On Conlin, the Hall of Fame, and space aliens

Early Tuesday afternoon, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced that they would be awarding the J. G. Taylor Spink Award to Bill Conlin, longtime writer of the Philadelphia Daily News. While winning the award doesn’t technically induct the winner into the Hall of Fame, it’s the honor that people refer to when they say “Hall of Fame sportswriter.”

Conlin, who has been writing for the Daily News since 1965, has had his fair share of controversy and internet arguments in the last few years. In 2007, he got in trouble for making a comment about Hitler and bloggers. A few weeks later, he got into a heated email exchange with Phillies’ blogger Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley over the merits of Jimmy Rollins’ MVP award. Both incidents (and some others) were covered by Deadspin, among other sites.

But one doesn’t last as the lead sportswriter of a newspaper in a city like Philadelphia for 45 years without having been an excellent writer for much of one’s career. Conlin may be famous for his short temper and crochety ways now that he is in his 70s, but the unpleasant personality shouldn’t blind us to the talent he did have.

Now here’s where I make a confession: as a 30-year-old who grew up absolutely nowhere near Philadelphia, I can’t say for a fact that Conlin, in his peak years, was a Hall of Fame writer. I don’t have memories of reading Conlin’s latest piece on the floor on Sunday mornings like some might have for, say, Peter Gammons or Bob Ryan. It’s possible that, looking at his entire library, Conlin is indistinguishable from a generation’s worth of other sportswriters.

Either way, Conlin certainly had some bright moments. In one 1984 piece, for example, he wrote:

“Purists blush when Juan Samuel comes across second base like an NFL flanker making a post move and unfurls the double play pivot with a bolo flip. Then they gasp because Sammy has just whiskered swift Ken Landreaux at first to snuff a Dodgers’ rally.”

In the introduction to Batting Cleanup, Bill Conlin, a collection of Conlin articles, Kevin Kerrane led into the above example by saying:

If Conlin’s behind-the-scenes views revealed athletes as all too human, his descriptions of game action conveyed the magnitude of their talent and the demands of the sport itself, often capturing an intricate moment of baseball time through a series of sharp images and dynamic verbs.

A great example of the Conlin that we tend to forget in today’s world was published in the Daily News on Sept. 13, 1986, the day after Mike Schmidt hit his 493rd career home run, tying him with Lou Gehrig for 14th all-time.

A visitor from another planet, beamed into the giant saucer of Veterans Stadium for a Close Encounter of the Four Base Kind last night, may have returned to his civilization with a report that went something like this:

“Having stood – more out of habit, it seemed, than respect – for a discordant selection of music, the vast gathering of Earthlings participated in a complex religious ceremony.

It seems their god of night is Baze-Baal, a deity who could be connected to the Baal worshipped by some of the early Semitic tribes discovered during the Earth-probe in Epoch 12 of the 23rd Millennium.”

That’s right, Bill Conlin wrote the game story for a mid-September game between the Mets and Phillies – one in which Mike Schmidt hit an historically significant home run – as if it were a report being filed by a space alien assigned to observe Earth and its customs. He didn’t let the conceit of the story prevent him from including post-game quotes:

We have transcribed some of Schmidt’s words as directed to a body of men called the negative bleepers. They appear to be recorders of the spoken and written word who gathered after the ritual to ask what Schmidt thought in his mind were ‘more dumb questions.’

He said, ‘You know that was one of the most thrilling home runs I’ve ever hit, to be honest with you. I’ve had a lot of thrilling home runs, but off of the guy I feel is the toughest pitcher against a righthanded hitter in that kind of pressure situation, with the electricity there was in the stadium. At a time when there were two men on base . . .

‘To get to 493, which ties one of the all-time greats is quite thrilling.’

Conlin even managed to insert himself into the story:

To better understand Schmidt’s remarks, we placed a thought probe into the head of a negative bleeper called Khan-Lin. He said to a bleeper named Bus, ‘He’s gotta be MVP, look at the numbers – leads the majors with 35 homers and 109 RBI, hitting .293 and fielding his pits off. It’s good they scored some runs for Bruce Ruffin. The kid was great, got 15 groundball outs the first six innings. He’s just been exceptional – 8-3 with a 2.43 ERA, just amazing a kid with that kind of arm and poise could start the season in Reading.’

There’s more to the story, of course. Conlin details many of the exciting moments of the game, including the Schmidt home run, and seems to have fun describing things like “the sacrament Beer” and “the Bleeping Mets’” attempt to “achieve a level of spirituality called East Division.” He closed the story with, what else, “Nanu nanu.” It’s about as unique of a game story as I’ve ever read.

The announcement of Conlin’s Spink Award wasn’t exactly greeted with the warmest of receptions around the Internet. Not that it’s all that surprising: Conlin’s role of tenured antagonist has been well-deserved. But we should strive to not let our feelings for a cranky 76-year-old man color his legacy as a sportswriter. When he wanted to, Bill Conlin could write some interesting, colorful and inventive stories. It’s the type of writing that I wish we saw more of in today’s newspapers. At the very least, we should acknowledge and remember this about the man who will be joining the rest of the Hall of Fame inductees in Cooperstown this July.

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Comments

  1. InnocentBystander said...

    Wow, I was reading that as sarcasm until I saw Dave’s comment. I’m from the Philly-area and if those are the best examples of Conlin’s writing I’m glad I managed avoided it. I can say that Bill Lyon (also a Philly writer, but for the Inquirer) must have been taken notes because he had much the same style. After a few years, I stopped trying to read him too. They are the written version of a Tim McCarver broadcast…what the hell are they talking about and can they please just stick to the game.

