The Spink Award

You might not care about this at all … couldn’t blame you, really. It’s a sort of insider, sportswriter topic. But I’ll throw it out there anyway because it’s on my mind.

The J.G. Taylor Spink Award is award given out annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America. You know this award: It’s the one they give every year in Cooperstown during Hall of Fame week. It’s sometimes said that Spink Award winners are inducted into the Hall of Fame itself, though this is technically not true. The writers do not get a place in the plaque room of the Hall. But it’s true enough, there’s a special exhibit in the Hall of Fame honoring the Spink Award winners (and the Ford Frick Award for announcers). It is often called the ultimate honor for baseball writers.

What does the Spink Award actually honor? It’s interesting: There is no actual instruction on the ballot. It only says: “Here are the nominees for the 2014 J.G. Taylor Spink Award.” Everyone is just supposed to know what it is all about. But I’m not 100% sure so I looked it up. The award is given for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” What does that mean? As you know, we in the BBWAA love to parse words so that “most valuable” doesn’t necessarily mean “best” so let’s take a look at the words here.

Meritorious means “deserving reward or praise.” That’s pretty simple.

But “contributions to baseball writing” is trickier. What the heck does that mean?

The award is named for J.G. Taylor Spink, who was editor and publisher of The Sporting News when the magazine was known as the “Bible of Baseball.” Spink MADE IT the Bible of Baseball through will and determination and a fanaticism about the game and it’s meaning in America. So what were his “contributions to baseball writing?” This is a strange thing to say about a legendary guy like Spink but the answer is not entirely clear. Spink wasn’t a writer. At all. If you look closely at his career you will find he was actually an ANTI-writer in a way. He had a column in The Sporting News for years and years called “Looping the Loop with J.G. Taylor Spink.” Catchy name. Only trouble is: He didn’t write it. The column was ghostwritten by a series of writers — so many that nobody seems entirely sure of the number. It’s hard to tell if Taylor Spink ever wrote anything at all. One rather famous three-part series about baseball pioneer Larry MacPhail carried Spink’s byline and included a charming story of Spink visiting MacPhail which included MacPhail shouting, “Hello Taylor, old man! Come in, come in, and meet the family.” Charming story. Unfortunately it never happened. According to Sports Illustrated, the story was ghosted by a New York sportswriter — as was Spink’s book, “Judge Landis and 25 Years of Baseball.” Well, it was a different time.

So Spink’s “contribution to baseball writing” was not in the writing itself. It was in finding talented baseball writers (several, including Fred Lieb, are Spink Award winners), hiring them, publishing their work, and serving as the unquestioned guardian of the game (sometimes to his own dishonor — The Sporting News was often on the wrong side of the race question in baseball). So that’s one way someone can contribute to baseball writing. You can bend the game of baseball.

Ring Lardner offers another way to contribute. He was the first writer after Spink to win the award, and he was a fantastic writer. He wrote for newspapers, for magazines, for Spink’s Sporting News — and he wrote about baseball with a joy and affection and sense of mischief that has influenced baseball writers for the last 100 years. He wrote “You Know Me Al,” a baseball novel which is both hilarious and, in a deeper sense, true. He would go on to bigger things — he was a friend of Scott Fitzgerald and a hero of both Ernest Hemingway and Holden Caufield — but in many ways he always saw himself as a baseball writer.

So, Lardner’s contribution to baseball writing, well, it was very different from Spink’s.

Spink’s contribution was more to the baseball part of the equation.

Lardner’s contribution was more the writing part of the equation.

Through the years, we’ve seen that contrast again and again. There have been a few great baseball WRITERS who have won the award — Damon Runyon, Jim Murray, Red Smith, etc. — who contributed to the craft.

