If you spend any amount of time with Bob Elliott, you’ll quickly discover that he’s passionate about three things: his family, baseball and his hometown of Kingston, Ont.
That’s why his induction into the Kingston & District Sports Hall of Fame on Friday was every bit as meaningful to him as being honoured by the National Baseball Hall of Fame last July.
Just 10 months ago, the proud Kingstonian became the first Canadian to receive the Cooperstown shrine’s prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which is presented annually to a reporter who has made meritorious contributions to baseball writing and is the highest accolade a scribe can receive.
But even with his picture on the wall in baseball’s most hallowed shrine, Elliott has never forgotten his roots, and he feels equally privileged to have his plaque on display at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston alongside his father. Elliott’s dad, also named Bob, was a local baseball third baseman, catcher and coach, a champion curler, and a player and coach for the Queen’s University Golden Gaels football team. The elder Elliott was a member of the Kingston Hall’s inaugural class in 1996.
“Joining my dad on that wall is very special for me,” said Elliott, who’s part of the first father/son tandem to be inducted into the Kingston shrine. “In Cooperstown, I was being recognized by my peers, Kingston is home.”
In his humorous and heartfelt speech on Friday, Elliott thanked his wife Claire (also a Kingston native) and his daughter Alicia, who were both in attendance, as well as his son Bob Jr., who lives in Moncton, N.B.
“Thanks to my daughter, Alicia, who drove here from Toronto and now wants gas money,” he joked. “And my son is in Moncton. He wanted to be flown in.”
Raised on Johnson Street in Kingston, Elliott played in the Kingscourt Little League where one of the chief fundraisers was Ronnie Lavallee. As has become his custom when he speaks in his hometown, Elliott began his address with a toast to the late Lavallee.
He also thanked the selection committee and Jack Jordan, as well as Cliffy Earl, who took Elliott to opening night at Cricket Field in 1964 and Ken Matthews, then president of the Kingston Baseball Association, who gave a 15-year-old Elliott his first score keeping gig. Elliott also acknowledged friends who had come from out of town and his sister-in-law Lorraine Roberts who nominated him.
“Lorraine doesn’t know a baseball from a ping pong ball,” said Elliott. “I told her she had to do a 15-minute intro, but that has been scratched, so she’ll be giving a 15-minute workshop on the 13 balk rules after the banquet.”
From Kingston to Cooperstown and now back to Kingston, it’s been a remarkable career for the reporter nicknamed “Boxer,” who fell in love with baseball while bat boying for his dad’s teams as a youngster.
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 league and submitting them to the Kingston Whig-Standard. When he was in grade 12, he was offered a full-time job as a sports reporter by sports editor Pete Fowler.
His mother burst into tears when he asked if he could accept the position. She wanted him to attend Queen’s, 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.
After his tenure with the Whig Standard, Elliott covered the Montreal Expos for the Ottawa Citizen from 1978 to 1986.
“I left Kingston in ’73, but let me tell you a couple of stories about the city,” Elliott said on Friday. “There was a great man named Wally Elmer. He heard I was leaving to go to Ottawa. Wally phoned and said, ‘We can get you a job at the forge plant at ALCAN, I’ll phone your uncle Fred for a job.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but that sounds too much like work.’”
Elliott excelled as a reporter in Ottawa and landed a job covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun in 1987. He’s now, of course, the highly respected baseball columnist for the same Toronto paper.
In more than three decades as a baseball writer, Elliott has covered all-star games, World Series, World Baseball Classics and broken countless stories. He credits his father and his Kingston roots for fostering his passion for the diamond and he has carried warm memories of growing up in the city with him throughout his career.
“In 1973, we had a couple of real good kids that were grounds keepers at Megaffin Stadium. They were 12 and 10,” noted Elliott. “When I received the good call about this honour, it was from one of those grounds keepers, Walter DaCosta. Now Walter and his brother Joe are real good men.”
Elliott also acknowledged Art Leeman, a dominant local pitcher in attendance, in his acceptance speech.
“There were four people that were honoured in Cooperstown last year: Barry Larkin, Ron Santo, Tim McCarver and myself,” noted Elliott. “There is a man here tonight who struck out one of the four. His name is Art Leeman. Next to Jack Morris in Game 7 of 1991 World Series, Art pitched the most exciting game I’ve ever seen,” recounted Elliott.
“In 1968, he was an out from a perfect game and on a 3-2 pitch he threw it right there on the corner. The umpire called it a ball and Charlie Pester is still giving the ump heck. After that, third baseman Don Goodridge made a diving stop and my father’s team won 2-0 to advance to the OBA final.”
Elliott also explained how one time a player was late for the boat to Wolfe Island and he was forced into action for two innings in a Kingston Baseball Association game. He faced Leeman, who struck him out on three pitches.
During his induction address, Elliott also added that he felt proud to be part of one of Kingston’s many sporting families.
“Kingston was much smaller in ’73, but it was a small town of little villages,” he said. “It was filled with sporting families like the Arniel and Cherry families, the Compeau and Gilmour families, the Jarrell and MacGregor families and the Pester and Senior families. We all came together to contribute to a strong sporting fabric of a city three times its size.”
Elliott also expressed admiration for his fellow inductees, including fastball stars Bubs Van Hooser and Barry Ellerback, Gerry Besselink, who enjoyed a 15-year pro basketball career in New Zealand and Europe after his days with the UCONN Huskies, Mark Leduc, a silver medallist boxer at the 1992 Summer Olympics and tennis legend John McFarlane.
“John and I were in grade 12 together, Mr. Neuman’s home room. But that was my first year in grade 12, it was John’s only year,” quipped Elliott. “I had two years in grade 12 due to a 31 in Spanish.”
McFarlane coached tennis at Queen’s for 35 years, leading the university team to one national title and eight provincial crowns.
“John went on to Queen’s. My grandfather went to Queen’s. My father went to Queen’s and coached football. My daughter went to Queen’s,” joked Elliott, “and I drove by Queen’s.”
Elliott concluded his speech by referencing a conversation he had with legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.
“When I won the Spink Award, he phoned to tell me my life would never be the same. I thought, ‘Yeah right,’” said Elliott. “He was right. I received a letter from the prime minister. I had my picture taken with the prime minister. I threw out the first pitch at the Rogers Centre. All sorts of good things.
“Lasorda also told me it wouldn’t end July 21 (the day of his Cooperstown ceremony last year) that it would keep getting better and better. This wonderful honour tonight is another example of how that award is the gift that keeps on giving.”