December 6, 2011
Bob Elliott joining baseball hall
By BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Bob Elliott has always loved baseball. It has been a life-long passion that has taken him from the sandlots of Kingston to the game’s temples of greatness.
He is equally at home, whether it be at Yankee Stadium, a parched Dominican ballyard, or a peewee tournament in Etobicoke. He has chronicled the great, and the small, achievements in baseball. Nobody has followed, encouraged, and written about the sport in this country with more enthusiasm. And, Tuesday, that love for the game was requited — Bob Elliott was named the winner of the Taylor Spink Award, presented by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”
Bob Elliott is going to Cooperstown, alongside such titans of the baseball writing fraternity as Peter Gammons and Damon Runyon.
“Bob’s deep knowledge and affection for the game is evident in every column and game report he files,” said Sun Media editorial vice-president Glenn Garnett. “He’s a big part of what makes the Sun the best sports read in town.”
This was the fourth year Elliott had been nominated for the award. So, he’s used to this. But, when the call came from BBWAA Secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell Tuesday morning that he’d won, the magnitude of where he’d come from; and where his journey had taken him was overwhelming.
“Humbling,” said Elliott from Dallas, where he is covering major league baseball’s winter meetings. “They handed out the release with the names of past winners on it. You look at a guy like Jim Murray or Dick Young, you see Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner. Then you see my name and it’s like that Sesame St. thing — you know, where they ask, ‘which one of these doesn’t belong?’”
For once, Bob Elliott was wrong. He has always “belonged” anywhere there has been baseball. “Bob’s contribution to Canadian baseball writing is unmatched and unprecedented. We are lucky to have someone who can bring the game home the way he does,” said Jeff Francis, one of hundreds of players who Elliott has written about, and also befriended.
He was there as the Sun’s baseball writer when the Blue Jays won their World Series. He was there when the Expos were young and when they died, he was there with his Mississauga minor baseball teams in victory, he was there when his son, Bobby, hit a home run and he was there when Joe Carter hit his.
It doesn’t matter much to Bob where the baseball is being played, or who is playing it. It just matters that it is being played.
That passion for the game has now made him the first Canadian journalist to be invited into Cooperstown. Spink winners are not “inducted” or “enshrined”, but are permanently recognized in an exhibit at the Hall’s library. He joined the Sun chain in 1987 and covered his 33rd consecutive Opening Day in 2010. “I was scared witless coming up here. In Ottawa covering the Montreal Expos you weren’t critiqued on a daily basis,” Elliott said. “I’d read the Toronto newspapers for years and now here I was walking into the deep end of the pool. Toronto was a far more competitive market. It was nerve wracking. But everything worked out.”
Oh, it worked out. It worked out so well that Elliott’s penchant for breaking stories during the Jays’ pennant runs in the 1980s and 90s drove competing reporters to, well ... exasperation. And, grudging respect.
Then Toronto Sun sports editor Wayne Parrish recalls hiring him from the Ottawa Citizen in 1986. “There was no more knowledgeable, dedicated, driven, committed baseball writer in this country than Bob. The thing that impressed me even in the 1980s (when both worked in Montreal) was that even though he was young he seemed to be embedded in that U.S. mafia of baseball writers. The guys that hung around Peter Gammons and that whole crew who had been around the game a long time and were well respected by the general managers and managers. Bob was part of that group which I was so impressed with because Canadian writers were still regarded at that stage as kind of these country cousins to the Ameircan beat guys.
“Bob seemed accepted into the fraternity early on. That said something of the respect that group held for him.”
Tuesday that respect shone through when he drew 205 votes in the annual balloting of BBWAA members. Paul Hagen, who recently left the Philadelphia Daily News for MLB.com, received 169 votes, and Russell Schneider, who covered baseball for a half-century in Cleveland, got 81.
