Columnist Conlin honored in Cooperstown
Philadelphia institution receives prestigious Spink Award
COOPERSTOWN, NY -- There are no simple stories for Bill Conlin, no details too obscure or yellowed with age to assemble into a compelling narrative. Conlin, a Philadelphia institution, has let his emotions and intellect inform his facility with words, and he's still as vibrant at 77 as he was at the outset of his career.
The longtime columnist, a survivor extraordinaire, reached the apex of his remarkable life in print Saturday, when he was feted at Doubleday Field as the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Conlin, who has spent his entire professional life in one city, spent some time Saturday tracing his roots in the game.
"I've got reverse Alzheimer's. But unfortunately, I also remember the bad stuff," he said. "There's nothing I can block out. I can't say, 'I don't exactly remember that happening.' ...I've always been blessed with great long-term memory. My short-term memory, even when I was much younger, is not nearly as sharp."
Conlin described the Spink Award -- annually presented for meritorious service in print baseball coverage -- as the "cherry on the sundae of my career," a delectable climax to something he'd already savored. He also allowed that the designation is something of a lifetime achievement award that puts his trek into perspective.
Conlin credited his long-running tenure on ESPN's The Sports Reporters for raising his profile around the country, but he's most thankful for the chance he's had to put down roots in Philadelphia.
"I think we probably have the lowest turnover of any endangered species newspaper. And we've been an endangered species since the day I walked in the door," he said. "My sports editor at the Bulletin shook my hand and said, 'I wish you good luck, but you're boarding a sinking ship.' ... I can't tell you how many strikes and crises over ownership and bankruptcy recently. And [after] being taken over by hedge fund creditors and all that stuff or re-designing the newspaper, I've been day-to-day for the last 45 years. Literally."
And if he was day-to-day, so were his readers, who sat at attention waiting for his daily missives from the ballpark and later his incomparable columns. Conlin always put the day's events into Philadelphia perspective, honoring the city's rich baseball history and framing each story, one-by-one, for posterity.
The veteran of 43 Spring Trainings and 38 postseasons speaks wisftully of journalism days gone by, relating how his experience at a PM paper presaged the 24-hour nature of the news cycle. Conlin often had deadlines as late as 5 a.m., which meant he could spend more time doing the nuts and bolts of reporting.
"I was able to wait out the AM guys, just stand in the background and wait until they had to go up and make their deadlines," he said. "Then I'd get one-on-ones with guys, which is impossible to do today. Now you're sitting in a press room and you've got a PR guy monitoring everything you say. You just don't get the opportunity to get to know the athletes or to ask more than one question before somebody asks a different question.
"It was paradise, writing more or less a magazine-style piece for the second day as a PM guy. And the AM guys resented it. I probably would've resented it too. It gave me a definite edge."
The most amazing part, to hear Conlin tell it, is that he had this opportunity in the first place. Conlin originally enrolled at Bucknell University, but he was expelled from school after getting a charge for reckless driving. He then spent two years re-evaluating before getting a second chance at Temple University.
Conlin took advantage of that reprieve, serving as editor-in-chief of the Temple newspaper and winning the Sword Award for service to his university. Conlin, who was elected to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame two years ago, will be recognized by his alma mater later in 2011.
The wordsmith spent 15 seasons on the beat, and he described it as a grind. Conlin spoke about how the writers used to travel on the team plane around 95 percent of the time, and he said that he could see journalism changing -- from newspapers to the immediacy of television and the Internet -- from a long way away.
"In the longer version of the speech that I had to trim down, I gave some props to [former colleague] Dick Young," he said. "He was a walking Brillo pad, as abrasive as any writer has ever been. He used to terrorize camera people and TV crews, and he thought the clubhouse was the sole region for the print media. Which was [bogus]. Way before, you could see exactly what was going to come, the money that was going to be involved in the TV contracts. We were a dying breed as far as any kind of exclusivity and we had to get used to sharing what we did with the guys that were going to put it out to a much bigger audience with much greater immediacy."
Conlin touched on many of the same themes in his acceptance speech on Saturday, and he even used his moment to speak up on behalf of one of the game's alltime great players. Conlin pleaded for Pete Rose, the game's alltime hit king, to be reinstated and made eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Now, Conlin spends his time writing columns, stringing together inimitable word after inimitable word. On this, the biggest day of his career, Conlin paid tribute to the silent heroes in his working world, the people who have safeguarded his copy and allowed him to express himself in his own distinctive way.
"My editors have been an unbelievable array of writer's editors. I've never had a word changed," he said. "An inaccurate word, a misspelled word, a grammatically incorrect word. Those changes are fine. But those editors always said, 'If you're going to change anything that alters content or alters the flow or the rhythm of the story, you must call Bill.' In all these years, I've never had anything changed for literary reasons. Factual reasons? Yes. Spelling? Yes. But as far as the way the story's going to read, nobody's ever changed a word in 45 years."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.