And there have been many, many more who were great BASEBALL writers who had a huge impact on the story of the game itself. Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith were pioneering baseball writers for African American newspapers, and they played a large role in baseball integration. Dick Young, before he became an acerbic and sometimes bitter sports columnist, spearheaded a new kind of baseball beat writer, one who was more combative and dubious. Joe McGuff loved the game and played a pivotal role in bringing the Royals to Kansas City after Charlie Finley moved the Athletics to Oakland. There are a bunch of Spink Award winners who became larger than life figures to baseball fans in their towns — Joe Falls in Detroit, Hal Lebovitz in Cleveland, Bob Broeg in St. Louis, Ray Kelly in Philadelphia, my friend Hal McCoy in Dayton/Cincinnati, Peter Gammons in Boston. Peter, in many ways, invented a new kind of baseball writer.

So, this long and boring introduction leads to the point: There are different way of looking at baseball writers. This year, there are three fantastic candidates on the ballot for the Spink Award. I’m going to focus on two writers, unfairly leaving out Mel Durslag, who was a wonderful baseball writer in Los Angeles for a half century. Mel is absolutely as qualified for the award as the other two, and I hope he wins the award someday, but he doesn’t quite ft the point here.

The first is: Furman Bisher.

The second is: Roger Angell.

You probably know a little bit about both men, but I’ll give a quick recap. Bisher was the legendary voice of Atlanta sports for 59 years. He covered 50 World Series, was the first person to get an interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson after the 1919 scandal*, wrote a book about Henry Aaron and was utterly essential in bringing the Braves to Atlanta. He was an excellent sports columnist with a powerful voice and unyielding opinions about right and wrong. He was the sports voice of the South. You read him daily.

*This from Brilliant Reader Jacob: “A minor correction: Bisher did not have the FIRST interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson following his banishment in the Black Sox Scandal, as is so often reported (even by Bisher himself late in his life.) … Shirley Povich, Scoop Latimer and other writers also had extensive interviews with Jackson in the 1930s and 1940s. Jackson was not a recluse and he was not hard to find in Greenville. It can be reasonably claimed, however, that Bisher did get the LAST major sit-down interview with Jackson in 1949 for “Sport” magazine, two years before Jackson’s death.”

Angell is simply the most graceful baseball writer who ever lived. In the nomination paragraph listed on the Spink Ballot, they include two sentences he wrote for The New Yorker: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Nothing more needs to be said about Roger Angell.

Both men clearly deserve to win the Spink Award, and I suspect before it’s all done they both will. But who gets the vote now? Do you go with Bisher, the daily voice of the game, the man on deadline, who for a half century narrated baseball live and in color from the disorder and sweat of the clubhouse and the racket up in the press box? Or do you go with Angell, the poet, who had months to craft his few baseball pieces and so polished them into glistening jewels?

People in the business have strong feelings about such things. I remember being at a World Series in Atlanta once in the early 1990s, and the game had ended, and we were all waiting for the elevator to take us down. The elevator was small and slow, and when it finally came up there was only room for a few of us. The thing quickly filled and there was only one spot left and a few anxious sportswriters needing to get down to beat deadline. Angell took the spot, which led Bill Conlin — a Spink Award winner himself — to grumble: “Yeah, that spot should really go to Angell. After all his deadline is NOVEMBER.”

And I remember sitting close to Furman Bisher during a World Series game that dramatically turned, and watching him grit his teeth, say, “Well, I gotta rewrite this whole thing,” and getting to work.

I remember reading Furman Bisher defending longtime Dodgers executive Al Campanis a day after his appearance on Nightline. That was the appearance when Campanis made his unfortunate comment about how African Americans “may not have some of the necessities” to be a manager and then topped it off his already doomed performance with the outrageous non-sequitur “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.” Campanis had his life of decency — he had a history of tolerance and had often stood up for Jackie Robinson when they were teammates in the minor leagues — obscured by one bumbling, jumpy, revealing and yet almost incoherent television appearance. Bisher boldly and angrily stood up for Campanis* in the heat of the moment, which defines what a deadline sportswriter can do.

