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.