Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 1, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.
When John George Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News for nearly a half century, was presented with “baseball’s most prized Oscar” for sportswriters in 1962, you could hardly blame the man for celebrating. His own publication, in a bit of self-serving hyperbole, said it was “an honor he has deserved ever since he was named head of the ‘Baseball Bible’ in 1914.”
Detailing Spink’s qualifications for the award, Til Ferdenzi of the New York Journal-American, a regular Sporting News correspondent, went even further in praise of his boss: “The Spink stamp has endured as a constant and driving force dedicated to the promotion of baseball. It was easy to recognize the crusading spirit of a man who has fought for major, minor, and amateur baseball and has served as the guardian of the game’s morale. . . . It is said that if Taylor Spink had not existed, Organized Ball would have been forced to invent him.”
While these words were laced with a heavy dose of saccharine, it could be argued that no man had done more than Spink to promote the National Pastime in the twentieth century. He was a deserving winner of an award that honored long and meritorious service to baseball.
So what was this illustrious award that sportswriters in 1962 considered their highest honor? The William J. Slocum Memorial Award, which was voted on every year by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). It was established in 1930 and named after a prominent sportswriter who once served as Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter.
The Slocum Award is still given out today by the New York chapter—it’s now called the William J. Slocum-Jack Lang Award—but the prestige attached to it has dimmed considerably. It’s a regional honor, like many other awards selected by local BBWAA chapters at the end of each season. But most of those BBWAA awards (including the St. Louis chapter’s own J. G. Taylor Spink Award, honoring the Baseball Man of the Year) go to players or other team personnel. There aren’t many awards that go to sportswriters. That’s one reason why Spink was so thrilled to win it back in 1962.
Months later, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, the BBWAA decided to once again honor the 73-year-old Sporting News publisher, who was on his deathbed at home in St. Louis. By a unanimous vote at their annual meeting, the writers decided to establish the J. G. Taylor Spink Award specifically to honor “meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” with its namesake as the first recipient. The Baseball Hall of Fame agreed to set up a permanent display with a listing of the winners.
Spink couldn’t know at the time that this award would surpass the Slocum Award as the highest honor any baseball writer could win. He died in December 1962, two months after the first Spink Award was announced. His son and successor, C. C. Johnson Spink, accepted the award on his behalf during the 1963 induction ceremony in Cooperstown. More than a half century after Taylor Spink’s death, and decades after his family sold off its interests in The Sporting News, his name is still widely known among baseball fans because of the award given out each year.
Spink himself had long been an advocate of honoring baseball writers at the Hall of Fame. But he had very specific ideas on how to do so. And given his immense ego and quick temper, it’s safe to say he would not approve of the way the Hall of Fame recognizes Spink Award winners today.
The Hall of Fame makes a clear distinction between elected members of the Hall of Fame—the 300-some inductees from Babe Ruth to Ken Griffey Jr.—and winners of the Spink Award and Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters. While some Spink Award winners, and especially their employers, like to refer to themselves as Hall of Famers, they are merely “award winners” in the Hall of Fame’s eyes.
The Hall has even gone so far as to schedule a separate presentation on Saturday afternoon of Induction Weekend to honor award winners, while the ballplayers get their own ceremony on Sunday afternoon. This arrangement probably would have infuriated Spink, especially if it meant his own recognition had been relegated to a second-tier status.
This was exactly the charge he leveled at the Hall of Fame the first time it got involved with honoring sportswriters. In 1946, there was an ill-advised attempt to create what became known as the “Honor Rolls of Baseball”—honoring people who had contributed to the game in a nonplaying capacity without actually electing them to the Hall of Fame. The Honor Rolls, which included five managers, 11 umpires, 11 executives, and a dozen sportswriters, were designed to recognize people not normally honored by the BBWAA.
The list of sportswriters was puzzling to say the least: none of the 12 honorees was alive, half of them were beat writers from New York, and many well-known scribes such as Ring Lardner, Hugh Fullerton, Fred Lieb, and Grantland Rice had been ignored by the selection committee. The Honor Rolls were universally panned and Spink led the charge, blasting them in a Sporting News editorial:
Either a man is worthy of the Hall of Fame, or he isn’t. . . .There was no demand for a new list of sub-greats. There will never be any cogent reason for that phony type of baseball beatification. If a man was a great umpire or an outstanding writer, he should be elected to the diamond Pantheon, and not placed in an annex of that edifice, so to speak. . . . [It is] deplorable to confuse the fan as to who is in the Pantheon and who is in the newly-created Array of Almosts.
Historian David Fleitz suggested that the Hall of Fame “perhaps missed its best chance at gaining support when it failed to select J. G. Taylor Spink to the Honor Rolls”—indeed, no one would have promoted the idea more. You can read above how The Sporting Newscovered his Slocum Award; can you imagine what lavish praise the paper would have used to describe Spink if he had won a prestigious award given out by the Hall of Fame itself? Instead, the Honor Rolls were quickly forgotten, and there is no evidence they were ever mentioned during any induction ceremony.
The Spink Award, meanwhile, is in its sixth decade and counting, and it remains a prestigious honor coveted by anyone who writes about baseball. It has evolved over the years to recognize writers from many different areas and with different career paths—but it is primarily a BBWAA award to honor BBWAA writers, which means it still almost always goes to a longtime beat writer or columnist working for a newspaper in a Major League city.
All of the “Original Sixteen” Major League cities are represented among Spink Award winners, although New York City dominates the list with 23 recipients, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have only one winner apiece. Curiously, the only three Spink Award winners who hail from a city without a Major League team all worked for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio: Si Burick (1982), Ritter Collett (1991), and Hal McCoy (2002).
In recent years, the Spink Award has broken new ground with its honorees. The first writer based outside the United States to win the Spink Award was Bob Elliott of theToronto Sun in 2012. The following year, acclaimed author and essayist Roger Angell of the New Yorker became the first non-newspaper writer to receive the Spink.
In 2017, Claire Smith of ESPN became the first female writer to ever win the Spink Award. She was the first African-American woman to cover Major League Baseball on a daily basis, beginning with the Hartford Courant in 1983 and later with the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer for more than two decades.
It remains to be seen how the Spink Award will further evolve in the digital age of the twenty-first century. The Internet has opened up doors to scores of baseball writers like Angell who have built their reputations without the benefit of a BBWAA card. There have been calls to honor writers like Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics whose books and articles have influenced millions of fans to explore the game in a new, statistically oriented light. James’s Spink Award ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame might draw the largest crowd of any writer in the game’s history.
Even J. G. Taylor Spink himself might have heartily supported a nontraditional selection like Bill James. Back in 1910, he was a fierce advocate for hiring an outside-the-box writer from the Midwest to take over as managing editor of The Sporting News at a time when the publication was stagnating in popularity.
His choice, Ring Lardner, was not a good fit for the administrative duties required of the position and lasted less than a year, but he became famous all over the world for his fictional short stories, such as You Know Me Al and Alibi Ike, some of which were first serialized in Spink’s paper. In 1963, two months after The Sporting News publisher was honored posthumously at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the BBWAA voted for Lardner as the second winner of the Spink Award.