Marcus Hayes: Incomparable Conlin joins Baseball Hall of Fame
IT WAS LATE in the season. In the middle of the home finale, the team owner had just admitted to a cub reporter, a substitute for the beat man, that the Phillies didn't deserve a playoff berth.
Breathless, the cub ran to the columnist, Bill Conlin, and offered this juicy morsel.
"You got it," he said. "You write it."
A few hours later, as the kid powered off his computer, he felt a meaty paw on his shoulder.
"Come on back," Conlin invited. Or commanded.
So the kid went back to the press lunchroom. There, Conlin had lined up several red cups brimming with foamy beverage, the sports writer's lubricant. Conlin sat on one side. The kid sat on the other.
Two hours later they left the Vet, having discussed the merits not of baseball, or of the Phillies, but of the legends of jazz.
Bill Conlin might be a Hall of Fame baseball writer, but the "baseball" qualifier is coincidental.
Conlin yesterday was elected the 2011 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, an annual honor presented to a sports writer for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing."
Conlin is conspicuously overqualified.
Certainly, his 21 years as the Phillies beat writer at the Daily News and his subsequent 24 years as the paper's most recognizable columnist make him a superb candidate.
His was an iconic presence as a panelist in the early years of ESPN's groundbreaking roundtable show, "The Sports Reporters." He carried that magnetism as a cornerstone panelist on "Daily News Live," a local show whose merits he helped validate. It now is in its 14th season on Comcast SportsNet.
As might be expected, the list of national and state awards to Conlin's credit is an embarrassment of accomplishment.
None of that experience and none of those accolades captures the essence of Conlin. Rather, his brilliance lies in his capacity to create simile, to manufacture metaphor, to re-create a moment and, lyrically, to define it.
This capacity reflects Conlin's roots: A passionate civil-rights advocate as the editor of the Temple University News, he expected to recount the world's happenings in a turbulent time. Instead, the best job Conlin could get was writing sports at the Evening Bulletin in 1960; he moved to the Daily News in 1965, covered the death of boxer Sonny Banks as his first assignment, and was off.
An expert ocean swimmer and a passionate tennis player, Conlin is not a "baseball man," limited by his abilities, unable to see past an arm slot out of whack or the lagging hands of some laggardly slugger.
No. He is a formed man who happens to have become part of the game's fabric. Yes, at 76 he still thrills to spring training and the World Series, but he shined as brightly at his Olympics and his Wimbledons.
He counts among his more important forming influences Phillies legends Paul Owens and Dallas Green, whom he covered, and former Daily News sports chief Mike Rathet, who often covered for him.
Clearly, down the line, Conlin has been drawn to men's men, and he has been one.
As such, his writing sings with military historical reference, with social commentary, with musical analogy, with meteorological context and with apt comparison. It is a demonstration of intellect and perspective typical of his Hall peers but rarely seen in his successors, and, so, all the more precious to his readership.
It is appropriate that Conlin will share a stage at Cooperstown in late July with Pat Gillick, a general manager who built contenders in four cities, most recently in Philadelphia. Like Conlin, Gillick lived through the heights and depths of modern baseball; like Conlin, Gillick cares mainly about doing what he believes is right.
And Gillick was the first person who called to offer condolences when Conlin's dear wife, Irma, died last year.
It is appropriate that Conlin was elected to his Hall only days after the death of Phil Jasner, a giant among basketball writers, a fellow Temple superstar alum and, of course, a fellow Hall of Famer, Jasner residing in the Naismith branch.
It is informative that Conlin reviews his election thus:
He scanned the names of the 61 previous recipients, reading aloud, quietly, "Ring Lardner. Grantland Rice. Damon Runyan. Jim Murray.
"Reading those names, I get chills."
As he joins them, they should be as appreciative.
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