on december 6, longtime post-dispatch baseball writer rick hummel won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." the 45-year-old honor has been bestowed upon such sportswriting legends as Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, and Damon Runyon, as well as hummel's old post-dispatch boss, the late bob broeg. spink award winners are enshrined in the baseball hall of fame, so hummel will join longtime colleagues broeg and jack buck at cooperstown.
hummel, aka "the commish," was kind enough to spend most of an hour on the phone with me right before christmas. here's the q+a: my questions in bold, his answers in regular type. the interview continues after the jump.
When did you find out about your election to the Hall; who told you, and were you surprised?
I found out from Jack O'Connell, secretary/treasurer of the Baseball Writers' Association, who also calls the players when they get elected. He called me about 7:15 in the morning. It was down to three candidates (for the Spink Award), so I knew I had a one in three chance of winning. So I don't know if I was terribly surprised or not. But it was certainly a pleasant phone call to get.
I didn't realize the field had already been narrowed to three finalists. When did you find out you were one of the finalists?
At the All-Star Game there's an annual writers' meeting, and the committee that made the decision on the nominations --- I think they had seven nominations from different chapters, and they winnowed it down to three. Those three were announced at the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
Who were the other two finalists?
Mo Siegel, the longtime columnist for the Washington Post and Washington Times and so forth, and Nick Peters, who covers the Giants for the Sacramento Bee and has done so for many years.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where'd you grow up? Let's just start with that.
I'm from Quincy, Illinois. It's where I was born; I went to high school there, and my first two years of college I went to Quincy College. I went to the University of Missouri journalism school after that. And then I went in the Army for three years, '68 to '71. While in the Army, I ended up in Fort Carson, Colorado, near Colorado Springs, and I worked at the morning paper there, which was called the Free Press and then was called The Sun. I worked in the Army for a weekly newspaper also. So that's what I did through '71, and then I came to the Post-Dispatch. I was hired by Bob Broeg, who won the Spink Award in 1978. I covered high school, as most writers starting at the paper did; it's a good idea, because you learn the area pretty fast. I did my first Cardinal game in '73 and was kind of a backup until '78, and then I took over the beat in '78 (from Neal Russo) and did it until the 2001 season. And since then I've been the columnist / national writer for the Post-Dispatch.
Growing up in Quincy, were you a Cub fan or a Cardinal fan?
I guess Giants, initially. They had Mays and Cepeda and McCovey and Jim Ray Hart and that group, and they had a farm team at one point in Quincy. As a high schooler and during my early years in college I was a Cardinal fan, and then I got here and began covering the Cardinals and was no longer a fan.
Which of those Giants did you get to see play when they came through Quincy?
Hart was there. Jim Ray Hart, and Hal Lanier, the shortstop. Also Frank Linzy, who was a relief pitcher. Those were the only three guys that amounted to anything.
Linzy ended up pitching for the Cardinals about the time you got to St. Louis.
And Lanier coached for the Cardinals, didn't he?
He did. He coached on the '82 World Championship team.
Did you have any particular writers that you idolized or emulated when you were a kid. Or did you even think you would go into writing at all at that age?
No, I actually wanted to be an announcer, a broadcaster. When I was in Quincy I had done a little bit of statistical work for twin brothers Melvin and Elvin Tappe, who were great high school players in Quincy and Quincy College players. Elvin went on to professional ball as a catcher --- Melvin was a pitcher and hurt his arm. Elvin was a catcher, in fact was one of the managers of the Cubs when they had that rotating College of Coaches there in '62, '63, that era. The two of them had a radio show in Quincy. Melvin became my driver's training instructor, and we were talking about this on one of our jaunts one day. He knew my interest in broadcasting, but he suggested --- this was 1962, now --- that the broadcasting jobs were going to go to former players. This trend had just barely started. Big-league broadcasters were guys like Caray and Buck. Garagiola was one of the first players to really get into it; that was just starting then. Melvin said, "If you really want to stay in this sort of thing, you ought to be a sportswriter." I had some interest in writing, and I thought I'd give it a shot. So at Quincy College I worked with the radio station at the school, did a weekly show, and I worked for the school newspaper covering some stuff. But I didn't know how to type yet. So I'd write them out in longhand, and my mother would type them up --- she was a professional typist, had a part-time job --- and I'd take them over to the school then. I took a typing class my second year in school; figured that might be a better way to go about it than having my mom type all my stuff for me.
