Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 9, 2013

SALISBURY — There is a story in Hal McCoy’s eyes, one that is worth a listen.
It begins in the spring of 1962, when the longtime baseball writer for the Dayton Daily News accepted a job as a general assignment reporter at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, then promptly declined the offer.
“Back in those days there were 11 openings for each applicant,” McCoy, a Kent State graduate, recalled Saturday while relaxing at the Holiday Inn. “Now it’s the complete opposite. But back then I got 11 offers, including a chance to work for the Wall Street Journal in Chicago. But me, I always wanted to be a sportswriter, and the Wall Street Journal didn’t have a sports section.”
That’s when fate tapped McCoy on the shoulder for the first time. “The very next day the Dayton paper called and asked if I wanted to join their sports department,” he said. “I couldn’t say no. I often wonder how my life would have turned out had I gone to Fort Wayne as a general assignment writer.”
No one knows, but this much is certain: it wouldn’t have brought him to Salisbury and this weekend’s NSSA Hall of Fame extravaganza. Now a 13-time state winner from Ohio, McCoy has left his mark — and it’s a beauty mark at that — covering the Cincinnati Reds for the Daily News and, A Spink Award winner and member of baseball’s exhaulted Hall of Fame, he’ll count 73 candles on his next birthday cake. His glistening list of achievements read like traffic signs on a highway. He’s been everywhere and seen everything, yet he hasn’t seen enough. Five times he’s covered the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, spinning wheels — and yarns — with auto racing’s elite. He’s witnessed golf’s premier events and rubbed elbows with Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino. McCoy was even there when running back Jim Brown and his Cleveland teammates won the 1964 NFL championship game, thrashing Baltimore 27-0 in the nation’s first televised title match,
“The last Browns team to ever win a championship,” he said with a boastful grin. “Jim Brown was the greatest running back of all-time. He’d knock you over, get tackled and get up like he was hurt. Then they’d give him the ball on the next play and he’d run another 14 yards and knock over four people.”
Fate intervened again in 1973. With two coveted beats available at the Daily News, McCoy was offered a chance to cover the Reds or the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. “I jumped on the baseball beat,” he said. “I’m glad I picked the Reds because I’m not a very good crime reporter. That’s what you had to be to cover the Bengals. They were always in trouble.”
It was a bonding year for McCoy, who quickly gained the confidence of Sparky Anderson, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench as the famed Big Red Machine came to power. He was in the press box at New York’s Shea Stadium for Game 3 of the National League championship series, the one noted for a blowout fight Rose had with Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson following a hard slide into second base. “Pete’s response was, ‘That’s how I play the game,’” McCoy remembered. “He always went into second hard and Bud Harrelson was in his way.”
McCoy offered some you-are-there insight when he dished on the rocky relationship between Rose and Bench. “They did not like each other,” he said. “If you went into the locker room and talked to Rose first, Bench wouldn’t talk to you at all. There was some rivalry thing going on, but I caught on pretty fast. If I wanted to talk to both of them I’d always interview Bench first because Rose, he didn’t care. You’d walk over to him, ask him one question and he’d fill up your notebook. Pete was a fantastic interview.”
Years later McCoy found himself among the cadre of reporters investigating Rose’s fall from grace. “Pete was my friend, so that was very hard,” he said. “It happened when he was managing (the Reds) so I had to talk to him every day. He blamed me for a lot of stuff that was written, but I had to write it. That was my job. After he got banned he didn’t speak to me for 15 years.”
They’ve since reconciled, but McCoy’s relationship with Morgan remains strained. “Morgan and I haven’t spoken since 1979,” he explained. “He was leaving the team through free agency and I wrote a column saying it’s probably a good thing because the Big Red Machine was breaking up, his time was past and it was time for him to move on. I’ve probably written 300 complimentary stories about him, but the next day in the clubhouse he stuck his finger in my face and said, ‘Don’t ever try to talk to me again.’ And we haven’t. It’s stupid and it’s childish. We’ve been on elevators together and stared straight ahead. We played doubles tennis against each other and never spoke. We were even side-by-side at the urinals at Riverfront Stadium and didn’t speak.”
More misfortune crossed McCoy’s path in 2002 when he suffered a stroke of the optic nerve, costing him most of his sight in right eye. A year later he lost much use of left eye as well and today is legally blind. But his good-natured approach — and some encouraging words from former infielder Aaron Boone — have sustained him. “I always tell people if you see me talking to a Coke machine, it’s OK to laugh,” he cracked.
McCoy, who covered every Reds road game for 37 seasons, has a diminished role as an internet blogger. But he still loves the game, almost as much as writing about.”
“This town here, Salisbury,” he said before returning to the festivities, “has got be the only town in America that loves sportswriters. They treat us like royalty. We’re not used to that.”
Maybe that’s because sports is a lifetime sentence and some of us never get enough to graduate. Longevity may be a tough test, but after more than four decades it’s safe to say Hal McCoy has aced it.