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:

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

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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Dave Studeman
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Dave Studeman

Great job, Larry.  Welcome to THT!

Some other people have connected baseball and Baal, too.

http://illuminatimatrix.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/baseball-serpent.jpg

InnocentBystander
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InnocentBystander

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.

King Kaufman
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King Kaufman

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.

Larry Granillo
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Larry Granillo
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… Read more »
john
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john

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.

Dino Cione Marconi
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Dino Cione Marconi

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.

ron howard
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ron howard
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… Read more »
Tim A.
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Tim A.
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… Read more »
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