Bill Conlin: 50 years in the business tops this thankful list
I WAS NEVER much for holiday lists. Things to be thankful for at Thanksgiving . . . gifts to the appropriate - or inappropriate - sports figures at Christmas . . . New Year's resolutions by sports figures and teams. I might have done one or two, but I was not a fanatic about the genre.
This year, I will make an exception. Yesterday was my 50th Thanksgiving in the newspaper business. That's a lot of turkey.
First, thanks to the best sports city there has ever been or ever will be, Philadelphia, and its surrounding region . . .
My first major beat as an Evening Bulletin sportswriter was Penn State football in 1963. Thirtysomething Joe Paterno had married co-ed Susan Pohland the year before, meaning the Rip Engle assistant coach no longer lived in an attic room jury-rigged by fellow assistant Jim O'Hora.
The beat led to covering multiple major bowl games, all of them, including the Rose Bowl after Penn State joined the Big Ten, and the national championship victory over Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl. Who knew when sports information director Jim Tarman picked me up at the train station in Lewistown before the 1963 opener that Beaver Stadium would double in size to hold 107,000 fans? Or that Joe Paterno would still be there 47 years later to win a Division I record 400 games at the age of 83?
Where else could a sportswriter be assigned to cover the great Harry Litwack, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Jack McCloskey, Jack Kraft and Dudey Moore - all in one season. And after them would come Jack McKinney, Dick Harter, Don Casey, Tom Gola, Jim Boyle, Rollie Massimino, Paul Westhead, Chuck Daly, John Chaney, Jimmy Lynam, Speedy Morris, and always, a constant thread running through the decades, the great Herb Magee.
Anybody talks smack to you about their city having better sports than Philly, the Big 5 is your tiebreaker. Even in its truncated form, it still beats the hell out of whatever city program comes in second.
So you cover Penn State football, the Big 5 in its heyday, then spend 21 years traveling with the Phillies, who took you to the depths and heights - often in the same year.
A laurel and hearty handshake goes to all the great characters and wonderful ballplayers - and not-so-wonderful players - who have been center stage during my 46 years around the ballclub.
The Spectrum started to come down Tuesday. The implosion of the big tuna fish can only enhances memories of what transpired there. My most memorable gigs were covering the best indoor tennis tournament ever, the U.S. Pro Indoor. The Brit writers who covered it called the production of promoters Marilyn and Ed Fernberger, "The Indoor Wimbledon." The marquee names began with Rod Laver, who handed the torch to James Scott Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
Thanks to the Flyers for what they accomplished at a time when the Eagles and Phillies were showing signs of life. And the Sixers, who joined the party in 1980, the City of Winners year, when all four major pro teams played for a title and the Phillies ended 97 years of frustration with their first World Series trophy.
Thanks to Villanova, Temple, Penn and Delaware for leading a resurgence of local interest in college football, all but dead after the Ivy League ban on spring practice. Penn fell from national power to afterthought quicker than you could say "Chuck Bednarik." Temple's "surgence" - the Owls were never good enough to have a resurgence - under former Penn State star Al Golden is up there with the Loaves and Fishes, and other miracles.
Thanks to South Jersey and Philly area high school football, basketball and baseball, which continues to be as well coached and productive as any outside of Florida, Texas and California.
And thanks to this newspaper, which has climbed off the canvas more often than Rocky Balboa. When I left the Bulletin in May of 1965 for a $75-a-week raise, the sports editor wished me luck, but cautioned, "You're boarding a sinking ship."
The Titanic went down in 2:20 after hitting the iceberg. The Daily News has remained afloat for 45 years since I received that "Man the Lifeboats" warning. Larry Merchant put together the staff that once went off to war under the slogan, "Read the Daily News, with the sports staff young enough to play the games it writes about." Indeed, Jack McKinney, whose boxing beat I inherited, wrote a series based on him performing the events of the decathlon. Later, he won a professional fight in Paynesville, Ohio, after going undefeated in the barroom division. The rest of us were merely young. After Merchant went to the New York Post, the leadership torch was passed to Ben Callaway, Stan Hochman, the great Mike Rathet, and the talented pups from his litter, Pat McLoone (now managing editor) and current sports editor, Josh Barnett. Somehow a small staff keeps cranking out these enormous sections with several writers also contributing to the philly.com blogisphere.
And a final thanks to the commenters who shirttail our website efforts. Guys, you have kept me working long past retirement age. Each fat joke, age insult and off-topic harpoon counts as much as if you were endorsing me for a Pulitzer. Take that plethora of hits away and some suit surely would have said, "This guy is older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. And he's not getting many hits on the site. Time for him to move on to assisted living . . . "
Thanks to the commenters who believe history didn't begin until they slithered from the womb, I'm still around. And thankful for it.
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