*To tell the full story, Bisher defended Campanis, in part, by smashing writer Roger Kahn, who shared the stage with Campanis during that Nightline interview. Bisher wrote, “”Kahn is one of these writing people caught up in his own trance. He fancied himself as a thwarted infielder, but only in his own mind. He threw like a girl.” It was personal. Bisher could be as razor-edged as anyone.

Then, I remember reading, by the light of a lamp without a shade by my bed, Roger Angell’s perfect little essay on the box score. Two sections stand out:

“(A box score) is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment — ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay — and an ensuing statistic.”

And:

“No novelist has yet been able to concoct a baseball hero with as tonic a name as Willie Mays or Duke Snider of Vida Blue.”

When I read those words, I thought: What a wonderful thing it must be to write about baseball.

So, which way to go? Bisher or Angell? Angell or Bisher? Bisher could not write with Angell. And Angell was not on the front lines like Bisher. Which way? Do you go for the writer who was always there, like Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter, players who offered occasional brilliance but were most valuable because they were good day after day after day? Or do you go for the writer who would shoot across the sky now and again, like Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez?

60 thoughts on “The Spink Award

  1. Mean Dean

    Well, do you think Bisher would have written as well as Angell even if his deadline was November?

    I sure don’t. So that seems to settle that.

    (BTW, I thought this article was going to be how Spink award winners are not actually “Hall of Famers” as they are often described, which would be a fun thing for a sportswriter to acknowledge ;)

    Reply
  2. Tom Geraghty

    Not sure who should win the award, but you’ve convinced me to get my hands on anything I can that was written by Roger Angell . . .

    Reply
    1. dlf9

      Yes, definitely. If you love baseball and respect the written word, find just about anything Angell has written. Start with “Five Seasons,” “The Summer Game,” or “Late Innings” his compilations of pieces written mostly for The New Yorker in the mid-60s through mid-80s. Find the article, “The Web of the Game,” a story about watching a 1981 college world series game with octogenerian Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the Red Sox of the 1910s, during which Ron Darling, pitching for Yale, took a no-hitter into extra innings, but was beat by Frank Viola’s St. John’s club. Some of what he wrote in the last few years is spotty, but for more than 30 years, he was brilliant.

      P.S. Last night I read his step-father’s most famous work, “Charlotte’s Web” to a niece.

      Reply
  3. PhilM

    If “contributions” are meant to last, then Roger Angell in a blowout. I’ve read and re-read everything of his I could find, which means his published works as well as a day well-spent culling through (electronic) New Yorkers for decades to “catch up” on the World Series columns that never were made into a book. I treasure those books and that binder.

    Reply
  4. Steve Gietschier

    The story behind the Spink Award is just as fascinating as its evolution. Late in Taylor Spink’s life, there was a movement within baseball to induct him into the Hall of Fame. After all, he was publisher of The Sporting News from 1914 until his death in 1962. Most everyone agreed that his contributions to the sport were immense. Trouble was, there was no category into which he fit. He was neither player nor manager nor owner. So, as an alternative way of honoring Spink, the BBWAA created the Spink Award, presented each year at the induction ceremony but not, of course, conferring membership in the Hall of Fame itself.

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  5. dlf9

    “Angell took the spot, which led Bill Conlin — a Spink Award winner himself — to grumble: ‘Yeah, that spot should really go to Angell. After all his deadline is NOVEMBER.’”

    Apparently Bill was in a hurry to go molest a child.

    Reply
  6. Harwood Benjamin

    First of all, if they had let Conlan on that elevator, two or three people would have been forced to get off to make room.

    Your examples seem to point to Bisher as cranky, intemperate and kind of a bully, and Angell as graceful bordering on poetic.

    I can think of a parallel either-or situation that might help readers of this blog (especially those from KC): Who would you give the Spinks award to–Joe Posnanski or Jason Whitlock?

