The writer, the veteran beat writer covering the local baseball team for a daily newspaper, lives deep within baseball's aching heart. Hours before a game begins, hours before fans are permitted into the ballpark, the scribe moves with expert nonchalance through the clubhouse, down the runway, along the dugout and behind the batting cage, collecting quotes and medical reports and trade rumors, making observations and judgments, killing time. Bill Brown showed up earlier than most. Arriving early was part of his code, a catalog of customs understood only by Brown and a tiny group of writers, ballplayers and veteran baseball men. Everybody else was a target of Brown's wrath.
Brownie—there were people who used his nickname in a pathetic effort to feign intimacy with a man they either feared or despised—wasn't one of the big pens in Philadelphia. He wrote for the Delaware County Daily Times, a tabloid filled with schoolboy track meets and two-alarm fires and wire stories. Its circulation, about 50,000, was insignificant compared with those of the two major dailies in town: The Philadelphia Inquirer, with a circulation of nearly 500,000, and the Philadelphia Daily News, with about half that. But through sheer force of personality, Brown, who covered the Phillies daily for a decade and then some, had undue influence up and down the press box, within the team and in the stands. It was Brown who decided who and what was cool.
For years the core of the Phillies' fan base has come from the working-class towns of Delaware County, on Philadelphia's southwestern edge, and more than a few of Brown's readers were men with season tickets who worked out of trucks and read the paper during coffee breaks. This might explain why Brown's sentences and paragraphs were so short. His stories were blunt and often unfavorable to the Phils. He once said, "I can make even spring training stories negative." His goal was to explain the inner workings of the clubhouse. Reporting on backbiting was one of his specialties. His accuracy was astounding, really, given how much opinion he put into his stories and how often he used sources he did not name. In his stories there were constants. Again and again Brown praised players who showed up early, worked hard and drank beer with the writers.
On any Phillies team there were a few guys who met Brown's standards. For a while Philadelphia had Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, John Kruk and Roger McDowell, and they all flourished in Brown's Sunday columns, in his game stories, in the notes he filed weekly for The Sporting News. They dressed in a manner acceptable to Brown, drove cars he approved of, listened to music he liked. They played hurt. If religion mattered to them, they didn't say so. On road trips, in the bars of the hotels of National League cities, the players never said to Brown. "Hey, this is off the record, dude." Brown knew what he could use in the paper and what he could not. He decided what was on the record and what was off. One Phillies manager, Jim Fregosi, shared Brown's code, and another, Nick Leyva, did not. Both men were fired in time, of course. But when Leyva was fired, in 1991, hardly anybody in Philadelphia cared. When Fregosi was fired, in '96, there was outrage. Brown had something to do with that.
There were also men on the Phillies, and people around the team, who were so woefully unattuned to Brown's code that he would have nothing to do with them. He treated these people as if they had a contagious disease. In the mid-'80s the Phillies had a manager named John Felske whom Brown found lacking. So Brown stopped talking to him. A manager refusing to talk to a beat writer—that occurs. But a beat writer not talking to a manager he covers? That probably has happened only once.
Felske was in good company. Another Phillie for whom Brown had no use was Mike Schmidt. Schmidt may have been the best player ever to wear a Phillies uniform, but he offended Brown. Brown thought Schmidt was rude to children and didn't sign enough autographs. For these and other sins Brown voted against Schmidt when his name appeared on the 1995 Hall of Fame ballot. Schmidt played third base for the Phillies his entire career, 18 years, during which he hit 548 homers and won 10 Gold Gloves. But in the category of character, Brown thought Schmidt was a failure. "In 11 years of covering major league baseball on a daily basis, I've never witnessed a more arrogant, egomaniacal, or thoughtless player," Brown wrote in a Jan. 10, 1995, column explaining the high purpose of his vote, which was to ensure that Schmidt not be sent to Cooperstown by unanimous consent in his first year of eligibility. Brown succeeded.
If Brown had a mentor, it was Peter Pascarelli, who was a veteran baseball writer when he started covering the Phillies for the Inquirer in 1983, a year before Brown's rookie season on the beat. Pascarelli was an acerbic, cynical newspaperman whose knowledge of baseball was vast, as was his output of stories. If his output were measured by number of words, Pascarelli typed Moby Dick annually. The baseball beat man might wear out his fingertips, Pascarelli taught Brown, but he earned certain privileges. He could get any story he wanted in the paper because the readers' appetite for baseball was thought to be insatiable. His stories ran prominently for the same reason. He took off November, December and January. He spent six weeks in Florida during February and March. He never went to the office. In those days baseball was still the king of the beats. Brown had covered basketball and football for his paper. But when he showed up in Clearwater, Fla., for his first spring training, in February 1984, he knew he had truly arrived. When he wanted to know what to do, he looked to Pascarelli. Brown was 30 years old; Pascarelli was 34.
At the end of the 1989 season Pascarelli left the Inquirer. By all rights Brown should have been Pascarelli's successor. For one thing, the paper was in Brown's blood. His father had worked as a photographer for the Inquirer for nearly 20 years. In fact Brown's introduction to baseball came at his father's knee, in the photographers' box on the field of Connie Mack Stadium in the early 1960s. But David Tucker, the sports editor of the Inquirer, did not want a Pascarelli clone to succeed Pascarelli. Tucker found his new baseball writer in an unlikely place, in the newsroom, on the metro desk. Tucker made a dubious choice, and I'm in a position to say so, because his choice was me. My only qualifications were a youthful love of baseball and a single news story, an obituary of Bart Giamatti, the baseball commissioner. Try it for a year, Tucker said, then we'll talk. I knew I had to take the job. Baseball was the king of the beats.
I went to spring training in 1990 with a phrase of Giamatti's in mind: "The ultimate purpose of playing the game of baseball is to bring pleasure to the American people." My plan for the beat was, whenever possible, to find joy. Then I arrived in Clearwater and saw the three-headed monster I would be competing against, and I knew the mastermind of my plan was, in fact, a fool.
With Pascarelli off the scene, new alliances were formed on the Phillies beat. Brown teamed up with two other reporters who shared his value system: Paul Hagen of the Daily News and George A. King III of a Trenton, N.J., paper, The Times. For the nearly two months of spring training, the three lived in the same condominium complex, on Gulf Boulevard in Clearwater Beach. They had—by coincidence, they said—rented identical cars, red convertible Chrysler Le Barons. They did all their interviews together and shared all their notes. They ate and drank together nightly at a place called Frenchy's, which was said to have the best grouper burgers in Clearwater. I never knew. It was their place, and they never invited me to join them. One night, a week or two into spring training, I saw the three convertibles lined up outside Frenchy's. I knew I was in trouble.