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.”
“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?