07/18/2002 11:05 pm ET
Detroit's Falls has seen it all
Inductee has written it straight for 50 years
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The man who once made Mark Fidrych cry might find himself amid tears of joy.
Joe Falls never had much use for awards and writing contests. He hates the idea of measuring a newspaper writer's worth on one article when his job is to write well every day. He refused to accept one group's award as the best sports columnist in Michigan for 10 straight years because he felt the criteria were unfair.
With Falls' induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame July 28, he'll have a career spanning nearly six decades to be honored, including 50 years as the written word on sports in Detroit. That's something the 74-year-old columnist can celebrate.
"I'm not going to make it an Academy Awards show," Falls said of his acceptance speech. "I'm going to talk about baseball."
Falls has talked baseball in some fashion since age six. He grew to love event sports like the Indy 500, the Olympics and horse racing's Triple Crown -- he's even written a book on the Boston Marathon -- but he grew up with hockey and baseball. His father was a Manhattan police officer who could attend games for free. For his son's first game, he wanted Joe to see Babe Ruth before the home run king retired, so together they went to Yankee Stadium.
The Babe didn't play that day, but Lou Gehrig homered twice. "I can still see those things flying into the right-field deck," Falls said.
He can also still remember the sandwiches his mother would make for him to take to the game. He would spend his summer mornings at Calvary Cemetery near his house in Queens, offering to tend to graves. He usually needed just an hour or so to earn the 65 cents required for subway fare and a ticket to watch the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants -- he rooted for the Yanks but followed them all.
As a kid, Falls grew up with New York baseball. As a writer, he matured with the Tigers. Falls beat Ernie Harwell to Detroit by seven years when he arrived as the AP bureau chief. Since then, he has covered 20 Tiger managers, two of the team's four World Championships and more characters than he can remember. Tigers beat writer and longtime friend Tom Gage, Falls' colleague for a quarter-century, once calculated that Falls has spent the equivalent of nine days standing for the National Anthem.
Falls worked the beat in 1960 and nearly became the last writer to break a story about a trade of Major League managers. Detroit swapped Jimmy Dykes for Cleveland's Joe Gordon hours after Falls sent in his story. His editors at the Detroit Times, however, found the story so absurd they didn't run it.
Falls had an up-close view of Denny McLain's rise and fall in the late 1960s. But no Tiger came close to Fidrych, whom Falls considers the most popular Tiger ever. His popular antics, most notably talking to himself on the mound, made Fidrych an even greater attraction than McLain's 30-win season.
So how could that columnist's dream become a nightmare? As The Bird arrived in Spring Training following his breakout season of 1976, Falls watched him bounce around like a kid with a sugar high -- jumping fences, racing around the field. After a few days of this, he wrote, "If this kid doesn't calm down, he could get hurt."
Days later, he dove for a ball while shagging flies and wrenched his knee, the beginning of the end of his fleeting career.
"They had a press conference at the hospital and all the doctors and nurses were on one side of the room," Falls recalled. "And then at one point he goes, 'And over there is the man who wanted me to get hurt, over by the wall.' I couldn't believe it. I did no such thing. All I wrote was if he didn't calm down, he could get hurt. But I couldn't say anything there. I just stood there. And as he left the room, another writer went to Mark and said, 'Read my column. I never write anything bad about you, Mark.' "
It was neither the first nor the last time that players had their differences with Falls. In a profession where columnists take heat for being too positive or overly negative -- heat from players, teams, fans, even editors -- Falls took heat from both sides.
"I think he always wanted to write like he wasn't a homer," Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline said. "The old saying around the clubhouse was if he writes two articles one day, look out, because the second one was going to be bad. He dances to his own tune, no question about it. He writes what he feels."
In a profession where objectivity is difficult, Falls has maintained a longstanding policy against socializing with athletes he covers. "I've always kept my relationships professional," he said. "You can never become friends with the people you cover because if you write something bad they'll say, 'Joe, I thought we were friends. Why would you write something like that about me?'"
Falls found the perfect subject of his objectivity in one of the friendliest managers the Majors have ever seen -- Sparky Anderson. When Falls' autobiography came out in 1997, he called Sparky the finest man he ever knew in a Tigers uniform.
"He taught me more about life than anyone on the team," Falls said. "When you first met him you'd think he was full of it, but nothing could be further from the truth."
Falls gets along with plenty of ex-Tigers; he wrote a fascinating piece on Phil Garner earlier this season. But none compare to Sparky, with whom he could talk for hours.
"He kept it professional," Anderson said of Falls. "He was not going to lower his standards for you. I respect anybody who is not going to cater to me to get something from me and expected an honest answer."
What's more, Anderson said, he reflected that honesty in his columns. "He cared so much about what he wrote," he said. "That's all you can ask about a writer is that he cares and believes what he is writing is right."
That honesty might well have been the greatest strength of Falls' writing. He is rarely drawn to flowery language. He can ramble off an endless list of columnists who could out-write him. But coming up as a writer, he saved his greatest admiration for Dick Young of the New York Daily News and Post. Falls called his clarity "remarkable."
The same can be said of Falls' writing. "It's very human, very down to the Earth," said Ernie Harwell, Tigers Hall of Fame broadcaster and himself a longtime writer. "He writes from the heart. I think he writes a very good column because it's straightforward, very simple, short sentences."
That didn't mean Falls never wished to write like an artist. He'll gladly point out that he never went to college and had to take extra classes in typing and bookkeeping to graduate high school. But he has never tried to out-write himself.
"I loved reading John Drebinger of the New York Times," he said. "Ten times I would read his stories telling myself I'd never be this good. I didn't understand writing or reporting. But I understood one thing: I have ideas. My mind never shuts down, whether I'm in bed, in the car or at the game.
"I was always afraid that smarter guys than me, better writers, would tell me something and maybe I'll think that way is better. And then I can't be Joe Falls. Writers who adapt only one style of writing are wrong. Take each day as it is and go in that direction. Because each day is different, our styles are different. Just be yourself.
"If you go into a ballgame and you see something and you're impressed by it and write about it, chances are the readers will be impressed."
The baseball world is officially impressed.
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or any of its clubs.