At the Ol\’ Ballgame

 At the Ol\’ Ballgame

Hal McCoy, Hall of Fame writer, still covering baseball with a passion.

By Val Beerbower
Like many great stories this one involves a chance encounter in Las Vegas. In 2006, famed sports reporter Hal McCoy and his wife, Nadine, were strolling the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace when Nadine spotted a familiar face. Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose was signing autographs at the Field of Dreams.

“Hey, it’s Pete!” she said. “You should go over and say ‘hi!’” It might not seem like the kind of scene that would intimidate a Hall-of-Fame writer, but with more than 15 years of not speaking between the former friends the gesture seemed daunting.

“What?” Hal snapped back. “What do you want to do? Start a riot? That guy hates my guts!”

McCoy was raised on cork and leather, the son of a semipro baseball player in northeast Ohio. When his dad returned from World War II in 1944 he started passing on his love and knowledge of the game. McCoy started playing baseball as early as age 5. He earned a baseball scholarship from Kent State University but played just one year before he came to a tough realization. “I couldn’t hit the curve ball or the slider,” McCoy says. “The higher up you go the tougher the game gets. My father thought I was good enough to make the majors. When I quit playing in college he got very mad at me. He went to his grave thinking I might someday be a ballplayer.”

Fortunately for future Dayton Daily News subscribers and later Fox Sports Ohio fans, McCoy did stick with his academic trajectory. McCoy had a kind of knack for writing, which did not go unnoticed by faculty at Akron East High School. His first introduction to writing arrived with encouragement from an astute teacher … and a little propulsion from hormones.

“My senior year I signed up for typing class—because it was all girls other than me,” he chuckles. His teacher, Rose Piciotti, was also the adviser for the school newspaper. She asked McCoy, who played on the high school basketball team, to cover the sport for the school paper. McCoy says after he turned in his first assignment Piciotti asked whether he had considered journalism as a career. “When I got a partial scholarship (to Kent State) and I had to declare a major,” McCoy says, “I remembered what she told me and I said, ‘OK, I guess I’ll be a journalism major,’ and that’s when I fell in love with it.”

His passion fueled a career that spanned more than four decades, including an estimated 30,000 stories covering about 7,000 games. He earned distinction among his peers, nabbing 43 writing awards. In 2002 the Baseball Writers Association inducted McCoy into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and designated him the J.A. Taylor Spink Award recipient. Today, high school seniors apply for the Hal McCoy Scholarship from Press Pros Magazine. Stepping away from the plate and into the press box was a tough lesson to learn, but one that paid off in the long run. “I became a writer and made the hall of fame, if I were a player I wouldn’t have made the majors,” he says.

Through thousands of cracks of the bat and slides into the bag he reported epic moments for the Cincinnati Reds. His tenure included the heyday of “The Big Red Machine”—a phrase McCoy popularized for the Reds in the 1970s. Witnessing Pete Rose shatter Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record was among his top memories. But along with the peaks came the troughs of his career, clashing with Reds nobility over stories he’d written that didn’t sit well with players or management.

Later in life, McCoy hit another slump in his career when his failing vision seemed an insurmountable obstacle. After a series of strokes in 2001 damaged his optic nerves McCoy woke one January morning and was hardly able to see. He broke the news to his editor, who said the Dayton Daily News would support him through these tough times and could probably keep him on the payroll as a columnist, but insisted McCoy still attend the Reds upcoming spring training. But McCoy was forlorn: “My world is dark and fuzzy. How can I cover baseball?”

McCoy fumbled his way into the clubhouse in Sarasota, Fla., to tell the team he had grown up with that this was goodbye. But instead of condolences third baseman Aaron Boone scolded him. “He said, ‘I don’t ever want to hear you say the word “quit” again,’” McCoy says. “He saved my career.” Boone and McCoy became lifelong friends, much like another Reds player that exhibited kindness to a colleague.

“My oldest son, Brian, went with me (to Reds games) and Eric Davis took him under his wing,” McCoy recalls. “He gave him bats and balls and was generally really great with my son. When my son’s first son was born he named him after Eric Davis.”

For McCoy, being true to one’s profession meant occasionally straining or even breaking relationships with managers and players with whom he had once been close. “If you’re honest and write the truth there are times when you have to write tough stories and players don’t like it,” McCoy said.

America’s favorite pastime enjoys its share of heroes and villains, and McCoy, faithful first to his readers, documented every up and down through the seasons. But time has a way of healing. Perhaps in the light of persisting with a passion-fueled career despite losing first his eyesight and then his beat covering the team he devoted his life to, greater perspective came into focus.

Today McCoy covers the University of Dayton and the Reds as a sports blogger. His long-distance vision also improved with corrective cataract surgery and an implanted lens in 2016.

When McCoy finally mustered up the courage to approach Rose that fateful day in Vegas he expected resentment. Instead, he got a handshake. Then Rose posed for a photo with McCoy. He signed it, “To a great Hall of Famer from the Hit King Pete Rose.”

The next day McCoy ran into Reds team doctor, Tim Kremchek. “He said, ‘I heard you saw Pete yesterday.’ I couldn’t believe it; I hadn’t told anyone about that meeting, how did he know?” McCoy recalls. Kremchek and Rose were good friends, and the doc relayed the story, along with an interesting perspective: “He said, ‘Pete called me and said, “You’ll never guess who I saw out in Vegas—Hal McCoy! He even stopped to say hi.”’ I couldn’t believe it! I thought he hated my guts.”