Interview: Bob Huber on Bill Conlin’s Final Days

april-2014-cover-315x399-220x300The April issue of Philly Mag features Bob Huber’s “The Last Days of Bill Conlin,” an examination of the decline and fall of the legendary Daily News baseball columnist who retreated from the public eye after child molestation allegations emerged in 2011. Conlin died last year.

Huber spoke this week to PhillyMag.com about how he reported the story, the demons haunting Conlin, and whether Conlin should retain the sportswriting award he received from the Baseball Hall of Fame before the allegations became public.

Read more »

The Last Days of Bill Conlin

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Illustration by Eduardo Recife

A year and a half ago, I flew down to Largo, Florida, and knocked on Bill Conlin’s door. It was early evening, and I couldn’t tell if he was home or not. Nobody came to the door. I thought I heard a TV, though. I knocked again.

Conlin had been the baseball beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News for two decades, starting in 1966, then wrote a regular column for the DN for an even longer stretch, until the end of 2011. He was the city’s most-read sportswriter, and was nationally known via a long stint on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters as the fat guy waving his coffee cup in high-volume arguments that were often brilliant, or at least amusing. In the summer of 2011, he was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But that December, the life he’d built for half a century collapsed, via a devastating article published in the Inquirer: A niece of Conlin’s and three other people (including one man) came forward to accuse him of sexually molesting them back in the 1970s, when they were children. They were speaking out after so many years, they said, because the recent allegations against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky had reignited their pain, and because it was time to end what amounted to a conspiracy of silence among Conlin’s family and friends covering up his horrible deeds. The alleged abuse happened far too long ago for charges to be brought. But the accusers were finally determined, they said, to tell their stories.

Conlin resigned from the Daily News immediately and wasn’t heard from again. Eventually, word got out that he was holed up in his condo in Largo. Where I stood, on an October evening at dusk, almost a year later. I knocked on his door a third time. I was sure I heard a TV.

Finally, I could hear someone coming.

“Yeah?” Conlin yelled — it was unmistakably his blistering foghorn voice — on the other side of the door. He didn’t open it.

I told him who I was, that I wanted to talk. Conlin and I knew each other a bit, having emailed occasionally as fellow journalists over the years. After the allegations hit, I’d emailed asking if he’d talk to me. He’d written back that he’d had a nervous breakdown and wasn’t ready to talk. He didn’t answer subsequent emails. I decided that getting face-to-face was the only chance I’d have. Though he still didn’t open his door.

Instead he yelled, “I’m not talking to anybody!”

So that was that — or so it seemed. I went back to my motel in Largo and called him. I got voicemail, and left a message: Would you have dinner with me? Just a dinner. A conversation.

I got an email back: You took a certain liberty coming down here without a prior head’s-up …

After venting a bit on the hell he’d been through, Conlin agreed in the email to have lunch the next day. But it would be, he said, on his terms.

THERE WAS A TIME when he was no mere sportswriter, but the most important journalist in Philadelphia. If that seems like a stretch, we’re forgetting the impact of the daily missives he would deliver from all over the country, all summer long, on our baseball team, in the halcyon days pre-Internet. As king of the sporting scribes here, Conlin shared with a few hundred thousand locals not only hardball derring-do, but his take on the world at large. Here is Conlin beginning a piece on the riots in Watts in August 1965, during a Phillies road trip to play the Dodgers:

This is a city at war with itself. The looters and the rioters are holed up, guerrilla-like, in a section of Los Angeles as big as Northeast Philadelphia. They have Molotov cocktails and whiskey and whiskey-courage enough to burn and pillage and rape and plunder. …

There are 13,000 National Guard troops here and the trucks whine through the freeway night bearing puzzled-looking kids from all over the state. Yesterday they were pumping gas and growing avocados. Today they are getting shot at. It is Vietnam in Southern California.

More often, Conlin’s style exhibited a sort of grand goofiness. One of his passions was weather. On a deadly summer day at the ballpark in South Philly in 1995:

Hot town, summer in the city. … The epicenter of the heat island this town becomes in central July is the molten turf of Veterans Stadium. Heat waves shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. … Yesterday was one of those brain-poachers where any inning I expected public address announcer Dan Baker to intone, “Now pitching for the Phillies … Omar Sharif.” I didn’t know if Ahmed Ben-Fregosi was trying to win a ball game or reach Damascus before Lord Kitchener.

A learned smart-ass. Vintage Conlin. He was pretty good at the particulars of baseball, too.

