At 36 years and counting on the Detroit Tigers beat for The Detroit News, Tom Gage has seen just about every inch of the baseball landscape.
“I’ve landed everywhere many times,” Gage said. “In 36 years, that’s a lot of Kansas Citys.”
And Oaklands and Clevelands – and all the Major League Baseball stops in between.
This summer, Gage will make a stop in Cooperstown – to accept the 2015 J.G. Taylor Spink Award from his admiring friends and brethren at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
“It’s a combination of love for the game and love for writing,” said Gage of what has kept his passion stoked for his job for five decades. “You have to accept the challenge that you have to write something that hasn’t been written before. Baseball is great for that, because the stories change every night.”
Born April 2, 1948 in Detroit, Gage grew up following the Tigers and honing his writing skills.
“One of the first things I remember watching TV was sitting about three inches away from an old black-and-white set watching a baseball game,” Gage said. “I think the Tigers were playing the Indians because someone with a big high kick was pitching, probably (Bob) Feller.
“Later on, I used to play the All-Star Baseball game with the spinners and the discs with the kids on the block. Then after we were done, I’d write up game stories about the games either on our old typewriter or longhand. Basically, my career was already taking shape.”
Gage attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., with the goal of becoming an attorney. But prior to his graduation in 1970, his path took a detour into journalism.
“I thought I was going to law school, but I saw that other students in pre-law where much more serious than I was,” Gage said. “So I started to get into journalism classes, and when I was a senior I wrote a paper about a man in Clifton Forge, Va., who had bought a small daily newspaper after he had worked in newspapers in Philadelphia. He told me he had friends in the business and he recommended me to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where I was hired.”
Gage started on the news side but quickly moved into sports – covering events ranging from the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz to baseball stories that would present themselves in the Big Easy. In 1976, Gage came home to Detroit, working for The News. In 1979, Gage took over the Tigers’ beat – where he has remained ever since.
“At that time, it was still what the old style of covering baseball was like,” Gage said. “I traveled with the team on their buses and planes and you gained the players’ trust.
“It was a great way to see (manager) Sparky Anderson’s mind. I used to be in the hearts game with Sparky on the plane, and I saw how many moves he was ahead of me – and of the other managers.”
As a writer, Gage quickly realized that seven months of game stories would be a challenge. So he began to expand his intended audience beyond just the hardcore fan.
“I want anybody in the family to be able to pick up the paper and ready my story,” Gage said. “You have to be mindful of how many different people you can be writing for.”
With more than 11 million words pouring forth from his fingers over the years, Gage has become an example for his peers and an institution in Detroit. But he was utterly unprepared for the news on Dec. 9 that he had earned baseball writing’s top honor.
“I didn’t give myself much of a chance to win,” said Gage, who became the 66th winner of the Spink Award, named for the former editor of the Sporting News. “But when I saw (BBWAA secretary-treasurer) Jack O’Connell’s area code on my phone, I thought: ‘Do they call people that don’t win?’
“I’ve worked hard, but I’m just kind of a guy who’s done it the way it’s always been done. You don’t know if anybody is really appreciating that, and you don’t look for appreciation. But the years go by quickly – all of a sudden I’m at 36 years – and this is just an incredible feeling to win this award.”
2015 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Tom Gage of the Detroit News. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)