vision 8 years ago. Of the award, he said, "It totally changed my professional life. Nobody had ever heard of Hal McCoy until I won that award. Nobody recognized me or asked for my autograph. Now hardly a day goes by. I get stopped at Great American Ball Park four or five times a game by people wanting my autograph, or a picture with them. Yesterday it was in a grocery store [in Dayton]."

McCoy has not returned to Cooperstown since being honored, but three summers ago his grandson Eric - named by McCoy's son after Eric Davis - played a game at Doubleday Field and afterward had his picture taken beside his grandfather's name and likeness. Newhan, who also has not been back since, recalled one of the many congratulatory messages he received, from longtime Dodgers Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin.

"He said this is not for you as much as it is your grandkids,"

Newhan said. "And it's true."

Conlin's image and achievements will dominate the Hall's first-floor exhibit for the next 12 months, before it is reduced and placed on the bottom row of a roster that will always lead with those names who so eloquently chronicled baseball's past. Spink . . . Lardner . . . Rice . . . Runyon.

"I'll never cease to marvel at the names on that top row," said Hummel, who has returned to Cooperstown nearly every year. "I mean, what's wrong with this picture? If Grantland Rice is looking down at that bottom row, he's saying, 'Who?' "

Hall of Fame writers, that's who.

"That's what this is really about," Madden said. "We didn't hit a single home run or pitch one shutout. We're in the writer's Hall of Fame. Our Babe Ruth, our Hank Aaron or Ted Williams, are guys like Rice and Runyon, guys like Dick Young, who was my mentor. To us, those guys are as big heavy hitters as Ruth, Aaron and all those others. They're our immortals."

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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