2018 J.G. Taylor Spink Award Winner Sheldon Ocker

Part of the J.G. TAYLOR SPINK AWARD series
Written by: Bill Francis

Sheldon Ocker, who covered the Cleveland Indians for more than three decades, was surprised when informed he was now the focus of the story.

On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Ocker was elected the 2018 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, an honor presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” The longtime Tribe beat writer and columnist will be recognized during the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Induction Weekend, to be held July 27-30.

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“It’s turning out that I know more people than I thought. They actually admit to knowing me,” joked Ocker, referring to the constant stream of well-wishers only a few hours after news of his honor was released. “I didn’t think I was going to win. I guess most people feel that way. I was kind of surprised I won. I’m just thankful this happened.

“It’s a big deal to me. I’ve done this a long time. I’ve watched other people get the award and I thought, ‘Well, that would be nice but this is not going to happen to me.’”

Ocker, the 69th winner of the Spink Award since its inception in 1962, covered the Indians with the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal for 33 years before retiring in January 2014 as one of the longest-tenured writers in the business at the time. Past Cleveland-area baseball writers to have won the Spink Award include Gordon Cobbledick (1977) and Hal Lebovitz (1999).

“I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Paul Hoynes, who currently covers the Indians with cleveland.com and worked side-by-side with Ocker while Hoynes was with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We were on the beat for over 30 years together. He’s got the four things every beat writer needs: He was a great reporter; he had strong opinions; he never took a day off; and he knew every great restaurant in every city on the road.

“He’s the best. Very well deserving. He was never intimidated by a player or the front office – he stood his ground. He set a good example of just believing in yourself and believing in your opinions. He was good that way.

“There were three of us on the beat that traveled together for almost 25 years: Me, Sheldon, and Jim Ingraham from the Lake County News-Herald. Some beat guys can’t stand each other because it’s very competitive, but we always got along and I think Sheldon was a big part of that. If somebody got beat on a story, it didn’t become a fistfight in the press box.”

According to Ocker, 75, he has been to Cooperstown three or four other times, including 1985 when, as president of the BBWAA, he served as emcee for the Induction Ceremony. The 2018 Hall of Fame Weekend will be held July 27-30, with the Induction Ceremony to take place on Sunday, July 29 at 1:30 p.m. The annual Awards Presentation, where the winners of the Ford C. Frick Award, for baseball broadcasting, and Ocker, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner, will be honored, will take place at Doubleday Field on Saturday, July 28.

Born and raised in Akron, the Ohio State graduate’s first job out of college came with the Sandusky (Ohio) Register, where he spent a year before joining the Beacon Journal.

“I got into sports writing by accident because that was the first interview I got out of school,” Ocker said. “I always liked sports so I figured this is good. I would have taken a news writing job – it didn’t matter at the time. I just needed a job, but it happened to be sports in Sandusky, Ohio, covering a small Catholic high school. It was fun.

“And then after a year I got a call from Beacon Journal and covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for 10 years. Then our paper was looking for a baseball writer and they asked me to do it and I said yes. I’ve always really liked baseball. And I was never that good of a baseball player, but I liked the mental part, the strategy of the game. Just hitting a baseball was something that was such a different skill that you didn’t have in other sports. I liked the idea of that.”

Ocker was renowned for his work ethic, rarely missing a game whether it was during the regular season, postseason or spring training.

“I knew it was going to be kind of a grind. I didn’t take days off. I always covered every game, kind of old-style,” Ocker said. “There were sometimes I went five or six years and didn’t miss a game, which is kind of crazy now, especially with all the extra stuff you have to do with the internet. It’s a much harder job now than it was then, and it was difficult enough at the time.”

“This guy never took a day off,” said Hoynes. “Once the season started he did 162. He was like Cal Ripken. I tried to do that for the first couple years and I said. ‘This isn’t working here. I need a day off.’ He was very consistent and he showed up every day.”

And during his tenure covering the Indians, Ocker had to report on some of the best and worst squads in franchise history.

“There was a seven-year period (1985-91) where they lost 100 games three times,” Ocker said. “Tim Kurkjian once told me in the early 1990s, and I have no idea why he figured this out, he said I was the losingest beat writer in the country, which included 10 years covering the Cavaliers. I was use to writing a lot of bad team stories. That was kind of my specialty until about 1994.

“But you meet some really great people. And despite what the popular feeling is about players being arrogant, most of them are really good people. It’s rewarding just to get to know all these people.”

What were some of Ocker’s favorite Cleveland games and players?

“Unfortunately, losing the seventh game to the Marlins in the 1997 World Series when they had the game won. They just couldn’t hold on,” he said. “Probably the best player I ever watched was Robbie Alomar because he could do everything. Best hitter I’ve seen is probably Manny Ramirez. Pitching is tough to single out one guy. Albert Belle was the most unique player I ever covered.”

Asked for his favorite game, he mentioned Jack Morris, a recent Hall of Fame electee, and the 10-inning shutout he tossed for the Twins against the Braves in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series. His least favorite came in the 1988 World Series’ first game when Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers slugged a two-run, game-winning homer off Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth inning.

“My worst day on the job was when Kirk Gibson came up and hit that pinch-hit home run in the World Series for the Dodgers against the A’s,” he said. “The reason was that the game was on the West Coast and I’ve passed almost every deadline, it’s about 1:15 in the morning on the East Coast, and I had my whole story written. And Gibson limps to the plate and hits a home run. I had 95 percent of the story written on how great Oakland played and then there’s two paragraphs at the beginning that said, ‘Oh, and by the way, Kirk Gibson hit a home run to win the game.’”

Today, Ocker remains in the business, doing some part-time editing and writing for a group that publishes nine monthly suburban community magazines near his Ohio home. “Tonight I’m covering a school board work session – my new beat is the Revere School Board.”

Looking back on his accomplished career covering baseball, Ocker has no regrets.

“It was a fun ride for 33 years,” he said, “and I’m not sorry I did it.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the J.G. TAYLOR SPINK AWARD series