Interview: Bob Huber on Bill Conlin’s Final Days

"His defense was transparently pathetic."

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 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.

You actually started reporting the story before Bill Conlin died. You flew to Florida and knocked on his door. Did you think he’d actually talk to you at that point, or were you just taking a gamble?

I was taking a gamble, taking a shot. I had emailed back and forth with him a little bit, and was either getting put off or not getting and answer and it felt like the only way to possibly get [an answer] was to get face-to-face with him and ask him and see what happened. So [Philly Mag editor] Tom McGrath and I decided to try. I really had no idea if it would work.

When you met with him, Conlin had been disgraced by the child molestation allegations against him. The portrait you paint of him, aside from the allegation, is of a man who is pretty constantly boorish. Boozing it up, getting into fights, chasing women. Do you have a sense that anybody ever really told Conlin “no” before the scandal set in?

Well, I think the one person who told him “no” or may have told him “no” was actually his wife, Irma. Because she could talk to him and get him to calm down and — I don’t know if “change his behavior” is right — but to calm his behavior down a bit. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, there wasn’t anybody in his life willing to in any way discipline him or slow him down. I think for a lot of years, he’s on the road as a beat guy for the Phillies and in that earlier era, the ’70s and ’80s, it was a little wilder and crazier — I think there was a lot more drinking and hanging with players and team execs — and adventures ensued. And in Conlin’s case, clearly he would go to bars and get drunk and get into fistfights with people — it was pretty wild stuff. But I think “boorish” is probably the right word for a lot of his behavior.

And even where Irma was concerned, it sounds like Conlin developed tactics and techniques for evading even her ability to reign him in.

Hell, I think so. I mean, part of it is just the logistic that he spent a lot of his life away from home. He was the Phillies beat guy or covering events. And he covered Olympics, he was all over the place. So a lot of the life of a sportswriter, of a daily sportswriter, is being gone. So that meant he was largely on his own. I think maybe on the home front, she ruled the roost. But otherwise, Bill was out and about.

When you did see him in Florida, it sounds like he was in rough shape physically.

He was. He complained about his health as I say in the piece, and didn’t look good. He looked unkempt and referenced his skin cancers and diabetes and a problem with an eye. He was wearing heavy shaded goggles, he took them off and showed me a problem he was having with an eyelid that probably needed surgery, which he never got. He was very heavy, and he looked like a guy who was probably not in the best of health.

When you saw him, he brought a friend along and he presented a defense of sorts. Was it your sense that he thought he was innocent of the allegations? Or was he just trying to save face?

He presented a case that he was innocent. God knows what he thought, I don’t know. I think what he said to me, the way that he defended himself, which was to show me a picture of his niece, who had claimed that he molested her, and he’s showing me a picture of her at his house, after the time that she said he molested her, and there she is, apparently having a good time at his house. Therefore, it proves — Conlin says — that the molestation is B.S. Well that’s laughable on the face of it as a defense. So take from that what you will. I’ll take it on face value that Bill Conlin was claiming he was innocent, so he believed he was innocent. But his defense was transparently pathetic

Did you ever get a sense of what his underlying demons were? We talked about boorishness, but it seems like he’d been hedonistic to the point of self-destruction throughout his adult life. Do you have any sense why that was?

It’s hard to say. I wasn’t able or didn’t really pursue learning about his backstory, dipping into his childhood and whatnot. So psychologically, what created Bill Conlin to be Bill Conlin? I don’t know, but he certainly got in a position where he could live the life he did and kind of go on his merry way living it.

Despite the allegations that beset him at the end of his life, he was much loved in this town as a sportswriter for decades. [He] was given a seat in — its not the Hall of Fame — but an award for sportswriters that appears in the Hall of Fame. As a writer, as somebody who observes these things, do you have any opinion on whether he should still retain that honor or not?

Well, I believe a spokesman for the Hall of Fame has said they’re gonna stick with their decision, and the implication — I don’t know whether he addressed this — is “Well, we’re not really judging character, we’re judging the body of work.” And I think that’s what they’ve got to do. I think the Hall of Fame for players has got to look at performance on the field, I think these subsidiary Hall of Fame awards, such as the one Conlin got for writing, has got to look at the body of work, the writing. I think it’s a really kind of strange spot the Hall puts itself in if it’s worrying about character and who these guys were apart from the work that gets them in or not, into the Hall of Fame.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.