October 9, 2009
In a perfect world, one might assume that when he was growing up, the celebrated Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy played catch with his dad every summer day and went to Fenway Park so often that the crease in his pants ran sideways. But Shaughnessy does not live in a perfect world, and never did, in spite of a career and celebrity for which many of us, in a weedy moment, might consider a Faustian pact.
He is a study of contrasts, a man of remarkable passion for sports writing and even greater commitment to the reader for a prose that scans and an opinion that edifies. He offers the veteran perspective of a gifted observer whose range covers a field of legends from Ted Williams, to Red Auerbach, to Bill Russell, to Larry Bird, and probes behind banner sports headlines over three decades that have brought us to the brink, then finally into the Promised Land.
No, Dan Shaughnessy never played catch with his dad, and only visited Fenway as a youth once a year on annual visits to the Lahey Clinic where he received treatments for asthma. Yet his father infused in him a love of language and expression, and his seminal visits to the ancient ballpark kindled a spark that would ultimately light up the Globe's sport pages and capture a collective gut or angst in Red Sox Nation.
Shaughnessy at a young age mastered the guiding principal of fine journalism, lost today on the din of blogs and earsplitting talk shows: let a good story tell itself. Considered among the best sports writers in America, the author of 11 books, including the iconic The Curse of the Bambino, a television and radio personality with his trademark curly hair, succinct wit and mug that smacks of Galway, the site of his paternal roots, Shaughnessy is on a roll at 56. He shows no signs of becoming the road kill of a newspaper industry facing extinction.
Love him or loathe him, as some bloggers and readers do, for his opinions or for being flip with his words (admirers would call that a turn of a phrase), Shaughnessy defines provocative sports writing that is true to its genre, and is as informed as it is entertaining. After all, this is sports, not coverage of health care reform, and it ought to be fun-sports metaphors, irreverent clichés, and all. So deal with it.
"If I'm not interested in the material, I don't write well," Shaughnessy concedes during a recent interview at the Globe. "My father always thought I'd elevate to more serious writing, but that's never going to happen."
Shaughnessy's late father, William Joseph, who made a modest living as a sales executive at a bag company, was a cerebral individual and voracious reader. "As a youngest boy in a family of five, I wasn't with my father as much as I would have liked," Shaughnessy says, noting bonding times were often trips to the town dump in Groton, a small Yankee farm town in northwestern Middlesex County with a population in the 1950s of 4,000 and no stop light. "He was 39 years older than me, and wasn't much of an athlete at middle age, but would stand over my shoulders with a pencil in hand as I wrote, and then take my papers and edit. He was excellent at that. While I didn't know the mechanics of writing then, he taught me to have a good ear."
A good ear, to be sure, and a knack for story telling, honed in a 12-room farmhouse in a rural community that resembled Thorton Wilder's Our Town and produced another notable sports writer and commentator, Peter Gammons, who mentored Shaughnessy early on. There are no writers in the family tree; Shaughnessy's paternal grandfather, Joe, was a bookbinder, and that's as close as it gets to writing. The Shaughnessy family, it is believed, emigrated to the Boston area during the Irish Potato Famine.
His late mother, Eileen (Lorden), who before marriage had been a nurse at Cambridge City Hospital, taught him poise and perseverance. A beautiful woman, she was smoother around the edges than his dad, and had won a beauty contest growing up-Miss Silver Lake. The couple met when Shaughnessy's father, a Boston College graduate who had been a classmate of Tip O'Neill's, had his appendix removed at Cambridge City Hospital. She declined his initial request for a date, then accepted the persistent appeal when she needed a ride to a wake.
A composite of both parents, there is discernible shyness to Shaughnessy, a bit of a loner look that he overcomes with his writing. "If there are ten people at the dinner table, I'll say the least," he offers. "But professionally, I've learned to push myself forward." From the start, Shaughnessy had a zeal for baseball, mostly from reading and absorbing statistics, although he was a credible athlete-once the home run king in Little League and a high school varsity basketball and baseball player, plus a cross country runner. In baseball, his favorite sport, he was a respectable .300 hitter on a good day, as he shifted from right field, to second base, to first base. He didn't have a strong arm, and was forever in the long shadows of older brother, Bill, "a local teen baseball sensation."
"I was into stats as a kid; I was pretty good in math," he says. He calls himself a "baseball Rain Man" in one of his books, noting that he could recite the lineups of every major league ball club. He says he invented an imaginary baseball dice game, and played a complete 162-game season with imaginary teams. "I wallpapered my bedroom with baseball photographs and played some form of baseball-often by myself-from the time I woke up until the sun went down, unless of course there was a school or a family function," he writes in his latest book Senior Year, which chronicles his son Sam's high school senior year and the relationship between a father and son. "My sisters still laugh recalling my narration of imaginary games with a rubber ball at the back porch steps." Shaughnessy often worked himself into a tearful frenzy during these fantasy games. "Why didn't you just let yourself win?" a sister would ask later.
That would be too easy.
What really came easy to Shaughnessy was writing. At Groton High School, he wrote local sports for the community weekly, Public Spirit, and then attended Holy Cross where he majored in English and became editor of the school paper, The Crusader, in his sophomore year-writing, editing, and assigning coverage of Holy Cross sports, which at the time in football, played D-1 schools like Syracuse, Boston College, and Army. As a junior, Shaughnessy became a Globe correspondent at the school, and worked his sources. "Whenever the Globe guys would come here, I would chat them up, show them my stuff," Shaughnessy says, noting he "parroted" the styles of Globe greats like Gammons, Ray Fitzgerald, Leigh Montville, Bud Collins, Will McDonough, Fran Rosa and Bob Ryan. "I would have walked on my lips through busted glass for any opportunity to get bylines in the Globe," he admits in Senior Year.
During the summer of his junior year and immediately upon graduation, he freelanced at the Globe, covering the Globe-sponsored Boston Neighborhood Basketball League and high school sports, but at 23, he was itching for a full-time reporting job, and there were none at the Globe. On the strength of his Globe clips and a strong recommendation from Gammons, he landed a job as a baseball beat writer at the Baltimore Evening Sun, covering the capable Baltimore Orioles and writing about budding baseball Hall of Famers Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken, Jim Palmer, and Brooks Robinson, who he had mimicked years earlier on his back porch in Groton. "I was stunned that Brooks Robinson now knew my name!"
While covering an Oriole game in Chicago, Shaughnessy met his wife Marilou (Wit), a Detriot native who has a doctorate in psychology. Sitting a few bar stools from Weaver in the hotel tavern, he interrupted her as she rushed to a lobby payphone to call her boyfriend. Shaughnessy offered her a drink and an introduction to the manager. Marilou wasn't impressed; she had never heard of Weaver, and knew nothing about baseball. Like his persistent father, Shaughnessy won the girl in the end; they were married a few years later. The couple now live in Newton and have three children, who have excelled-Sarah, who works at Boston College and is enrolled in an MBA program; Kate, a Boston University graduate in Communications who teaches English at Newton High School; and Sam, a senior at Boston College.
After two years with the Baltimore Sun, Shaughnessy was hired at the Washington Star as national baseball writer. When opportunity presented itself on Morrissey Boulevard after the Star folded in 1981, Shaughnessy was braced in the threshold. In 1982 when Ryan moved to Channel 5, Shaughnessy was assigned the Celtics beat, where he covered two championship seasons. In 1986, he was given the plum baseball beat when Gammons left for Sports Illustrated, and in '89, he became a columnist as Montville followed Gammons to SI.
Twenty seven years later, one might expect a shine of sorts at his desk-memorabilia from some of the most memorable and unimaginable moments in sports history that he has covered. The contrast between the resume of the writer and his digs at the Globe is striking. In a cluttered cubicle in the center of the sports department an assortment of lithe and fading photos and clips are tacked to the makeshift walls: a haunting old photo of Babe Ruth glaring at him, a curious news photo of Ted Williams and President Richard Nixon, and an assortment of family photos and clips. Not the kind of stuff going to Cooperstown.
Always a craftsman concerned more about words than appearances, Shaughnessy becomes animated at the discussion of writing. "I love the process of writing, far more than reporting," he says. "I like having everything in front of me and letting it rip."
Shaughnessy laments the state of the newspaper business today and a preoccupation with loud commentary in blogs and talk shows. "There is less value placed today on good sports writing," he says. "It doesn't have the same currency. It's all about yelling, screaming, and a download of content. Readers increasingly want to read other fans, particularly the younger ones. If you are in the 11th grade and you go to the web, you can't distinguish between Bob Ryan and some nitwit in his basement in Braintree who loves his team, and never wants to read anything bad about it. The trend is disturbing."
In his column, Shaughnessy has always worked to keep a firewall between sports writing and gratuitous cheerleading. "Surprisingly, it's easy to keep the lines straight," he says. "As a professional, I'm a fan of sports, but more importantly, a fan of the story with no emotional investment in whether a team wins or loses. It's strictly what works best in the story. I can't have an emotional investment in the moment. Otherwise, it would be like betting on games. That kind of fan emotion does not belong in our space. Frankly, I don't want to read other fans, that's what blogs are for. If I'm reading about a political election, for example, I don't want to read a story or column by a writer who feels bad because his or her candidate lost. I want credible analysis."
Credible analysis is tough love, at times, like Shaughnessy's July 31 column on David Ortiz headlined "Suffering from 'roid rage.''' "David Ortiz lied to you," he wrote after the New York Times had reported that Ortiz and Manny Ramierz had been named on a list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. "It seems safe to say that his entire Red Sox career is a lie."
Say it ain't so, Dan. "That's a hard thing to write about someone who has always been a standup guy and helpful in the locker room," Shaughnessy says. "I feel badly about it, but that's what had to be written."
Accustomed to the brickbats and bouquets tossed at him, Shaughnessy still relishes the work. Other than holding his breath for news of a possible Globe sale, he is staying put.
"I've been blessed to have written for an audience that cares deeply about sports," he says. "I love my job, and I'm not in a rush to stop doing it." He pauses for a second to shuffle some of the clutter on his desk. "In the end," he says, "I'd like to be remembered as a great husband and dad and a good writer, someone who was fun to read and entertaining." He pauses again, then adds, "But that's certainly not for me to say."
Rest easy, the record speaks clearly. It doesn't get any better in Boston, if you have a passion for sports, the gift of words, and you happen to be Dan Shaughnessy. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it's pretty damn good.
Greg O'Brien, the author/editor of several books, writes for national and regional publications, is a former staff writer at the Boston Herald American and former senior writer with Boston Magazine.