That's how I got into it. I went to Missouri after that. Dan Devine was coaching football then, so I did a little bit of that, and some high school --- a little bit of everything. And I became familiar with Bob Broeg and the Post-Dispatch then, but it was during the draft era, the Vietnam War era. I figured I was gonna got drafted, so I enlisted in the Army for three years, to hopefully stay in the information field, which luckily I did. About the time I was getting out of the Army, I had applied for jobs at several places, including the Post-Dispatch. They brought me in for a tryout, which involved working on the desk. That's what a lot of the new guys did then. You might cover some high school, but you worked the desk mostly. I did that in April of '71, and then I got hired in July of '71. They had one fellow retire and a couple of other guys change departments, and I was available at the right time. I didn't know if that was the right place for me. It seemed like a daunting task to start out at a major metropolitan daily as my first real job. But they wanted me, so I took a shot at it.
Do you look back and recall any moments as a cub reporter that make you cringe now? Or conversely, things that stand out as major hurdles that you cleared and you look back on with pride?
Those early Cardinal teams had quite a veteran and intimidating presence, with Gibson and Torre and Reggie Smith, Brock, those kind of players. McCarver was back for the second time. And they tested you a little bit, to see what you were made of. The first several games were certainly intimidating. Actually, Gibson took a liking to me right away. I'm not quite sure why.
He was at the end by then. Maybe he was tired of chewing up reporters.
Maybe so. He only had a couple of years to go, and maybe his bark had left him. He was actually pretty helpful, as far as being cooperative when you needed him for something. And the other guys, they were just looking to see if you had it or not. They wanted to have a little fun with it too, as long as they had some fresh blood in there.
What kind of things did they do?
Just refusing to answer questions, or saying "Well, what kind of question is that?" Just to put you on the defensive. But then you would have to come up with another question; you couldn't just turn away. I mean, you could but that wasn't the proper way to do it.
There were some obvious highlights during the years you covered the team --- Brock and all his stolen-base records, the championship in '82 and the other two pennant winners that decade, McGwire's run at the record in '98. Were there any other stories that might not jump immediately to people's minds that were particularly memorable to you?
During the Garry Templeton era, there was always excitement there generally. I would think most of the exciting times centered on the '82 through '87 championship era of the Cardinals, when they won three National League pennants and one World Series. Every other year they were in the race --- of course, every other year they weren't in the race. But that was fun. After that, between '88 and '96 there wasn't much going on. They didn't do much. McGwire didn't come until '97. That era was another good one, '96 through 2001. This current regime, if that's the right word, has put together quality, winning teams every year, where you're looking at a contender all the time, although I don't know that that's necessary to heighten your career. I would prefer to look at it as, basically I've only had to cover four managers. Red [Schoendienst], Whitey, Joe Torre, and La Russa. I've learned a lot of baseball just watching how they conducted a game and how they conducted themselves before and after a game. That was enough of a learning experience for me, over and above what the record of the team might have been.
I think that's the top three winners in franchise history.
Oh sure. Whitey is third, Tony is second, Red is first. And Joe, people now realize, was quite a good manager. It's just that they didn't have very good pitching when he was here.
The ownership wasn't fully engaged at that point either, it doesn't seem like.
Toward the end, Anheuser-Busch wasn't. Anheuser-Busch has done more good for this city and baseball than not, but at the end they cared about beer. And more power to them. The day they announced they were selling the team, A-B's stock went up --- didn't go down.
There have been a lot of changes during your career, both in baseball and in the information industry, the media. What are some of the changes that you think have enhanced what you do and the sport you cover? And which ones do you think haven't been so good?
From a selfish standpoint, you wish that there hadn't been the explosion in television and talk radio. They're now jousting for position, as it were, after a game to talk with a player or manager. There's cameras and stuff, and it's just a lot harder to negotiate and navigate traffic to get what you want to get. And it's even harder to get something into the newspaper that hasn't been on radio or television already. Have those been good for the broadcast industry? Sure. It's great for them, but it's bad for us.
