By: George Garneau
Veteran baseball writer is undone by New York colleagues
who trash his qualifications for hall of fame and turn vote
against him; New York Post columnist comes to his defense
Last week E&P reported that New York-area sports columnists had exchanged barbs over coverage of Seton Hall University’s original decision to offer a basketball scholarship to an accused sex offender. Hurling the first barb was New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick.
The article below reports that another Post sports columnist, Wallace Matthews, criticized the work ethic of New York Times and Newsday sportswriters who joined a campaign to block a New York Times sportswriter from entering the Baseball Hall of Fame. sp.
FOR THE FIRST time in over 30 years, no press box scribe is headed into the Baseball Hall of Fame, because the Baseball Writers Association of America voted down this year’s candidate, New York Times veteran Joe Durso.
It is so, Joe. You’re out.
It was the first time the baseball writers had rejected their organization’s nominee for the Spink Award, the profession’s highest honor, since the award was founded in 1963 in the name of Sporting News founder J.G. Spink to honor writers for distinguished careers.
The award’s first winner was Ring Lardner, who led the procession of baseball writers who are enshrined in the library of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., alongside Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
The sorry tale of Durso’s rejection includes all the elements of a soap opera: intrigue, betrayal, jealousy, dishonor and a questionable vote. In this case, a band of New Yorkers scuttled one of their own.
A letter signed by six New York-area baseball writers ? including Durso’s colleague at the Times, Murray Chass, who reportedly wrote it ? urged voters to reject Durso as unqualified.
Their 11/2-page indictment says Durso was “not routinely respected” by Times colleagues or feared by competing beat reporters.
His coverage, the letter said, “more often than not, was superficial, undermined by habitual lateness, a lack of enterprise, and ignorance of his beat.” He “rarely, if ever, developed a story,” and “appeared content to write overview . . . that often lagged days behind.” And when he missed a story, “he would discredit and deny others’ stories the following day.”
Durso’s body of work as a reporter is “ineffective,” said the letter, also signed by Steve Jacobson and Marty Noble of Newsday, Bill Madden of the Daily News, Kit Stier of Gannett’s suburban New York papers and Jack Lang, a Spink winner and former Daily News sportswriter.
Also mailed with the ballots was a letter from Jerome Holtzman ? the Chicago Tribune sports veteran, Spink winner and chairman of the nominating committee ? who called Durso “an outstanding and graceful writer, certainly among the very best baseball writers of his time and before.” He characterized the opposition orchestrated by Chass as “an ugly personal vendetta.”
By mail ballot the group rejected Durso 54-48, with nine absentions.
“We are not going to have a writer be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year,” Holtzman, one of the deans of baseball journalism, said in an interview. “And the whole thing was led by Murray Chass, who hated Durso with a passion. . . . He deprived a New York Times teammate of the ultimate honor of a baseball writer.”
“It’s disgraceful what the New York writers did to Joe Durso,” said Jan Kuenster, editor of Baseball Digest in Evanston, Ill., and a sportswriter since the 1940s. “It’s a terrible embarrassment to Joe Durso.”
Durso, who admits to being in his late 60s, covered New York baseball for the Times for 27 years before switching to horse racing, and has written 13
Hanging dirty laundry
The controversy brewed quietly until New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews, angered by the “smear campaign” against Durso, hung the tale out for public inspection Feb. 14. Headlined “Baseball scribes bean one of their own,” his column was less a defense of Durso, whom Matthews hardly knows, than an attack on the six writers who undid his Cooperstown bid with a professional pillorying.
“I don’t know if any of the ‘crimes’ Durso is accused of . . . are true,” Matthews wrote, “but I do know this: The charges are petty and mean and borderline libelous.
“And they are nothing compared with the misdeeds of some of his accusers,” Matthews said, before listing some. Durso’s critics, Matthews said, “only demean themselves as well as expose their own hypocrisy.”
“I thought that what was done was just outrageous,” Matthews, 38, said in a interview. He said the critics never bothered to confront Durso with their charges.
If you don’t like Durso, don’t vote for him, he reasoned. But for colleagues, including one on your own paper, to trash your career in a letter “close to character asassination” prodded Matthews to respond.
Before writing the column, he said, “I went through it carefully in my head and thought that it would cause hard feelings and people probably wouldn’t speak to me.”