    Reply
    1. Dan Nastali

      It would have to be Joe. They showed up at the KC Star at about the same time. It seemed to be a ‘good cop’/ ‘bad cop’ hiring with Joe going more for human interest and Jason for the cranky opinion. Who is the better writer? Well, there was the column in which Jason wrote about some athlete’s ‘unauthorized autobiography’…

      Reply
  7. visigoths

    I’ve always thought guys with deadlines got short shrift on this. For example, Ronald Blum of the AP has written game stories and major features for years, and seems to be the byline on stories that tens of millions of people see each day on contract and labor issues. I’m not comparing a wire service guy to Furman Bisher or Melvin Durslag — who are truly excellent and certainly deserving — but it seems as if guys like Blum or Hal Bock, who wrote a column for the AP for many years, deserve consideration as well.

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  8. 18thstreet

    I remember at Larry Bird’s retirement ceremony, Magic Johnson saying, “Every now and then, a player comes along and they say ‘he’s the next Larry Bird. Well, let me tell you: there will never, ever, EVER be another Larry Bird.”

    There will never, ever, ever be another Roger Angell.

    Reply
  9. bellweather22

    When I arrived in Atlanta many years ago, I was “treated” to daily Furman Bisher columns in the AJC. I found him very “old south” and usually very unreadable. It doesn’t surprise me to find out that he defended Al Campanis, since he spent a great deal of time defending old south traditions like The Masters (and whoever they were excluding) and the Kentucky Derby (lets sing the full unedited version of My Old Kentucky Home). Maybe he was just really old and losing it when I started reading his stuff, or maybe he had always been that way. Or maybe Atlantans loved him the way they loved Skip Carey. “Flawed, not overly talented, but definitely ours”.

    Bottom line: no way should he win over Angell.

    Reply
    1. Perry

      Wow, thanks for the link! I’ve loved Angell since I started reading him in the 70s, have every one of his books, think he’s the greatest baseball writer ever. And I read the the New Yorker every week — the print version. Angell almost never appears there any more, so I assumed he was more or less retired — I had no idea he was writing for the online version. Thank you thank you thank you!!!

      Reply
  10. Harwood Benjamin

    Longevity is a component that should be considered, but does not make someone an automatic qualifier. Too many of these kinds of awards are given to people with long, but not especially remarkable, careers.

    Roger Angell’s career has been both long and remarkable.

    Reply
  11. Alejo

    The thing with Angell is, he doesn’t really need the award to be remembered forever. Therefore he deserves it more than anyone else.

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  12. JimW

    Roger Angell, of course. After the World Series I can’t wait for the New Yorker with his summary of the season and the playoffs.

    The discussion about quality of writing and deadlines reminds me of A.J. Liebling: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”

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  13. Sean Lahman (@seanlahman)

    What Angell and Bisher did were two completely different things. It’s like comparing Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks. I’m not sure how you’re supposed to pick one over the other.

    The lack of scope is a problem greater than the ambiguous interpretation of ““meritorious contributions.” Is the award intended to honor beat writers? Because most of the honorees have been from that class, and I don’t think Angell ever was. If Angell is eligible because of his books and essays, shouldn’t folks like Roger Kahn also be eligible? What about decidedly non-newspaper guys like Bill James and John Thorn?

    Reply
    1. Steve Gietschier

      Actually, Sean, a fair number of Spink Award winners were not beat writers: Spink, Runyon, Rice, Drebinger, Broun, Graham, Stockton, Kieran, Lieb, and Smith, to name a few. Kahn, by contrast, was a beat writer for a while.

      Reply
  14. Jacob Pomrenke

    A minor correction: Bisher did not have the FIRST interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson following his banishment in the Black Sox Scandal, as is so often reported (even by Bisher himself late in his life.)

    Shirley Povich, Scoop Latimer and other writers also had extensive interviews with Jackson in the 1930s and 1940s. Jackson was not a recluse and he was not hard to find in Greenville.

    It can be reasonably claimed, however, that Bisher did get the LAST major sit-down interview with Jackson in 1949 for “Sport” magazine, two years before Jackson’s death.