“You don’t get respect by asking for it; you get respect by giving it. That’s Bob,” said Bill Stoneman, who met Elliott in 1983 when he was hired as vice-president of baseball operations by the Expos. “I remember running into Bob at O’Hare Airport. My wife and I were travelling and had a flight connection and I went to the Admirals Club there. And here’s Elliott. Diane had never met Bob or many of the writers. The three of us had a great conversation. When we left my wife, said, ‘boy! that’s a good guy.’ I said: “Diane you don’t know how good he really is.’ He’s an old school guy. Tons of integrity.”
Born September 10, 1949, he shares a birth date, appropriately, with Roger Maris and Joey Votto.
His grandfather, Ed, played for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club and is in the hockey hall of fame as a referee. His dad was a local curling legend, is enshrined in the Kingston Hall of Fame and the Queen’s University football hall of fame.
“I was just a second baseman who couldn’t hit the ball when they started throwing curves in bantam,” said Elliott. He started putting together boxscores for the local senior team and taking them to the Whig-Standard newspaper and radio and TV stations. “They offered me $100 to work the summer every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. so I thought I was a millionaire. I quit playing first year of midget. I did the stats.”
In 1966 he got his first byline. “It was a city basketball tournament ... and after that it just evolved.” He would go to the Ottawa Citizen to cover the Expos and so was born the legend of Boxer Bob.
“He’s such a wonderful, warm human being. When you look at the quality of the work he’s done over the years, there’s a real feel for the people in the game,” Parrish said. “There are good technical writers of the game. there are people who write about the politics of the leagues. But Bob has always written about the people and their stories. He’s a wonderful story teller but the stories always come back to the character of a particular individual, a manager, a player, a coach. That human quality he brings out of people I think resonates with so many in the game.
While covering major league baseball since the Expos’ 1978 home opener, he has also been instrumental in the development of the game throughout Canada. If there is a kid playing at a high level somewhere in Canada, Elliott will know about it. And write about it. “He cares about the game and the country,” said Baseball Canada’s Greg Hamilton. “He’s been a tremendous ally. He cares about Canadian baseball not in a biased way but in a passionate way. He’s allowed us to have a visibility that we so desperately need.”
Hamilton recalls going to tournaments in Europe or the Dominican and invariably there would be an email from Elliott. “Almost daily he wants to know what the catcher or right fielder did. It’s not likely a story that’s going to carry the day back home. He’s just genuinely interested. He cares about the kids and the game,” said Hamilton.
“It’s not a duty for him. He spends hours talking to baseball people in this country and it’s not driven by professional responsibility. He doesn’t just talk to people who are in the headlines. He cares just as much about a parent of a peewee kid who might be struggling with some aspect of the game.”
Tuesday the only one struggling was Elliott, juggling phone calls, answering emails and, at the same time attempting to write a story about the Jays’ acquisition of a new closer. “Every time I turn my phone back on it’s like a pacemaker going beep, beep, beep with all the texts. I’ve cleaned out the message box twice. It’s as busy as the July 31 trade deadline,” said Elliott.
Normally he’s doing the interviewing. Tuesday he faced the cameras for six TV interviews. “Mumbled through each one,” Elliott said. He’s not big on TV. He’s also not big on being in the spotlight. Fergie Jenkins phoned. So did Terry Puhl. Every couple of minutes someone was walking up to slap him on the shoulder. There were hugs. At the Sun offices a hardened fellow columnist got welled up. There was Pat Gillick heckling him as the announcement was made, then almost near tears himself.
“It was a very emotional moment,” said Gillick, who was general manger of the Blue Jays when Elliott covered the team. “I’ve never seen anyone with more passion for the sport and his profession.”
Elliott will be honoured at the annual National Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend ceremonies on July 21-22 in Cooperstown, N.Y. “I thought of my father after I got the call (I’d been elected). He’d be very proud,” Elliott said. “I think in July he’ll be looking down and saying ‘what’s a farmer like you doing with all those guys’ because he was a player, a third baseman and a catcher. He didn’t pass the talent gene down but like him I was pretty competitive.
“Then I thought of other baseball writers and friends who have passed away — Terry Johnson in Los Angeles, Vern Plagenhoef in Detroit, Neil Hohlfeld in Houston — all good guys who are gone. I couldn’t carry their typewriters.”