Saying that Durso deserved a touch of “professional decency,” Matthews asked of his critics, “Where’s their decency?”
Holtzman, 68, called the “catalogue of infractions” against Durso “bullshit.”
“There is not a writer who has not been beaten on a story or been late for a press conference,” he said, adding that the critics “smeared Durso but smeared themselves as much or more.”
The New York sextet denied any vendetta by Chass, a 22-year Times veteran, against Durso and denied his opposition was based on personal conflict.
Chass did not return repeated phone calls.
Durso said, “This is clearly a personal vendetta, or jealousy, and the letter dwells on laughably trivial matters that are entirely untrue and have nothing to do with my career at the Times.”
He said he was considering legal action for defamation, and said the election process was “clearly flawed.”
Newsday sports columnist Steve Jacobson, who covered baseball full time for 18 years, defended the letter, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, Joe Durso’s only qualification is he works for the New York Times. He’s a nice man and he’s a competent baseball writer, but if the vote is based on outstanding performance, he doesn’t qualify. . . .
“He’s a .275 hitter, and .275 hitters can play the game but they don’t get into the Hall of Fame.”
The letter, which was read to him before he agreed to put his name on it, was “a little harsh” but was not intended as a public pillorying, said Jacobson, who lamented, “The most unfortunate thing about this is that Joe gets exposed on a level he shouldn’t.”
The Durso affair ? the second journalistic feud involving a Post sports columnist (see E&P, Jan. 18, p. 14) ? is partly a result of the baseball strike, without which the controversy would have never left the confines of the baseball writers.
Association members usually nominate, discuss and elect a Spink winner by a show of hands when they meet every fall at the World Series. Since the series was cancelled along with the season, so was the baseball writers meeting.
Leaders of the 700-member association called for a mail ballot instead. The nominating committee voted 3-1 for Durso, but New York members opposed to Durso forced a second vote, also 3-1.
Because there was no meeting to discuss the nomination, Durso’s critics were allowed to voice their opposition in a letter sent to voters along with Holtzman’s letter supporting Durso and a ballot.
At least two members have questioned the integrity of the vote.
Kuenster said the ballot he received was marked to be returned by Feb. 4 ? but he didn’t get it until Feb. 6.
“I’m not so sure just how many writers were queried on this,” he said.
Holtzman questioned who, exactly, voted. Since only World Series reporters voted in the past, only those credentialed to cover the 1993 series were supposed to get ballots, Holtzman said. Nonetheless, Holtzman said he heard that some inactive New York chapter members had gotten ballots while some active members in the Midwest had not.
“Until I get a list [of who received ballots], I will be concerned about whether the list was stacked,” Holtzman said.
Association secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell of the Hartford Courant conducted the election and defended its integrity. He said ballots were mailed to all of the about 270 sportswriters on a list of those credentialed to cover the last World Series. O’Connell said he used the list as “a barometer,” but ballots might have gone out to 10 or 12 others because he started the mailing before receiving the list.
He said ballots were mailed Jan. 24 and counted Feb. 6, after which no ballots were counted.
to a new level
Holtzman insisted that previous Spink nomineees had been elected after little discussion. Others disagreed, saying there was sometimes discussion, and nominations had been withdrawn as a result of opposition. Most people agreed, however, that the 60 to 75 members who usually attended the World Series meeting usually approved the nominee without dispute. There was general agreement also that sometimes less than outstanding candidates have won.
“There have been a lot of mediocre candidates inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Holtzman said, calling Durso’s capabilities “above normal” and his writing “outstanding.”
“It seemed that a different standard was applied to Joe Durso and I wanted to know why,” said Matthews.
Suggesting a generational value change in sports from charming writers to aggressive reporters, one Times man, speaking on background, called Durso “a very graceful writer but never a strong reporter” and said Chass has never had much professional respect for him.
Rick Hummell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter and nominating committee member, said he was unaware of the extent of opposition Durso inspired among members of the New York chapter, the largest in the association.
“Being nominated and turned down is a kind of a kick in the teeth,” Hummell said.
?(The controversy breved quitely until New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews, angered by the “smear campaign” against Durso, hung the tale out for public inspection Feb. 14.) [Photo & Caption]