    Reply
  15. Donald A. Coffin

    This may sound callous, but Roger Angell is still living, and for many reasons I would prefer to honor people who are still with us. I’m sure that if Angell is selected, Bisher will appear again, perhaps with another great who is no longer with us (which would make for a more complicated choice).

    Reply
  16. "A-Rod's Evil Plan to Retire"

    It’s just nice to know we’re still debating the theoretical merits of those hacks Roger Angell and Furman Bisher while that all-time great man of letters Bill Madden sits on his Spink Award.

    Reply
  17. Chip S.

    Or do you go for the writer who would shoot across the sky now and again, like Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez?

    Just channel your inner Napoleon Dynamite.

    Reply
  18. Bill White

    Agnell, Bisher – absolutely outstanding writers from the standpoint of journalism, word pictures, and the romance of the game of baseball (and other sports). However, I refer you to your post of September 22, 2011, where you described the most influential writer in the history of baseball, yet to be and probably never to be awarded the Spink Award – Bill James.

    Reply
  19. Bob Lince

    >>Bisher or Angell? Angell or Bisher?<<

    I sense a coming attack of voters remorse. Whoever you vote for, the minute you cast the ballot you'll wish you'd voted for the other.

    Reply
  20. RPMcSweeney

    Agreed with the recent BR comments about Bill James. The Spink is awarded only to BBWA members, according to Wikipedia, and I don’t know whether James is a current member. So maybe he’s ineligible. But man, is it possible to say with a straight face that anyone has made a more meritorious contribution to baseball writing than Bill James? Forget baseball writing—there’s a totally serious argument to be made that Bill James has made a bigger contribution to baseball, period, than many players in the HOF.

    Reply
    1. Steve Gietschier

      Bill James is not a BBWAA member. He has never been one, to the best of my knowledge, because he has never met any of the criteria for membership. As an employee of the Red Sox, he is even more ineligible (if that makes sense) for membership.

      Reply
      1. RPMcSweeney

        Yeah, that makes sense. I figured that he wasn’t and never had been, especially in light of the kerfuffle about Rob Neyer and Keith Law’s membership a few years back.

        On the one hand I understand that the Spink is a professional award and that the BBWA should be free to set its own criteria for consideration. But on the other hand it’s weird that the BBWA can just establish itself (or be established as) the arbiter of things having to do with the inclusion in the Spink/HOF. (An incongruity that, of course, James touched on a bit in Politics of Glory.)

        At times it reminds me of watching the Oscars—why should I care whether this pageant of self-congratulation validates my taste in movies? But yet, I do care, or at least I care enough that it provokes righteous indignation.

        Reply
        1. RPMcSweeney

          No offense to any BBWA members intended! One of my best friends is (was?) a member. Though, knowing him as I do, I’m not sure whether that exactly commends the organization…

          Reply
  21. Charles Hohman

    The New York Yankees are the most valuable team in baseball.
    They are not the best team in baseball.
    Why is this hard to grasp.
    Argue that the award should go to the best player if you like, but not that the words mean the same thing.

    Reply
    1. BIP

      The parallel you’re trying to draw doesn’t even come close to working. When you refer to the Yankees’ value, you’re speaking in terms of money, which is influenced by many factors unrelated to the quality of their team–TV deal, stadium, brand, location. When people talk about value for the MVP award, however, what they all ultimately mean by most “valuable” is the player who makes the greatest contribution to his team in terms of winning baseball games. In that light, it is very hard to argue rationally that the most valuable player is anyone other than the best player.

      Reply
    2. Ian R.

      As BIP said, you’re talking about value in two different contexts. The Yankees are the most valuable franchise in that they’re the franchise that is worth the most money. They are not, however, the most valuable team in terms of their on-field performance – that would be either the Cardinals or the Red Sox, the two teams that finished with the best single-season records.

      Would you say that A-Rod is the most valuable player because he makes the most money?

      Reply
  22. Dave

    Well, let’s see. On my bookshelf I have every major Angell work. All copies thoroughly dogeared, all read many times over. Many passages almost committed to memory (Koufax = WMEJB, best ever description of Tiant’s pitching repertoire, enthralling profiles of Blass, Gibson, major league scouts). Some of the very best writing (not sportswriting, not baseball writing, just writing) I have ever read.

