So did you hear the one about the kid from small-town Groton (pop. 10,873, according to the 2012 census) who loved baseball and then found himself asking Earl Weaver about pitching changes before he turned 24?
Wait, you say. Isn’t that Peter Gammons? As a matter of fact, he, too, was a small-town kid from Groton who wound up covering the Red Sox not too long after getting out of college and whose brilliance as a baseball writer landed him in Cooperstown as the 2004 winner of the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Well, Peter can move over because on Saturday fellow Grotonian Dan Shaughnessy will be joining him in the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I’m honored to be carrying on a Globe tradition,” says Shaughnessy, who follows Tim Murnane, Harold Kaese, Gammons, and Larry Whiteside as a Spink winner with a Boston Globe pedigree. “I remember becoming aware of it with people like Dick Young, Jim Murray, and Ross Newhan. Then I was rooting for Peter Gammons, the best ever.”
Shaughnessy will enter while still an active columnist who covers not just baseball, but, well, whatever is required in a superb sports town such as Boston. But I am here to tell you that baseball is the sport nearest and dearest to his heart, and when he steps to the podium on Saturday he will undoubtedly spend time reflecting on his beginnings as a full-time baseball writer. “What I love is that the Hall of Fame voters continue to value the beat guys,” he says. “It honors the daily grind. Leonard Koppett said it best when he said, ‘The best thing about this award is that it exists.’ It honors the beat guys, the ones who are supplying us with all the information. These days, beat guys don’t get a lot of love.”
And make no mistake, there is nothing in the sports journalistic world like covering baseball. I covered the NBA for 14 years. I covered the Red Sox for one full season. Sometimes I look back and think that one season equaled about six NBA campaigns. Covering basketball, football, and hockey is extensive, but they remain jobs with some personal breathing space. Baseball is very different. Baseball is a lifestyle. There is nothing quite like getting back home at 3 or 4 in the morning at the conclusion of a road trip and finding yourself at the ballpark the next afternoon.
“We do it every day,” Shaughnessy points out, “and that’s what I like most about baseball, the fact that there is a game virtually every day. There is instant redemption, or it can make a liar out of you every day. I love the soap opera aspect of covering baseball.”
I have long had a theory about Dan Shaughnessy and baseball. I have always maintained that starting out his daily newspaper career by covering the Earl Weaver Baltimore Orioles was both the best and worst thing that ever happened to him. Earl Weaver was sui generis, not just another baseball lifer, which he was, but a Runyonesque, Raleighs chain smoking, completely unfiltered (as in loudly profane) gnome of a cracker-barrel philosopher without parallel in the second half of 20th-century baseball. With a feisty, breezy manager in charge, the Orioles went about their daily business in an open manner that would have been absolutely unimaginable for a major control freak like, say, Bill Belichick. With those ’70s Orioles, there were no secrets.
As a result, the young Dan Shaughnessy had it as good as he would ever have it. No manager would ever match up to Earl’s candor and accessibility. No 20-game winner would be as charmingly narcissistic and glib as Jim Palmer. He even caught Eddie Murray as a friendly 21-year-old before Eddie turned on the media, transforming into an unapproachable Oscar the Grouch.
In sum, I say Dan Shaughnessy was spoiled. So there!
“I understand your theory,” he admits. “I was so young. It’s all I knew. I was 23 and on the road with them, and you know that in those days that meant you really were everywhere with them. I was the same age as many of them and that makes a difference. Palmer was not that much older than me, even though I was in middle school when he was pitching in the 1966 World Series. Palmer really liked the writers as well or better than some of his teammates, and he fancied himself as a man of letters. He would often sit with us on the bus. Then there was the New England connection. Mark Belanger was from Pittsfield and Mike Flanagan was from Manchester [N.H.] and Mass. I used to talk Silvio Conte with Belanger.”
In terms of a baseball education, this was a master class. There was Earl, of course. “And every member of that coaching staff wound up managing in the big leagues,” Shaughnessy points out. That would be George Bamberger, Jim Frey, Billy Hunter, and Cal Ripken Sr.
But it all came back to Earl. “What a way to start,” Shaughnessy sighs. “It was for me to cover him what I think it would have been for you to cover Casey Stengel. He was incredibly helpful. He would give you something for your p.m. lead (denote: Most metropolitan dailies had separate morning and evening editions in those days. Believe me, I know). I guess I didn’t realize then that it wasn’t this way for everybody. The Orioles were great, from Hank Peters on down.”
OK, you 2016 sportswriters. Hope you’re sitting down because what you are about to read is not remotely conceivable here in the climate you have inhabited.
“At the end of the season,” Shaughnessy says, “they handed out a sheet with the address and phone number of all the players.”
Chew on that, baseball scribes.
“So, yes, anybody would be spoiled under those circumstances,” he admits.
In time, Dan Shaughnessy moved from the Baltimore Evening Sun to the Washington Star and then, after the Star folded in 1981, to his hometown Globe. He succeeded me as the Celtics beat man, covering the 1984 championship team before handing it back to me in February 1986 after Mr. Gammons exited for Sports Illustrated and the highly desirable baseball beat was sitting out there. In 1989, we both became columnists with an extra fondness for baseball.
Dan’s epiphany as a Boston baseball writer came with the 1990 publication of “The Curse of The Bambino,” a book that examined the tortured history of the Red Sox as they entered their then 72d year of a championship drought. He got in touch with the heirs of the infamous Harry Frazee, the team owner who had sold a rambunctious, young, barely coachable talent named Babe Ruth to the Yankees prior to the 1920 season, and he explored the mystery of manager Joe McCarthy’s disastrous decision to start journeyman Denny Galehouse against the Indians in the 1948 one-game playoff for the American League pennant. Of course, no sane person actually thought there was a curse, but it was a fun concept and there were great revelations in the book. Shaughnessy’s book tally has since risen to 12. And he was front and center when the drought ended and the curse was busted in 2004.
Now, it must be pointed out that Dan Shaughnessy has ruffled a few feathers along the way. He calls ’em as he sees ’em, and quite often channels his inner Colonel Nathan Jessup for people he thinks just can’t handle the you-know-what. “He will write exactly what he thinks is the truth,” says Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan. “He doesn’t really care what other people think, and I admire that.”
He and I have disagreed on many things, but we always agree on one thing and that is when it comes to juicy conversational fodder, there is baseball and there is everything else.
“This is the best sport to do, and this is the best town to do it in,” says Dan Shaughnessy, who can now list Cooperstown as a reference.Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.