The Phillies generally sucked, but no matter: Baseball, in the slow unwinding of a season, offered Conlin the perfect writer’s playground. It was personal as well. He could drink and carouse with the best of them, like, well, a ballplayer; Conlin once told a friend that he put away a quart of vodka a day. And he was full of stories that couldn’t see print. On the road back in the ’70s, a certain Phillies slugger went drinking with his teammates. They met some girls and brought them back to their hotel, and somebody got the bright idea to fill the bathtub with ice water and bet the slugger that if he got in the tub, he wouldn’t be able to perform with said girls afterward.

Conlin also developed a reputation as a bar brawler on the road. A fellow sportswriter who covered Penn State football in the late ’70s says it was a habit on Friday nights at PSU: Conlin would regularly hit the bars, get drunk, then get pummeled. “It happened in bars in National League cities all over as well,” adds Bill Lyon, the longtime Inquirer sportswriter. “We used to kid him: ‘You’re 0-and-5, Bill.’ He did not fare well in fisticuffs.” The fights would be over … baseball? Women? “Probably both,” Lyon says.

Though there was apparently at least one drunken dustup Conlin won: He got into a fight with Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas in a bar on a road trip in the ’70s — nobody remembers what it was about — and Kalas had to do his pre-game bit on TV the next day wearing sunglasses to hide a black eye and stitches. In another instance, it was rumored that Conlin made a pass at then-Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter’s brother’s wife on the team’s charter plane (in those days, sportswriters were invited on board), a move that got him permanently banned from the flights.

To read the full story, please pick up the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine at your local newsstand. If you would like to become a subscriber, please click here.

Will Bill Conlin Retain His Spot in Baseball’s Hall of Fame Until July?

Bill Conlin won J.G. Taylor Spink award last summer for his achievements as a baseball writer. Thus, his portrait hangs in Cooperstown amongst the greatest names ever associated with America’s pastime. After recent allegations that Conlin molested a number of children in the 1970s, some people are wondering about his place in the Hall of Fame. Conlin’s mug is scheduled to remain in the hall until replaced with the 2012 winner in July. Not everybody seems to be thrilled about that idea. [New York Times]

Philadelphia’s Worst People of 2011

Sure. Accused pederast Jerry Sandusky contributed plenty of headlines in 2011, but State College is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from these parts. And we’ve got plenty of our own creeps, miscreants, and, well, just people we don’t like very much to go around. Here, in absolutely no particular order, the people who contributed the most to Philly’s bad PR over the last year.

1. John Bolaris
The associate-degreed weatherman would have been appropriate fodder for a worst of list prior to last week’s suspension, and we’re still a little foggy on why he bothered to come back after his five-year Storm of the Century exile in the first place. We really don’t care about the weather or his lack of credibility in reporting it. We just think that he’s a real, well, a real prick. Read more »

The Way of the World Before “To Catch a Predator”

This holiday season has been a reminder that as sports have become all-encompassing in our lives—24-hour news, fantasy leagues, gossip websites—we’ve lost much of the escapism that following our favorite teams used to offer. Kicking back with a cheesesteak and some suds to watch a Phillies game used to be a break from the harsh realities of the world outside the lines. This week, though, if you went online to read Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin’s take on the Jimmy Rollins deal, there’s a good chance you were sidetracked—and blindsided—by a very different story. Four adults, including Conlin’s niece, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the award-winning baseball writer sexually molested them as children. Since that report ran, two more alleged victims have stepped forward. It’s damning, devastating stuff. Read more »

District Attorney Seth Williams Urges Victims to Come Foward

Philly’s District Attorney Urges Victims to Come Forward. In the wake of allegations against Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Fine and now Bill Conlin, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams made a statement urging victims—and their parents—to report sexual abuse, or abuse of any kind, to the proper authorities. The suggestion comes after Conlin’s accusers waited 40 years to admit their abuse, making it so that they’ll never see justice and Conlin never has an opportunity to clear his name in court. [Inquirer]

Predators Playing “Jailbait” Game. Predators are looking for underage girls in chatrooms. Then, they’re trying to convince them to strip and perform other acts while recording them on a webcam. The predators get points for certain plateaus of achievement like getting a girl to wave or take off her top. Then, the videos are posted to a website where the predators compete for content, quantity, and physical attractiveness of the girls in their video. [FOX 29]

‘Jailbait’ Dangerous New Game Online: MyFoxPHILLY.com

Police Issue Amber Alert, Find Mother and Son. A mother allegedly took her son—of whom she does not have custody—while the boy’s father had stepped out for a cigarette at a Ruby Tuesday. The woman was allegedly caught on tape fleeing from a mall with the boy. Police found the two of them at the ferry port in Delaware. [NBC Philadelphia]