    Bisher? Yeah, I read a few of his columns back when he was in TSN.

    No contest.

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  23. Kootenai Jake

    Who do we idealize more … our wife of 30 years, or the first girl that gave us her charms? Bisher, akin to our tolerant wives, is a love affair of ups and downs, a daily grind – yet over a lifetime an accumulation of affection, memories and true love.

    Angell, like that first passion, remains mythic in our recollection.

    In truth, both are integral parts of us.

    But we make the necessary, the right, the beautiful choice of that daily relationship that additively is our life.

    Thus I vote for Bisher having followed his work from my childhood, through Turner’s Ostrich races and into the Glory years of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

    But I’ll wish for Angell to join him next year much the same as my wistful smile whenever I think of my first love.

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  24. McKingford

    Can’t say I know any of Bisher’s writing, but if his shtick is to reference a guy throwing like a girl? i think we can safely rule him out.

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  25. KC Oracle (@KCOracle)

    This is easy. Angell is alive and Bisher died last year. Vote for the guy who, presumably, is still able to smell the flowers. I hate it when they honor guys a little bit after their death. Bisher just died last year and should have been honored before he died. Angell also is a far better writer, but I agree with Joe that each provided great contributions to baseball.

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  26. invitro

    I’m OK with being alone in saying I hate Angell’s flowery, sophomoric writing. I think it’s nonsense and garbage.

    I’ll fourth or fifth Bill James. But it’s OK if he never gets this award — he’s so much more important to baseball than any of the others, he’s really in a different league. I really believe he’ll be in the Hall of Fame in twenty years.

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  27. Jay Stevens

    Angell. Not close.

    It would be something — a small something — to honor Angell with the award, a small return for the pleasure he gave us over the years. But’s the rare case where the honoree would elevate the award by winning it.

    The other guy? It’s a writers’ award given to writers by writers, and I’m sure most of them have reason to reward the guy who grinded it out, year after year, even if he did stick around a little too long, maybe. But I prefer my Hall to be about the best, and Angell, with his graceful prose, was unquestionably great.

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  28. bellweather22

    The “throw like a girl” comment was mild for Bisher. Imagine an 85 year old southern grouch, stuck in 1950s Atlanta thinking, who believes he stands for something “morally higher”, writing sports.

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  29. Bob Lince

    Hey guys, get off Bisher’s case. Why kick the guy when he’s dead? A least he didn’t get his job because his mom worked for the newspaper.

    I’d vote for Angell, but on his merits, not because Bisher didn’t know which fork to use.

    Reply
  30. Breadbaker

    Only the baseball Hall of Fame could create a problem like this. There is no set of criteria for this award, other than the ones the Hall itself has, whereby both these guys shouldn’t be honored. If you’d asked me whether they had been honored 30 years ago I’d have said, of course, both of them, and baseball should be ashamed they haven’t done it by now (and for Bisher when he was alive). Give it to them both. Break a precedent. The world will not end.

    Reply
  31. Michael Green

    As Lindsey Nelson once said of choosing between Red Barber and Mel Allen, either way, you get a “sir.” Angell is magnificent and he is with us while Furman Bisher has gone to his reward. Let’s let Angell smell the roses

    Reply
  32. Michael Green

    Now to a different point. I have gone back and forth for years on what I think of Roger Kahn. Some of his writing is absolutely beautiful. Yet some of the “Boys of Summer” have claimed that he didn’t exactly have great respect for accuracy. And his writing is often incredibly egotistical–somehow, he is at the center of what he writes. Red Smith used to talk about the need for a writer to demonstrate a sense of presence, to show that he saw it, without imposing himself on the story, so he’d put in little descriptive touches. Kahn tends to be leading the conversation. I might have thought, for his career, Kahn might be considered for this award, whatever one thinks of him.

    Reply

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