On April 14, 1978, Bob Elliott reported to Olympic Stadium for his first assignment as the Montreal Expos beat writer for the Ottawa Citizen.
The then 28-year-old reporter didn’t know a soul and was so nervous that he was scared to leave his seat in the press box to go to the washroom during the game (which was the Expos home opener).
“I’d been to Jarry Park to watch games and I’d been to Olympic Stadium on press passes just to watch or do features, but my first game story was very nerve-racking,” recalled Elliott. “I was so nervous I was like a broadcaster rushing to the washroom to get back, so I wouldn’t miss a hitter. I was too shy to ask anyone [for information or help].”
Thirty-seven years later, it’s hard to fathom that Elliott, who has blazed an impressive and unparalleled trail in Canadian baseball journalism, was once so shy and nervous. Over the past four decades, he has developed into one of the most respected baseball writers ever to hail from north of the border.
So it seemed appropriate when it was announced on Wednesday that Elliott will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in a ceremony on June 13 in St. Marys, Ont., along with former Toronto Blue Jays Carlos Delgado, Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) and Matt Stairs (Fredericton, N.B.), as well as long-time Expos manager Felipe Alou.
“As a writer, I don’t think my uniform from the Kingscourt Little League Pirates in Kingston or myself belong with these guys – these guys could play,” Elliott said about his induction. “I saw all four play. I’m humbled. I feel like that one thing on Sesame Street that doesn’t belong with the others.”
Born in Kingston, Ont., in 1949, Elliott was introduced to baseball by his father, Bob, and grandfather, Chaucer, both of whom were superb athletes. 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 season. 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.
It wasn’t until 12 years into his writing career that Elliott would receive his first major league assignment, covering the Montreal Expos in 1978.
“I didn’t know a soul,” recalled Elliott of his first days as an Expos beat writer, “so I just followed the pack, but I knew enough not to be stupid. I wouldn’t walk into the trainer’s room or somewhere else that was off limits . . . I was just hoping that [Expos manager] Dick Williams wouldn’t yell at me. That didn’t come until the next season.”
The hard-working scribe had some uncomfortable moments in those early years.
“A real embarrassing story was in 1980,” shared Elliott. “I left someone’s locker against the one wall, then I looked to my left, then to my right, trying to decide where the smaller crowd of reporters were (Andre Dawson was to my right), and I was wearing my cowboy boots and I stepped on Elias Sosa’s instep as he was walking to the showers. I apologized about seven times. He said he was OK, but I stayed up late to read Le Journal de Montréal, worrying there would be a headline ‘Sosa’s foot broken’ or ‘Expos lose closer to English writer in boots.’”
Elliott says Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette, Serge Touchette of Le Journal de Montréal and Richard Griffin, who was the Expos public relations director, were three men that helped him a lot early in his career.
“All three helped me in three different ways,” explained Elliott. “Ian would say, ‘That’s dumb. You don’t do that when you’re covering the major leagues. You’re not covering high school football anymore.’ Serge would say, ‘Hey, I heard this. Why don’t you phone the agent?’ and Richard was very close to the players, so he knew what might be a good feature story or he would provide insight. He went above and beyond.”
Many of Elliott’s fondest memories come from the 1981 campaign when the Expos advanced to the post-season for the only time. They were eliminated in Game 5 of National League Championship Series when Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday homered off of Expos right-hander Steve Rogers in the top of the ninth inning to give the Dodgers a 2-1 win.
“People say there still would be baseball in Montreal if not for the 1994 strike, but I have friends that say there would still be baseball in Montreal if the Expos had won the 1981 World Series,” said Elliott.
The Kingston native was a regular in the Expos press box until he joined the Toronto Sun as the Blue Jays beat writer in 1987. He covered the team during their World Series-winning seasons and is now the Toronto Sun’s baseball columnist.
One of his best memories with the Blue Jays was sitting with John Olerud’s parents in their home on August 18, 1993 and watching Olerud on TV. The Jays first baseman, who was flirting with .400, rapped out three hits against the Cleveland Indians that day to boost his batting average to .389. Olerud finished the campaign with a .363 batting average.
Elliott also vividly recalls Roberto Alomar’s game-tying home run in the ninth inning off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series. The Jays were down 6-1 at one point and Alomar’s homer tied the game 6-6. The Blue Jays proceeded to win 7-6 in 11 innings.
“Alomar’s home run off Eckersley was really something, especially after Eck fired his six shooter into the Toronto dugout after he struck out Ed Sprague to end the eighth inning,” recalled Elliott. “Pat Hentgen told me later that the Blue Jays dugout that game was like the sidelines at a high school football game.”
Though he’s broken numerous stories about the Blue Jays and Expos, Elliott is best known in the Canadian baseball fraternity for shining the spotlight on homegrown talent. He is the founder of the Canadian Baseball Network website (www.canadianbaseballnetwork.com) which tracks the top Canadian draft candidates, college players and minor league players.
In his close to five decades in journalism, Elliott has also penned three books, including the bestseller Hard Ball about George Bell in 1990, The Ultimate Blue Jays Trivia Book in 1993 and The Northern Game: Baseball The Canadian Way in 2005.
In 2010, he was honoured with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Jack Graney Award and he was the first Canadian recipient of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2012. He has also been inducted into the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians Hall of Fame (2009), the Kingston Sports Hall of Fame (2013) and the Okotoks Dawgs/Seaman Stadium Hall of Fame (2014).
Heading into his 38th season as a big league writer, the once shy and nervous scribe is now a celebrated baseball writing legend. But despite all of his recent honors, the humble columnist still works tirelessly at his job and those in the Canadian baseball fraternity will tell you that his passion for baseball in this country has never waned.
So it seems fitting that Elliott will have a plaque that will hang permanently at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame alongside Canada’s baseball elite, but that’s a concept that Elliott, himself, still has to wrap his head around.
“Man, I have never even thought of that,” said Elliott of what it will be like to see his plaque in the Canadian ball hall. “All I did was watch the games.”