The things that have helped? From a technical standpoint, just better computers. Of course, when I first started we used Western Union. You'd type it on your typewriter, then you'd rip it off and hand it to somebody to send out Western Union. That was very easy. Then we starting having to lug around these Xerox machines to send that way, and then the array of various computers, from bulky to less bulky. They're reasonably sized now, but it took 20 years to get to that level. I guess that helped in the long run, but I still prefer the typewriter and the Western Union lady.
Were they manual typewriters when you started out?
Oh, yeah. I never could use an electric typewriter. You didn't have to carry much in those days. You carried your scorebook and a notepad and a light Olivetti typewriter. You didn't take up much space with those things.
Talk about some lessons that you've learned. You mentioned watching all those great managers --- what have you learned about the game?
I see every game being different, and that's largely because you have a different starting pitcher every day, and the pitcher controls so much of the game. It keeps you going every day, knowing something different's gonna happen. And you can become an amateur psychologist, as far as when you think is the best time to approach somebody or to ask a particular question to get what you're looking for. There are days, there are times, you just get a read on a guy that tells you this isn't the right day to bring this up. Or this is the right day. It's a certain sense you have to have. I don't know how you can teach that; it's just being around people. They're normal human beings like the rest of us --- except they're not, really, because they've been better in their field for a long time than most of us have been in our field. Ever since high school days they've been idolized and have received attention. If I had to be asked a bunch of questions every day, I'm not sure how I would react.
Any personalities that stand out as really interesting to be around?
I guess Joaquin Andujar was the most colorful personality. You did not know --- could not know --- from one day to the next which one was going to appear the next day. That made it fun. Some days it was more fun for him than for you, maybe. But he was electric and enigmatic and eccentric, all three. He ranks at the top of the list. I would prefer to have guys who are solid guys every day, like Lou Brock and Tommy Herr and Pagnozzi and Carpenter and Rolen and guys like that. You just want somebody to be honest every day. Just be the same person. You don't have to be someone you don't want to be, or someone that I want you to be.
Today's generation of ballplayers grew up in a media-saturated age. They probably grew up watching ESPN, or at least that was part of the environment they grew up in. Do you think that washes out some of the individuality? Do guys get conditioned to repeating the same cliches they heard over and over growing up?
Maybe. I just see that era as being one of highlight-reel TV. I don't know if they read papers as much as they used to, because they can see what they want to on television. They don't have to read the box scores. So they may not actually be keeping up with what you're writing about them every day, although they have their fans and their family who will keep them apprised. Sometimes those people bend the truth a little bit in reporting to a player what's been said about them. That's the part you have to fight. A guy will say, "I hear you wrote this about that." "Well, did you read the story?" "Well, no."
Any tug-of-wars of that type that particularly stand out?
There was one with John Denny, who was quite a good pitcher in the late '70s. At that time, I was also a correspondent for the Sporting News. The procedure at that time was to write a feature once a week about your particular team. There was a game in Philadelphia that Denny was pitching, and he got kicked out of the game pretty early for arguing balls and strikes. After the game, Ted Simmons --- and I should have mentioned him as one of my favorite guys to deal with --- was very honest in his appraisal of Denny, saying, "He's got the greatest stuff in the world, but unless he gets ahold of that temper he's not gonna be a 20-game winner." I ran that by Denny, and Denny kind of agreed. He said, "Yeah, I do have to work on that." I thought everything was fine. I write a story about it for the Sporting News, and after the magazine has come out John doesn't talk to me the first time he pitches; then the second, the third, fourth, fifth, he just never had anything to say. I think I knew what was up: In a picture that had run with the story in the Sporting News, there was a caption that said: "Redbird Redneck." When I saw it I thought, "I don't think Denny's gonna like that one." So finally, we're into September now, this is about three months of not talking, and I said to John, "Look, let's get to the bottom of this. Why aren't you speaking to me after games?" He said, "I think you know why." I said, "Well I think maybe I do." And I mentioned the photo caption, and he said "That's it." I said, "Well, I don't know if you're aware of this, but writers do not write the captions or the headlines for the stories." [pause] "Oh. Well I didn't know that." So we had a nice discussion for the next half-hour, forty-five minutes or so, about that sort of thing. And he says, "Well, thank you. I'm still not talking to you." And that was the end of that.
