It seemed fitting that the most prominent jersey from my vantage point in the press box to watch Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliott deliver his J.G. Taylor Spink Award acceptance speech was a Joey Votto Cincinnati Reds jersey worn by a young fan in the front row.
After all, Elliott has been penning grassroots stories about Canadian players like the Etobicoke, Ont.-born Votto for close to four decades.
And just as Votto has become known for belting home runs at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Elliott hit one out of the park from behind the podium at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown on Saturday.
With his humble, heartfelt and hilarious address, it’s hard to believe that this speech was delivered by the same man who just three days earlier told Fergie Jenkins, the only other Canadian honoured in Cooperstown, that he was “scared witless” at the prospect of speaking in front of hundreds of people.
The first Canadian to win the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, Elliott was introduced at the ceremony by San Francisco Chronicle scribe Susan Slusser.
With close to three dozen Hall of Famers – including Fergie Jenkins, Pat Gillick, Roberto Alomar and Andre Dawson – sitting behind him on the stage, Elliott began his eloquent 15-minute speech at 4:45 p.m. EST with a few words in his choppy Grade 10 French.
“For the paramedics, don’t worry about my friends who fainted. They know I went to summer school for Grade 9 French and Grade 10 French. They didn’t know I could speak French. Some are unsure what I say in English,” said Elliott, who has been accused of mumbling his way through radio interviews.
Early in his speech, Elliott thanked Quebecor and Sun Media president and CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau who provided the services of his private jet for the esteemed reporter and his family for the weekend.
“I’d also like to thank him for allowing me to use it for the rest of the season and to follow George Strait’s next tour,” joked Elliott, a hardcore country music fan.
Elliott revealed that his passion for baseball was instilled in him as a boy by his father. When Elliott was 10-years-old, he would cut out pictures from Sport magazine and mail them to dozens of big leaguers like Milt Pappas, Rocky Colavito, Harvey Kuenn and Ron Santo asking for their autographs.
“I used a form letter,” confessed Elliott. “It read: You are my favourite player. You play for my favourite team. Could you please sign your picture and send it back to me?”
Many of the major leaguers responded with an autograph, but the only player to sign more than his name was Santo, who coincidentally is set to be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.
“He (Santo) wrote, ‘To my pal, Bobby. Thanks for being such a Cubs fan. All the best. Your good buddy, Ron Santo,’” shared Elliott to a chorus of cheers from the large number of Cubs fans in attendance.
A mention of his birth town of Kingston, Ont., was also met with rousing applause from a large contingent of Kingstonians seated along the first base line at Doubleday Field.
A second baseman who discovered early in his teens that he couldn’t hit the curveball, Elliott turned his attention to baseball statistics. His career in journalism began when he started compiling box scores for Kingston’s senior team and submitting them to the Kingston Whig-Standard – a job that paid him $100 a week. When he was 17, he was offered a job as a sports reporter by the paper.
His mother burst into tears when he asked if he could accept the position. She wanted him to attend Queen’s University, but Elliott pleaded with his father who eventually brought his mother on side. His dad told him he could take the job on two conditions: one, that he finished Grade 12 and two, that he wouldn’t be like one of those Boston writers who didn’t vote for Ted Williams for the American League MVP in 1941 because they didn’t like him.
In his speech, Elliott shared that when he worked at the Whig-Standard, the first person in professional baseball that he came in contact with was Cincinnati Reds scout Elmer Gray. In 1970, Gray asked the 21-year-old reporter if he could write a few lines about a tryout camp the Reds were holding in the area. Elliott ended up working with Gray on camps in the area for four years.
“I was his associate scout, a spot on the mudflap of the Big Red Machine,” he noted, drawing applause from the hundreds of Reds fans in town for Barry Larkin’s induction on Sunday.
Elliott, who covered the Montreal Expos for the Ottawa Citizen from 1978 to 1987 and the Toronto Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun from 1987 to present, expressed gratitude to several managers and executives from these Canadian clubs who made his job easier over the years. Gillick, Paul Beeston, the late Bobby Mattick, Gord Ash, Bobby Cox, Cito Gaston, Galen Cisco and Jim Fregosi were some of the Jays employees he acknowledged, while he also recognized Expos legends John McHale, Jim Fanning, Dick Williams and Buck Rodgers.
The classy Canuck writer also took time to acknowledge umpires, coaches and scouts who not only helped him pen better stories, but taught him more about the sport he loves so dearly. He also thanked friends who had trekked to Cooperstown from across Canada and the U.S. to offer their support.
“It occurs to me that while I’m being honoured, there are players who have not been, including Jack Morris, Tim Raines and (Maple Ridge, B.C., native) Larry Walker,” said Elliott to cheers from Canadians in the crowd.
Elliott, who has deemed himself a one-trick pony for his obsessive focus on baseball and lack of affinity for golf, hunting or any other hobby, expressed how fortunate he feels to have a job that he loves.
“I have given a lot less to baseball than it has given to me,” he said.
But despite his obsession with the diamond, he told the crowd that his “biggest win” is his family. He expressed his love for his sister Elizabeth, daughter Alicia and son Bob, who were in attendance.
“When the kids were babes, I was away 180 nights a year,” said Elliott. “Our two kids turned out so well because of Claire, the rock of our family, my wife of 40 years.”
Towards the conclusion of his speech, Elliott discussed the Canadian players that he has so meticulously covered during his career.
“A lot was said about how I helped young Canadian ballplayers to get to the next level,” said Elliott. “Yes, I wrote about Canadians. But they put the work in to be drafted or earn scholarships. They did it on their own.”
Patriotic Canadian, proud father, loving husband, trailblazer – all accurate descriptions of a man who’s now fittingly our country’s first Hall of Fame baseball writer – a man whose heartfelt, hilarious and poignant speech on Saturday was enough to make any of us proud to wave a Canadian flag or wear a Joey Votto jersey.