The picture of the late Bill Conlin that is used most often in stories about him these days (including this one) is a shot from the ceremonies in Cooperstown. He is wearing a pair of those old man glasses with yellow lenses and he has the white hair and the little white beard and he is at a podium that reads "National Baseball Hall of Fame" on the front. His right hand is in the air and he is reading from a prepared script and no doubt he is being loud and strong and opinionated, the way he was during his 45 years as a Philadelphia sportswriter.
This was his day of days. July 23, 2011. He was the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which moved him into a small corner of sportswriter immortality near the best of the baseball players he covered. His name was now on a list with Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Jim Murray and assorted other famous baseball wordsmiths.
After covering 43 spring trainings, 38 postseasons, after pounding out innumerable words on typewriters and computers of all dimensions, column after column, year after year, this was the glorious end result. He was 77 years old.
"My editors have been an unbelievable array of writer's editors," he said in his speech that day at Doubleday Field. "I've never had a word changed. An inaccurate word, a misspelled world, a grammatically incorrect word…those changes are fine. But those editors always said, 'If you're going to change anything that alters content or alters the flow or the rhythm of the story, you must call Bill.' In all those years, I've never had anything changed for literary reasons. Factual reasons? Yes. Spelling? Yes. But as far as the way the story's going to read, nobody's ever changed a word in 45 years."
Self-assured. Proud. A bit pompous, perhaps.
He is frozen in this grand moment.
It is enough to make you sick.
* * *
The edits to Bill Conlin's life story arrived, of course, five months later. A lot of words were changed. On Dec. 20, 2011, he resigned from the afternoon Philadelphia Daily News as the morning Philadelphia Inquirer printed allegations by three adult women and one man that they were abused, molested as children by the Hall of Fame sportswriter in the 1970s. He was done, finished.
The accusations were graphic and specific. One of the accusers was Conlin's own niece, Kelley Blanchet, who now was a prosecutor in Atlantic City. She and the other adults said they were between seven and 12 years old when the incidents occurred. Conlin allegedly had been confronted at the time by their parents, but stammered and promised and cried his way out of public disclosure. Police were never called.
Three other adults appeared within the next week with more accusations. That made seven accusers. The incidents followed the same pattern of illicit touching, followed by the admonition that "this is our secret." The whole thing became a sports-page version of the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. Conlin's attorney promised explanations, a rebuttal, but none came. The man of so many opinions immediately retired without a word to live in a condo in Largo, Fla.
"Bill lived and wrote in his own peculiar, florid world," Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote after the allegations arrived, a much sadder portrait than the one constructed in Cooperstown. "It was a world I enjoyed visiting from time to time, but I don't know anyone who wanted to live there or even to tarry after dinner. If any staffer at the Daily News was a really close friend of Bill I never knew it. Even those of us who enjoyed Bill preferred to do so in small, controlled doses."
Now there were no doses at all.
Who would want to spend time with this guy?
When he died in Largo, slightly over a month ago at the age of 79, the obituaries all contained the word "disgrace," many of them in the headline. He had been tried and convicted, for sure, in the court of public opinion. He was a pariah. He still had never said a public word in defense.
The one place he hadn't been convicted was in any judicial court. His accusers were told that they had waited too long to come forward. Conlin was protected in New Jersey by a statute of limitations. There was nothing the prosecutors could do. There was nothing the accusers could do.
Or was there?
On Thursday of this week, a letter from four of them was published by the New York Daily News. They asked for legislatures across the country to remove the statutes of limitations for survivors of child abuse because "pedophiles like Conlin must not be permitted to use arbitrary time limitations to shield them from being held accountable for their crimes."
"We didn't want money," the letter read. "We wanted [Conlin] exposed for what he was. We wanted his façade of fame and fortune to crumble in the face of what he had done to the young and most innocent of our society."
The picture of Conlin that ran with the letter -- at least on the Daily News website -- was the obligatory Hall of Fame shot. July 23, 2011. Talk about the facade of fame and fortune. There he was in his Cooperstown glory. There he will be forever.
It is enough to make you sick.
* * *
The J.G. Taylor Spink Award is chosen by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the same BBWAA that chooses the baseball players for the Hall of Fame. Conlin received 188 votes from 434 ballots cast by BBWAA members to win the 2011 award. These are the same people who have wrung their hands in the past few years, held their noses and refused to allow the all-time leading home run hitter, the all-time hits leader, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner and other assorted famous players into the building for assorted transgressions. If they had known about Conlin's transgressions, there is little doubt that they also would not have allowed him to enter.
All they need now is a second chance. Change some bylaws. Bend some rules. Take a vote to rescind the 2011 vote. This is an arbitrary election, an arbitrary process. Miss America, for example, would have been dethroned in a heartbeat for much less serious charges. There does not have to be any due process. There does not have to be any statute of limitations.
Just get the guy out of the picture.