Having grown up watching those '70s teams, I do recall Denny's personality not being the most cuddly.
He burned. He was quite a competitor. But they had some dark issues in their family. They had some internal --- one family member had killed another. I don't exactly remember the scenario, but there was a death in the family that was under suspicious circumstances, let's put it that way. Not involving him, per se, but it might have affected him.
Let me get back to the Hall for a second. Do you know who's going to introduce you at the induction ceremonies, or who you would like to introduce you?
Well, the process is that the current president of the Baseball Writers' Association, which right now is Paul Hoynes with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, introduces you. I did that once, in '94 when I was national president, so I'm familiar with the process. Unlike football, you don't select your introducer.
If you could pick somebody to introduce you, who would you pick?
You know, I hadn't even thought about that, because I knew that's not the process. I would hate to say a name, because that never came to my mind. I mean, I'm going to the Hall of Fame, so Paul Hoynes is just fine. It means I get in.
Here's another one you probably haven't given much thought to, either. Can you liken your career as a sportswriter to the ballplaying career of any particular Hall of Famer? For example, are you the Reggie Jackson type? Rod Carew? Jim Palmer? If you were going to characterize your sportswriting career as a baseball career, how would you do that?
I guess maybe steady and strong --- 30some years' worth. Not a home-run hitter. Maybe a Paul Molitor; the guy got 3,000 hits, just kept piling them up every year. Just played every year and played for a long time, maybe wasn't the best in any given year but over a whole career was considered by his peers to be one of the top players.
Maybe a guy like Brooks Robinson?
Yeah, except he really made his mark defensively. I don't know if you can really equate me to anybody like that. Maybe a guy like Phil Niekro or Don Sutton. Sutton was hardly ever the best pitcher on his own team, because he pitched with Drysdale and Koufax and those guys, Nolan Ryan. But he was a great pitcher.
Are there ballplayers who are not in the Hall of Fame who you think ought to be in there?
I always thought that Tony Oliva should be in. And maybe Gil Hodges and Roger Maris. After that, I don't know. There's a lot of talk about Ron Santo going in, but if he goes in then Kenny Boyer should go in as well. I'm ok with either one of them going in. But I think Maris and Oliva and Hodges made their mark. Hodges falls prey to the thinking of, "Well, we've already got four Brooklyn Dodgers in there." And Oliva was, unfortunately, injured in an era before there was a DH. He had to actually play some years where he couldn't move, and by the time the DH came in he was pretty well shot. If they'd had the DH in the '60s when he was limping around, he might have lasted long enough to get 3,000 hits.
I'm on this committee, the Overview Committee, that goes through these guys every couple of years. We come up with a list of 200 names. That doesn't mean they all should be in the Hall of Fame. I would prefer to see people in the Hall of Fame that haven't had the potential entrée of 15 years on a player ballot but rather than ones who are in the managers, executives, owners, umpires section --- Whitey Herzog and Dick Williams and people of that type. They only have a chance every four years under the current process. They don't get 15 elections the way a player does. Generally, a guy who's been through 15 elections by the Baseball Writers has had sufficient chance to get in. They don't miss many. Curt Flood might be another one. His overall impact on baseball and sports in general was huge.
Flood retired at 31. If he had played another six or seven years, he might have gotten close to 3,000 hits.
I don't know that he cared so much about his numbers. He cared about his team. I don't think he cared how many hits he had. He cared how many championships he won. And he was considered, along with Willie Mays, the best defensive centerfielder of that 10-year period.
I appreciate your time quite a bit. Before I let you go, I do want to ask you about the 2006 season. As an observer of close to 40 years of Cardinal baseball, how did it strike you?
In the final accounting, the Cardinals played in the last month the way people expected they would when April started. Through April and May, they were playing that well. Then guys started getting hurt, and a couple of pitchers were no longer reliable. But it was mostly injuries --- even to Isringhausen, who pitched several months with injuries and probably shouldn't have, and Mulder pitched for a while when he probably shouldn't have. Edmonds got hurt, and Eckstein got hurt later, and by August they didn't have any kind of club at all. They were lucky to hang on to the division. But when they got their players back, they were certainly one of the top teams in the National League. Before the first game in San Diego, when I put the lineup in my scorebook and watched them come up to bat in the first inning, I thought "This is a pretty good team. They have a chance."