  2. King Kaufman said...

    I admire your generosity, and I don’t begrudge anybody any award, and some great, great talents have won both the Spink and Frick awards. But both of those awards are basically given out to people who hang around long enough. Conlin goes in that category.

  3. Larry Granillo said...

    Like I said, I’m far from an expert on Conlin’s writing and, in fact, most of my exposure to it has been underwhelming. I have no idea if these are examples of his best writing. With 45 years of work, there’s very little chance I would stumble upon his opus in just an hour or so of hunting around (I wouldn’t be surprised if some felt the Samuel example was illustrative of his best, though, since it was used as an example in his book).

    I just feel like there’s a good chance that we’re missing or forgetting some of these septuagenarians’ and octogenarians’ writing ability just because they’ve turned into such unlikable grumps in the meantime. The space alien story really intrigued me because of its inventiveness and ambition, not necessarily for its prose.

    It’s not a bad idea to try and remember every now and then that there was a time when these grumps were actually contributing something to their papers and were a worthwhile read. That’s my main point.

    And, Dave, that graphic is awesome. It’s almost convinced me.

  4. john said...

    I think “fielding his pits off” is really the most troubling part of that ‘86 story for me, and that’s saying quite a bit.

  5. Dino Cione Marconi said...

    As a native Philadelphian, I can attest to Bill’s extraordinary writing.  He knows baseball, the Phillies, and how to write.  He also had a great sense of humor in most of his columns-which writers like Gammons do not.

    Yes, he has become cranky over the years, but he recently lost his wife of over 50 years which has taken a lot from his spirit.

  6. ron howard said...

    first, Bill Conlin on his worst day was and is a better sportswriter than Peter Gammons or Bob Ryan.  I lived in Boston for several years and Philly for several years and Conlin is much better.  Second, Gammons and Ryan were completely blind to the race issues on the Red Sox.  Conlin covered the racial classes between Dick Allen and the Phillies from 1964 onwards and highlighted them so clearly that the Phillies were pretty much forced to listen.  After that during the 1980s Conlin highlighted the destruction of the Phils farm system and the decimation of their Latin recruitment operations.  Gammons and Ryan by contrast really never did any kind of investigative reporting or meaningful interviewing.  I won’t even get into what my sources say about Gammons and Ryan on Sports Center, ESPN and other TV appearances, except to say that without their stat guys to prop them up, they wouldn’t know squat about baseball. 

    Beyond that, the American League is a second rate kind of baseball diluted by the DH and dominated by the Yankees and more recently by the Red Sox. Conlin covered NL baseball in its prime days—the days of Bob Gibson, Pete Rose, Lou Brock et al., during the 60s, 70s and 80s, when it was clearly much, much better than the AL.  Because the AL has done way more steroids the last 20 years and the Yanks and BoSox pay so much, we think the AL is better, but the truth is the NL still plays a far better brand of baseball than the AL. 

    Now that runs per game are returning to normal, the clear advantages of the NL game are coming back and it is obvious that the NL is the better game.  No sportswriter anywhere in the USA wrote more or better about it than Conlin.

      It’s hard to compare the noncompeting AL to the ultracompetitive NL, where every year there is a different winner, where the stolen base has never died, where strategy matters, where managers matter, and where bullpens need to be actively managed along with pinchhitters.  In short, Conlin is a beat writer’s beatwriter.

    Finally, Philly is a town where the fans will rip you apart if you don’t win, and where the fans are not rich yuppies but working class people with families.  Conlin always related to both the fans and the players, and he also had keen insights into the ownership of the Phils, the GMs, the management moves, and many small items going on during the season and the offseason. 

    In short, he has been essential reading for more than 50 years, and the keystone of the greatest sports page in America, the Philadelphia Daily News. 

    As such, he is a clear Hall of Fame Sports Writer.

    As for cranky, that is not the right word.  Bill Conlin just refuses to lose an argument or give ground to anyone—but he’s not cranky.  He actually pays attention to your point of view and eventually may come to adopt it over time even if he’s arguing against it at one point of time, he may later advance it.  A good example is use of SABR and advanced statistics—he was always against them, but he has been in the forefront of those using these metrics the last three years, showing that he is as sharp as ever and right on top of his game. 

    In fact, his columns of late have been quite excellent. 

    In a world where most kids have about a five minute memory, it’s refreshing to have a sportswriter who can remember every ballgame back to 1964 or so, and can remember when the games were on grass, went to astroturf, and then went back to grass, all in one lifetime of baseball.

    So Bill Conlin has my enthusiastic vote for the Hall of Fame and I am personally glad for him and his election to the Hall of Fame.

    —Ron Howard

  7. Tim A. said...

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Larry. It reminds me of visiting my grandfather. He worked for Ohio Edison for almost 40 years and was successful in his work as well as a variety of hobbies, volunteering, and general citizenship.

    Occasionally, he will succumb to the “get off my lawn” attitude when discussing modernity. I find it helpful to remember his amazing life and achievements before dismissing him as a Conlin-like curmudgeon.

    Like you, I’m unsure about Conlin’s actual worth as a sportswriter in his younger days, but it never hurts to give a man the benefit of the doubt. We’ll all need that benefit at some point, I think.

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