Memories Of A Great Baseball Writer

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allison

By Mark Hebscher

(ISN) – I hadn’t thought of Alison Gordon in 20 years. We used to spend a lot of time together, covering the Toronto Bluejays of the late 70s and early 80s. Then I read the news. She had passed away at the age of 72.

Alison was like that person you sat next to in school all those years, or the teammate you dressed next to in the locker room or the work colleague you worked closely with and got to know pretty well. Your lives eventually go in different directions, and your memory gets jogged only when you run into them again, or when you find out they had passed away.
Alison Gordon was a baseball fan long before she got the job as the Toronto Star’s beat writer for the Bluejays. The problem was, she had to prove to everybody else that she was qualified for a position that had been an exclusive male domain since the invention of baseball. “What does a woman know about baseball?” was a familiar refrain in 1979, and this was the environment that Alison had to wade into. It took courage and patience, two qualities which Alison had an abundance of. I was beginning my sportscasting career in radio at the same time, and found myself in the same press boxes and the same locker rooms as Alison, with both of us trying to find our way in an exciting, yet male-dominted business. We were both rookies, but with one big difference. For the most part, I was welcome in the clubhouse. For the most part, she was not.

There were no women covering baseball in those days. Certainly not on a daily basis. It used to be that women would only write or broadcast women’s sports: golf, tennis, track and field, swimming and gymnastics. No basketball. No football. No hockey and certainly no baseball. When a Sports Illustrated reporter, Melissa Ludke, was refused admission to the New York Yankees clubhouse in 1977, she filed a discrimination lawsuit against Major League Baseball, demanding equal access. When she won the suit, in late 1978, suddenly female reporters were allowed in Major League locker rooms, and they flocked there en masse to be a part of the story. Unfortunately, all of these ladies were news reporters who knew very little about baseball, Their lack of knowledge and credibility made it that much more difficult for people like Alison, who was viewed as just another woman who wouldn’t know a squeeze bunt from a sacrifice fly. Not only did Alison know the difference, she could also extol the virtues of the infield fly rule better than anybody else, male or female.

When the novelty of women in the locker room had worn off at the start of the 1979 season, the only female reporter left standing was Alison. She was the first woman to be named to the Baseball Writers Association of America, even though the name on that first card was MR. ALISON GORDON. At the Bluejays Spring Training camp in Dunedin, Florida, Alison was viewed by many as an interloper who was just there to catch a glimpse of naked ballplayers in the clubhouse. She was blatantly ignored by some, barely tolerated by others, and grudgingly accepted by a few. Back then, most of the players stayed at the same hotel as the media, the Ramada Inn Countryside in Clearwater. Alison’s room was down the hall from mine, and we would frequently meet up for breakfast at the coffee shop, or at Denny’s on the other side of Highway 19. When we would run into the players, or even manager Roy Hartsfield, they often looked the other way rather than acknowledge her presence. To say her job was difficult during that first spring training would be a massive understatement.

I got to know and understand Alison much better after our work was done, in the evening. Once I had done my interviews and sent the tape back to Toronto (via alligator clips over the phone line) and once Alison had written her stories for the Star (on a portable manual typewriter) we would often meet up for dinner and then a long session of backgammon. She didn’t hang around the other writers, and, being a fellow rookie, I didn’t pal around with the electronic media much. I forget the name of the restaurant that was attached to the hotel (It changed every year) but we used to play so much backgammon there, they had to kick us out around midnight because we took up a prime table near the bar. I lost to her more often than not, and always seemed to be paying for breakfast the next morning to settle our bet. Had we played for real money, I would’ve ended up losing my shirt. She was a good player. She also knew that the players would test her every chance they got to see if she would crack under the pressure. Once, she told me about a Bluejays pitcher who had offered her 200 dollars for sex, in order to win a bet. We laughed about it together, but she knew there would be many more occasions where the players would show their true sexist colours.

We also had a lot of time to talk baseball and share stories. I must admit that I was skeptical at first about her ability to take the constant abuse and rejection from certain people who just wouldn’t accept the fact that she was going to be there every day asking questions. Luckily, there were a few guys who understood that she was just doing her job, and although she never became “one of the boys” she was eventually accepted as a “beat writer”. Luckily for Alison, that 1979 Bluejays team was the worst in club history (53 wins, 109 losses). They were a rag-tag squad with a manager (Hartsfield) who knew he wouldn’t be back the following season. There were plenty of characters to write about too, and after a while, it wasn’t so much about who won the game, but rather who had a good story to tell. A lot of times, Alison extracted information and quotes from players that other, less sensitive reporters could not obtain. In many ways, she changed the way reporters covered baseball. To sit next to a half-naked ballplayer while he’s drinking his fourth beer and ask probing, sensitive questions while other half-naked players walked by couldn’t have been easy, but Alison had a way of making the player feel relaxed. And, let’s face it, a guy with a few beers in him is more likely to give a reporter better quotes.

And, as rookie reporters, we looked out for each other. Once, while I was interviewing Detroit’s Jason Thompson, his teammate, Steve Kemp, pulled the microphone cable out of my cassette tape recorder without my knowledge. Alison spotted it, tapped me on the shoulder and cut the interview short so I could re-attach the mic cable. Luckily, Thompson allowed me to start the interview over again. Another time, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson wouldn’t let Alison interview him because he said he was going to take a shower, and. in his words “It’s going to be a long one”. Instead of her having to wait, and risk missing her deadline, I stood outside the shower, interviewed Anderson, and then took the tape back to Alison so she could listen to it and get some quotes for her story. Having a woman in the locker room with full access made a lot of guys uncomfortable, and many of them thought she took the job because she liked to check out naked players. But, as Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said “That Alison Gordon broad ain’t no Pecker Checker”. She certainly was much more than that. She was nominated for a National Newspaper Award that year, and proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she could write about baseball and write eloquently. The fact that she could do it under the pressures of extreme sexism and daily deadlines makes her a Hall of Fame candidate in my eyes. Whether she was writing game stories or baseball novels, Alison Gordon was always a “must read”. Rest in Peace, my friend.

 

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