John Lowe recognized for long career covering baseball

Written by: Bill Francis

John Lowe, who spent almost three decades covering baseball in the Motor City, has now been honored with the highest honor his profession bestows.

On Dec. 6 at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, it was announced that Lowe was elected the 2023 winner of the BBWAA Career Excellence Award. Lowe will be honored with the award that is presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing” during the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s induction weekend next July 21-24 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“I'm a combination of really honored and really humbled because I know how many people my whole life have had something to do with this and were invaluable to me,” said Lowe in a phone conversation from his home in Seal Beach, Calif., an hour after he was presented with the rewarding news.

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“I was thrilled, but I was also very humbled and appreciative of so many things. The Lord gave me some talent to do this. And at a young age I was able to figure out how it could be used as a way to a career. I had tremendous opportunities early in my career to get started. I was blessed. The number of people that took the time to teach me people in the business, veteran people, who went out of their way to help me...and also a lot of people in the game – managers, coaches and players - who would take the time to explain the game. The list of people I have to thank is endless.”

With 382 ballots cast by Baseball Writers’ Association of America members, Lowe was named on 137 in a very close election. Gerry Fraley, who passed away in 2019 after a nearly 40-year career as a beat writer in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Dallas, finished second with 135 votes. Bruce Jenkins, a baseball writer and columnist for almost half a century for the San Francisco Chronicle, was third with 106 votes.

“It was just an incredible honor to be on the ballot with Gerry Fraley and Bruce Jenkins. Not only do I have such respect for the work of both of them, but they're also tremendous friends of mine - Bruce is and Gerry was,” he said. “When I think about just how wonderful it is to be a baseball writer, they're two people that it's very easy to think of.”

Lowe covered baseball from 1979 through 2014, the last 29 of those years as the Tigers beat writer for the Detroit Free Press. He began his sports writing with the Los Angeles Daily News covering the Dodgers and Angels, spent 1984-86 at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and then moved to the Free Press. Overall, he covered 147 World Series games, including 121 consecutive ones at one point, and 28 All-Star Games.

“I've been a great beneficiary of a lot of fortunate timing. The first fortunate timing was the first team I ever followed an entire season was the 1967 Cardinals, one of the best teams ever. So I immediately was drawn into the excitement of baseball,” Lowe said. “Right when I was starting high school, we moved to Long Beach, Calif., which was another tremendous bit of timing because at that time Southern California was the best place to begin a sports journalism career because there were a lot of papers in the area.”

Lowe’s replacement on the Tigers beat for the Free Press, Anthony Fenech, learned from Lowe like so many before and since have.

“I don't say this lightly, but I really owe John my entire baseball writing career. Just the way he taught me my job, just the ins and outs and nuances. Obviously, this industry has changed a lot over time and he was able to really instill some ideals in me and in my reporting that just have really been lost over the years with technology,” a grateful and sometimes emotional Fenech remembered. “John is one of the kindest, most humble guys you'll ever meet. And for him to finally receive this recognition it's just amazing and it's so heartwarming. He really deserves this.

“If there is in fact a baseball writers wing of the Hall of Fame, John needs to be in that. He's one of the greatest.”

Fenech’s friendship with Lowe began in 2007 when the young prep sports reporter for the Free Press told the veteran he wanted to cover baseball and ask if he could he tag along at a Tigers game.

“This is not unique to me. OK, I was in the right place at the right time, but John has been doing this for years. He has a very strong passion for working with young journalists,” Fenech said. “For every Anthony Fenech there are thousands of other journalists that he's impacted in this kind of way. It's just a little bit unique because I succeeded him on the beat and I was able to work very closely with him.”

Being a beat writer for a team is often referred to as a grind during a long season, but Lowe calls himself fortunate in that regard because of the people he worked for and with.

“And I had terrific beat partners and I also had sports editors who were very conscious of making sure their beat writers did not get burned out,” he said. “The tremendous the length of my career is a tribute to the working conditions that the Free Press gave me.”

Lowe also, while writing for the Inquirer in the mid-1980s, introduced the “Quality Start” (a start in which a pitcher goes at least six innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs), a statistic still referenced in today’s game.

“It was it was just something that grew out of my observations and my reporting. I would hear managers like Whitey Herzog saying: ‘Well, all I'm looking for from my starting tonight is six innings.’ And I was also keeping logs on every starting pitcher. This was before the internet,” he recalled. “And I would just notice how often a starter would pitch really well but not get a win. And I said there has to be a better way of keeping track of how often does the starter go out there and do his job, which is to give his team the chance to win the game.”

Second baseman Ian Kinsler, who retired in 2019 after 14 big league seasons, has had an ongoing relationship with Lowe dating back to the 2008 All-Star Game when he was with the Texas Rangers and only solidified after spending four seasons with the Tigers from 2014 to 2017.

“He’s just a delightful guy to talk to, a historian who knows all about the game. Anything that you can think of he knows whether it's personalities of players, stories from whatever era that you want to know. For me that was attractive because he was so passionate about the game,” Kinsler said. “He was the only reporter that I'd take his phone call from when I got traded to Detroit for Prince Fielder. I was in Hawaii at that time on vacation with my wife, but John called me and I took his phone call because I knew that he always had the player's best interests in mind. And I knew the conversation was going to be a good one.

“I wouldn't honestly consider John a beat writer or a typical baseball writer. He's different to me. He stood out to me. He had more information than everybody else. He paid attention to the small things of the game. He knew the ins and outs and his questions were a lot more meaningful. There's way more insight in his questions than just your typical sports writer. So when John came up to interview you, you knew that he was going to ask you something important.

“I think he's just a throwback classic sports writer that was able to hold that distinguished title through 2014. And he was able to hold that for that long period of time because people respected him. Whether it was the way he dressed or the way he presented himself. And we do keep in touch. He’ll send me an email when something in baseball happens. He heard that I was going to manage Team Israel in the WBC and he sent me a message. And I'll always respond to him for sure.”

Tracy Ringolsby, the 2005 BBWAA Career Excellence Award winner, worked with Lowe when Lowe was breaking into the business.

“John Lowe was a high school intern at the Long Beach Independent-Press Telegram where I worked back in 1977," Ringolsby said. "He should have been a scientist, looking for cures to cancer, but he had a true love for baseball, its past and present. He was always working up his own statistical analysis of the game that he would put into motion in his stories once he became a baseball writer.”

Lowe, the 74th winner of the award since its inception in 1962, joins a prestigious cavalcade of writers previously honored, including such luminaries as Ring Lardner (1963), Grantland Rice (1966), Damon Runyon (1967), Fred Lieb (1972), Shirley Povich (1975), Red Smith (1976), Jim Murray (1987), Wendell Smith (1993), Roger Angell (2014) and Claire Smith (2017).

“Several of the previous winners are close friends of mine, and have been tremendous colleagues for many years,” said the 2010 national BBWAA president. “The other thing that jumped out at me was as I looked at the list that one of the 1979 recipients was Bob Broeg from St. Louis. I fell in love with baseball as a kid in St. Louis, and he was the sports editor of the Post-Dispatch and he was this incredibly well-regarded baseball historian. I would read his columns in 1969 for the 100th anniversary of baseball.”

Today, Lowe doesn’t use the word “retired” when referring to himself.

“That sounds like I just sit in a rocking chair,” he said. “I would say I was living and active and engaged in life in California, which is an easy place to do that.”

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum