A walk that started with a post-game crossing of the Ohio University basketball court in December 1971 will conclude on July 27 in Cooperstown, as Paul Hagen emerges to a stage featuring Hall of Fame legends to deliver his acceptance speech as the 2013 winner of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.
It was more than 40 years ago when Hagen left the Ohio Bobcats locker room to file his postgame story for The Athens Messenger, when a voice of Phil Fuhrer, an Ohio University journalism alumnus who had worked with Paul just a couple years earlier, flagged down Hagen to offer him a job covering the Los Angeles Dodgers for the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram.
Just two months later, Hagen began his career covering baseball, starting in February 1974 with the Walter Alston-led Dodgers, a team that had captured Hagen’s interest as a third-grader growing up in East Aurora, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, when a report on Pee Wee Reese served as the incubation ground for Hagen’s road to Cooperstown.
“My dad took me to Bisons games at the old Offerman Stadium,” Hagen said, a few hours after being named the winner by his BBWAA peers at the Winter Meetings in December in Nashville, Tenn. “It was a stereotypical story of dad taking me to games, but the irony was that at the time, the Bisons were a Phillies Triple-A farm team. So I was seeing guys like Bobby Del Greco, Pancho Herrera and Bobby Wine.
“Back then, the International League was truly the international league, and you’d see these amazing date lines like ‘Havana’ and ‘Montreal.’ It all seemed so much more exotic than Syracuse or Rochester.”
Hagen’s pursuit for covering the game was fostered in his Buffalo youth, writing for the high school paper, while reading the game coverage and columns of Cy Kritzer and Larry Felser. After a “skirmish” with a high school football coach who felt that Hagen’s coverage for the local town paper following a 37-0 loss was not positive enough, Hagen knew that he wanted to be in journalism.
“And I didn’t realize at the time, of course, that I was covering Mike Schmidt at Ohio during his last two seasons, which were my first two years there, and that he would become a big part of my life,” said Hagen.
Hagen’s interest in the game may have been fostered in the East Coast, but his cross-country progression helped him refine his craft. The 2013 season will mark Hagen’s 38th season covering Major League Baseball. Following a three-year stint with the Sun-Telegram covering the Dodgers from 1974-76, Hagen joined the Dallas Times-Herald from 1977-84, covering the Texas Rangers, before moving across the Metroplex from 1985-87 with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
It was a call that came out of the blue in 1987 that relocated Hagen, his wife Karen, and their two children, Emily and Daniel to Philadelphia to cover the Phillies for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hagen joined the staff of MLB.com for the 2011 season.
“I told Karen we’d go to Philly for a couple of years and make our way back to Texas, but we never did,” Hagen said. “My wife and kids really deserve this honor far more than I do, because they were the ones who had to get by while I was gone all those years. The thing about baseball is that you’re not just gone when the team is on the road for 81 games or for the six weeks of spring training or the three weeks of post-season and whatever else comes up. But you’re also gone when the team is home. Most games are at night, so you’re not really there a lot. Karen gets all the credit in the world for being strong enough and taking on the brunt of the child-raising responsibilities.”
Hagen has covered pennant-winners, cellar dwellers, Hall of Famers, characters in all forms, and so much more in his four decades in the game. But he’s always strived to report well and to write well and in an entertaining way.
“The first thing about being a beat writer is information. You also need to be able to write in a way that entertains and is helpful to people, too. I’d like to think I work pretty hard. I’ll never say I was the best reporter or the best writer or the hardest worker, but I’d like to think I was near the top in all of those.”
When he approaches the podium on the last weekend in July in Cooperstown, Hagen will flash back to all of those who have helped him along the way – particularly his Dallas Times-Herald colleague Blackie Sherrod – and he’ll relish when the day is over so that he can go “back to making other people the story” as opposed to being the story.
“I think baseball is the most challenging beat,” Hagen said. “I think a good baseball beat writer can do any job in journalism. All of the elements are there. Dealing with those who are not always cooperative. Writing on deadline. Writing a lot. Having to get everything right. I have always felt that it was the ultimate challenge.
“It’s just nice to get this award. You never really know. All you do know is that you do your best everyday for how many years you work. It is nice when, at a certain point, your peers say, ‘You’re doing OK, you’re doing all right.’”
2013 J.G. Taylor Spink Award Winner Paul Hagen (David Bergman/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)