By HAL McCOY
When you have had the great fortune I have had in my life — so, so fortunate — there have been more than a few people who paved the way and guided you through life’s many crevices.
When my father, Harold, came marching home from World War II in 1945, I was five-years-old and under the heavy influence of my mother, Hazel. That, of course, didn’t include sports.
That quickly changed when dad put a baseball glove on my hand and took me behind our wood-framed dilapidated house in Lakemore, Ohio. He stood in front of our one-holer outhouse and taught me how to throw a baseball, which resulted in many holes in the wooden slats of that creaky old shanty.
Before serving in the Philippines dad was a baseball fanatic, a semi-pro pitcher who threw very hard and worshipped the mound Bob Feller stood on.
Thus, at five-years-old, my baseball life was set on course and the path was a long and winding way.
When Little League arrived in Akron, Ohio in 1951, there were only eight teams in the entire city of 300,000 at the time. More than 300 kids tried out for the Hoskins Oldsmobile Giants and I was one of the fortunate 15 to make the team.
I was small for my age, 11, and coach Dinky Barnes quickly determined what kind of player I would be. Long before Joey Votto thought about it, Barnes had me choking up on the bat for every pitch, knowing I would have no power.
And I choked up on the bat forever after through Little League, Pony League, American Legion, high school and my freshman year at Kent State University. Because of Barnes, I never hit below .300.
In high school and in college I came under the influence of childhood friend and teammate Gene Michael. We grew up in the same neighborhood under the smoke stacks of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company on Akron’s east side. We practiced side-by-side and played games side-by-side and he was ‘The Natural’ to me.
Michael, so skinny they called him ‘Stick,’ a nickname that stuck with him for life, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and played in the majors, later managed the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, was a general manager of the Yankees and until his recent death was acknowledged as one of baseball’s all-time best talent evaluators.
The writing part came purely by fate and by chance.
As a senior at Akron East High School, I took a typing class just because I would be the only male in the class. One day the teacher approached me and said, “Don’t you play on the basketball team?”
I acknowledged that, indeed, I was a shooting guard for the Orientals (how’s that for an offensive nickname? It was later changed to the Dragons, long after I was gone).
The teacher, Rose Picciotti, said she was the advisor for the school newspaper and she needed somebody to write a story about the basketball team. I told her I had never done any writing and she said, “Just write it and we’ll take care of it.”
I threw something together and turned it over to her for editing and re-writing. She approached me the next day and said, “Have you considered Journalism? This was very good.”
I forgot about her comment until I received a partial baseball scholarship to Kent State and had to declare a major. I remembered Mrs. Picciotti’s remark and enrolled in the School of Journalism.
I was hooked. I spent hours and hours in the office of The Daily Kent Stater. Playing baseball disappeared. Writing about it became a passion.
My favorite Journalism professor, Bill Fisher, was a huge baseball fan and knew of my desire to become a baseball writer. He wanted more for me and said, “You’ll never make more than $100 a week in the sports department.”
When I graduated I had 11 job offers, none of them in sports. I accepted a job as a general assignment reporter for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. But a week later Ritter Collett of the old Dayton Journal Herald called and offered me a sports writing job. The News-Sentinel people were not happy when I told them I wasn’t coming.
And I fooled Bill Fisher. I was offered $105 a week and it seemed like a fortune to me back in 1962.
It was my extreme fortunte to work for two legendary sports editors in Dayton, Ritter Collett and Si Burick. I never covered baseball for The Journal Herald, but Collett let me tag along with him to games at Crosley Field and I longingly observed the baseball writers, mostly Earl Lawson, a Hall of Fame baseball writer for the Cincinnati Post & Times-Star.
Burick was an icon and a stickler for perfection. If there was a comma out of place in your piece, you heard about it. If your syntax was faulty, you heard about it.
When Executive Sports Editor Ralph Morrow gave me a choice in 1973 of covering the Reds or the Bengals, I quickly took the Reds beat because baseball literally was stitched in my skin.
From the first day on the beat, Lawson took me under wing and said, “Just keep follow me around, keep your mouth shut and observe.” And I did just that, following him like a puppy dog looking for a home, and learned everything there is to know about covering baseball. I once asked him, “Why did you do this for me?” He said, “Because when I was young Si Burick did the same thing for me.” I never forgot that and tried to pay it forward to any young writers who I encountered.
Anybody who has any modicum of success in any field has to have had a long line of positive influences.
All of mine are now gone. Fortunately, my father lived long enough to see me inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002 — not as a player, but as a writer. Dad, though, never forgave me for quitting as a player after my freshman year at Kent State. He thought I could have made it to the majors as a player. Dads are like that.
He is gone now, as is Dinky Barnes, Gene Michael (who attended my induction), Rose Picciotti, Bill Fisher, Ritter Collett, Si Burick and Earl Lawson.
To each and every one, I think of all of you often and wonder where I would be without any one of you.