12 Million Motrin Bottles Recalled. McNeil Consumer Healthcare has been plagued by product recalls this year. Most recently, they’ve issued a recall on 12 million bottles of Motrin from wholesalers. If you purchased a bottle at a store you should be okay. [Philadelphia Business Journal]

18-Year-Old is Missing $172,000 Violin on a Megabus. This is why we can’t have nice things. A young woman is hoping the holiday spirit will find her $172,000 violin back in her possession shortly. The Taiwanese student won the instrument for being selected by a foundation to advance her skills in the art. She studies music in Boston, took a Megabus back to Philly, and was told her violin wasn’t in with the luggage when she got here. [CBS 3]

Newtown Doubles Property Taxes. Officials in Bucks County’s Newtown have decided to raise property taxes 50 percent. The change—the first of its kind in the last 16 years—will cost homeowners approximately an extra $120 per year. [Inquirer]

Should Statute of Limitations for Abuse Victims Be Changed?

In February 1997, I pulled into the parking lot on North Broad Street for my first day of work at the Daily News. Looking up at the imposing white tower was exhilarating. The thought of working in the same building with some of the journalism giants who I grew up reading made all the long ponderous nights covering zoning and school board meetings at other Podunk papers worthwhile.

One of those giants was Bill Conlin, who for decades made it compelling to read all about the Phillies losing. I can’t say Conlin was a hero, but I greatly admired the toughness and honesty in his writing. So the news that Conlin has been accused of molesting four people when they were kids 40 years ago is still hard to fathom. Read more »

96 Percent of Children Who Report Sexual Abuse Are Telling the Truth

First, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing a series of children over decades. Now, even closer to home, Daily News sports writer Bill Conlin—a local legend—is accused of molesting kids decades ago. But after all the coverage, are any of us better prepared to protect our own children or recognize suspicious behavior on the part of the adults in our midst?

In Philadelphia, the Joseph J. Peters Institute, a non-profit mental health agency focused on sexual abuse, tries to counsel sex offenders and educate the public to prevent further victims. I spoke to Michael Stinson, director of prevention services at the Peters Institute, to try and figure out what we should take away from these recent, tragic stories. Read more »

Two More Claim Conlin Molested Them

Sixth Alleged Conlin Victim Comes Forward. Two additional women have come forward alleging that Bill Conlin molested them during their childhoods. Both of the additional alleged victims were friends with Conlin’s children in the ’70s. [NBC Philadelphia]

A.J. Daulerio’s Email Exchange With Conlin. Gawker editor and former Philly Mag staffer A.J. Daulerio has stayed in contact with Conlin since writing a feature on the former Daily News columnist for Philadelphia magazine. Conlin and Daulerio exchanged a number of emails leading up to the publication of Deadspin’s piece on the Inquirer article alleging abuse. [Deadspin]

Three Alleged Conlin Victims Hire a Lawyer. Three of the alleged victims of abuse by Bill Conlin met with Slade H. McLaughlin—a lawyer at McLaughlin & Lauricella, the firm that represents one of the alleged Sandusky victims. McLaughlin said that his clients hired him to deflect media attention because they do not wish to file lawsuits or gain any notoriety in relation to the Conlin scandal. [Philadelphia Business Journal]

Claude Giroux, Claude Giroux, Claude Giroux. The Flyers forward must have heard Philly fans saying his name three times while looking into the mirror because he seemed to have returned out of nowhere. Last week he was listed as “out indefinitely” with a concussion and the city was panicking thinking he’d go the way of Chris Pronger. But, last night Giroux returned to the ice and notched a goal and three assists to reclaim his spot atop the NHL points leaders as the Flyers downed the Stars 4-1. [Inquirer]

Police Still Searching For Mother of Girl in the Box. Yesterday morning authorities began the search for the mother of a newborn baby girl. The girl was found in a box on the street in North Philadelphia with the umbilical cord still attached. Police say that they’re concerned for the mother’s health, but haven’t ruled out filing charges if she’s found. The baby girl is doing well. [CBS 3]

Three Undercover Officers Injured in Crash. Three undercover police officers and a civilian were all seriously injured in a car accident last night. The officers were en route to their headquarters when they turned on their sirens in the middle of an intersection. A car t-boned the officers’ vehicle and slammed it into a telephone poll. [6 ABC]

 

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