Beating the Mets was somewhat of a surprise, and they didn't beat them the way you thought they would because the absence of Martinez and El Duque didn't really hamper the Mets that much, because John Maine and Oliver Perez pitched terrific. In Game 6 and 7, those two were magnificent. So the Mets didn't lose because they had no pitching. They lost because the Cardinals played better. The Cardinals kept Jose Reyes off base for the most part, and they got David Wright out all the time. Beltran and Delgado, those guys hurt them, but David Wright did not hurt them.
As far as where the Cardinals ranked in the hierarchy of all of baseball, there were probably four or five American League teams that were better than them all year long. But the thing is, they only had to beat one of them. They didn't have to beat all five. You didn't have to beat Chicago, Minnesota, Oakland, and the Yankees to get there. They only had to beat the Padres and the Mets. And then the Tigers. If they had to go through the entire American League bracket, they wouldn't have won. But that's not the way the rules are.
The thing that was really stunning to me was how Edmonds, after being debilitated for months, looked like himself out there in October. I felt like maybe they could get him on the field, but I didn't know how much use he'd be.
I think he was fairly convinced that his Cardinal career was over, and he wanted to go out the right way --- playing as well as he could for as long as he could, and maybe helping them win the world title that he never had won. And then he played so well, and their outfield defense is so suspect that they absolutely needed to have him back. So he came back for probably two more years than he expected to be here. I think he felt he was finished here and wanted to make sure that people could see he'd given it one last shot to win a title.
And how do you feel about where the team stands right now? There's quite a bit of murmuring about the rotation, and moves made and not made. What's your opinion?
I applaud their stance of stepping back and observing so far. I don't know that you need to spend all your money right now. When you look at their recent history, Walt Jocketty's history in the 12 seasons he's been here, he's been a magnificent acquirer of talent in July and August, when you can see where you are in the depths of a pennant race and what you need. The acquisitions of McGwire and Will Clark and Rolen and Woody Williams, Larry Walker --- and even last year, Belliard and Weaver. Without Belliard and Weaver, they don't win. So you don't have to spend all your money now, and you don't have to spend the money you do have unwisely. Would they prefer to have Jeff Suppan back? Well, yeah. But do they want him back at 40 million dollars for four years? No. He's not, in their minds, deserving of that. And I think that's good. It's not as if they have to remake the club. They've got Carpenter, who with Oswalt --- they're 1 and 1A as the best pitchers in the National League. Pujols is clearly the best hitter in the game. And they have one of the best defenses in the game. So they're already a couple of steps ahead as it is. They don't have pitching depth in the rotation, clearly, but the rotation that won the World Series last year --- look at that rotation that won. You have a guy who won 5 games in Reyes; Weaver won 8 all year, and only 4 or 5 for the Cardinals. Carpenter was good, and Suppan was good, but it's not as if they ran Hall of Fame guys out there in the Series. They can get guys as good as that to pitch. Maybe Wainwright will have to be one of those guys; I would expect that to happen. They got him as a starter when they traded for him, so I would expect him to start this year. I'd rather see them hold back a little bit on money and spend it when they can get a player who will improve the team.
How about the future for you? Will you continue indefinitely? Do you have a timetable for when you'd like to step down from the Post? Wouldn't you like to have a summer where you can just go fishing?
I'd like to work until --- it's one of those tear-the-uniform-off deals, I guess. Now, if you asked me in two or three years maybe I'd feel differently, but I still have enough energy and enthusiasm to do this for a few more years at least.
I think that will be well received by your readership. When the news came out about your election, there was a lot of expression of pride and appreciation. So I think people will be glad to hear you're not planning to go anywhere anytime soon.
Well, thanks. I don't have any plans to go anywhere, no. Now, maybe some other people will have plans for me to do that, I don't know.
Thanks again for your time, Rick. I really appreciate your time and enjoyed the conversation.
Sure. Thanks, Larry.