Few voices in baseball coverage are as recognizable—and yes, as polarizing—as that of Dan Shaughnessy. Since starting as a beat reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1977 through his quarter-century as a columnist with the Boston Globe, Shaughnessy has become one of the most distinctive and distinguished sportswriters in America.
As he prepares to be honored by the Hall of Fame with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award later this month, he sat down to talk about how the act of covering baseball has evolved over the last 40 years—how the relationships with players have changed, how he's survived dozens of clubhouse confrontations and why he's been booed by his own family.
Tim Britton: Off the top, there's no media guide for media personnel. So what's kind of the timeline for you out of Holy Cross. Did you go straight to The Sun?
Dan Shaughnessy: So, at Holy Cross, I got out in '75. In those days, we were good enough, we had enough D-1 games that the Globe cared and they had correspondents. For two years I was a Globe correspondent, and then they let me come in and do the BNBL [Boston Neighborhood Basketball League] in the summer, which was gold. Starting reporter's salary, I got to use the Globe cars, I drove around—I know every playground in Boston. I had ins. When I graduated, two years I was doing high schools. [Kevin Paul] Dupont, [Lesley] Visser, we were the three.
It was two years after graduation that the Evening Sun hired me. I left the Globe, went to the Evening Sun for two seasons, and then the Washington Star hired me. I did three seasons with the Orioles there. In '81, that was right during the strike, and our paper folded. I had a lot of good job offers and I came back here. I was the takeout writer, feature writer, did some Sox, did some trips. A year later, [Bob] Ryan went to TV so we had the Celtics open. That's '82 through '86—a really good time.
I was so spoiled. My first two teams were the Orioles for five seasons and the Celtics for four seasons. A lot of beat work, a lot of talkers, a lot of wins. They were really good years. When [Peter] Gammons left in '86, I raised my hand for the baseball. The Sox were pretty boring. They were .500 in '85, it was that early part of the '80s with Ralph Houk. They were just ordinary.
I did the Sunday, the On Ball, and Larry Whiteside was the beat guy. I did that until '89, and then The National started. Montville went to Sports Illustrated to replace [Frank] Deford, so we had an opening for a columnist at the Globe. I might have left if they didn't let me do it. Ryan raised his hand also, so they put us both on it. We both became columnists in '89 because of The National.
TB: We'll start with Baltimore. How ready did you feel to jump onto a beat at that point and that beat specifically, with a team that had been so good for so long?
DS: I felt really prepared. In those years I was doing high schools, Dave O'Hara was wonderful to the young guys and he paid us $7 a night to run quotes [at Fenway Park]. We might type out how the runs were scored, the agate and all that. The whole summer of '75 and '76, I had a credential for the AP to do that. So I was around it a lot in those two years. We went to spring training on our own dime and slept on Ray Fitzgerald's floor—all that stuff. We were really hungry to do anything.
When the Baltimore thing came up, I felt really ready and they put me on the team in June. Having worked here and read these guys and worked with them and just copied them, I felt more than prepared in Baltimore, and they did, too. Things were just, for all their success, they were a little like the Celtics in the '60s. They were always winning but a little taken for granted; the Colts were much more popular. When I was there, it started to get a little more colorful. Everybody down there was great to me. Of course the team, the players, the last day of the season they'd give us a sheet with everybody's phone numbers on it. "If you want to call Brooks in the offseason, here you go." Just like now.
It was just great training. For them, I was bringing the Gammons Style down there and all that. It was just a magical time. When I went to the Star, Tom Boswell was the competition, and he's like the best there ever was. He's unbelievable. That was daunting.
In '79, they went to the World Series and should have won. They lost Game Seven. In '80, they won 100 and didn't make the playoffs. That's how it was. It was harder. They always won a ton. The day I got there in '77, every coach became a major-league manager. Billy Hunter went to the Rangers, George Bamberger went to the Brewers, Jim Frey went to the Royals, and Cal Ripken managed the Orioles. They were the four coaches. And then Frank Robinson came in.
We had all the Cy Youngs and Rookies of the Year. Murray's rookie year was Brooks' last year; that was my first year. It was like Cousy and Havlicek, the one year they were together. It was just amazing. Cal was drafted, and I just thought they were being nice to the old man. A courtesy. I remember him coming to the clubhouse that night. He'd come to spring training with his father, we'd go out to dinner a lot. Palmer was there. Of course Earl. Hall of Famers everywhere.
And there weren't that many of us. It was easier. Great access. It's so much easier than what you guys do now—this non-stop tweeting and blogging, getting the lineup up. I was an evening paper. I could take it all in. I was lucky.
TB: What was it like with Earl as the first manager you covered?
DS: He didn't take anything personally. He loved young people. He wanted to talk. We'd travel with them—really travel with them. So getaway day, the bus waits for no man, so you had to figure it out. When they were going, you were going or you were left behind. The paper paid, but the traveling secretary would hand us our tickets, you'd get to the hotel and there was a key for you. It was like being on the team.
So Earl on getaway days, there were only three of us traveling. He would give us "If" quotes. "If we win, I'm going to say this. If we lose, I'm going to say this. Whoever gets the winning hit, I'll say, 'That's what we're paying him to do.'" I can't say we did that all the time, but there were days you had something in your pocket. I suppose that wasn’t really on the level, but it was fun.
And "We do this every day." You get real high or real low, the "Is this a disaster?" kind of thing and Earl would say, "We do this every day. We'll be back tomorrow." That was a good lesson there.
In those days I would find myself out with them. You really knew them. I think we were careful. I don't think we gave up stuff that fans didn't need to know. But we were able to tell them what they were like. I was just thinking about that: We don't know what these guys are like anymore. But like Garnett, did anyone ever get through that? He had a tunnel from Concord to the Garden. I never saw him and never felt like anybody ever told me about him.
TB: How much harder is it to develop any kind of relationship with guys?
DS: There's so many of us, and they don't know or care. I know when we're not around, they'd love it if none of us ever came back ever. In my view, anybody who thinks they're friends and they enjoy talking to us, they don't. It's one more nuisance thing for them, and I appreciate that. I try to get in and out and get whatever I need.
I just think it's so much harder now. You don't travel with them, you don't wait for bags with them, you're not in a hotel with them. You still have a ton of access compared to football. Florida is such a good time. They see us and everybody's in a good mood. You can establish some stuff there. Once you come back here, it's a lot harder. They have trouble distinguishing. The people that are on TV, I'm sure the TV is on in the clubhouse and they see that. As guys start to do more of that, they do know. But they don't give a shit in my opinion, and I don't blame them.
TB: How have you seen your relationship with guys change as your profile has gotten larger?
DS: I just worry that the young guys are instructed, "Watch out for this guy. He's trouble." I like everybody to make up their own mind. I'm a columnist—I'm definitely more hands-on than most columnists. Obviously Pedroia knows everybody. Guys like Beckett were always paying attention and looking out.
Now it's like, I bet Xander Bogaerts has no idea what my name is. That's fine. Why should he? I don't know who's paying attention.
For you guys, you still have the age thing where you're the same age as them, so that's good. But that moat gets bigger with the money and the fame and the worry about privacy and can they trust you. For you guys, it's a bear.
TB: You said you're a more hands-on columnist than most. One thing I appreciate is if you write something, you're here. Was that always a goal of yours? Did that bother you as a beat writer when guys didn't show up the next day?
DS: There are things that are eternal, and that's one of them. Another, when we started, it was always go to the other side. No one goes to the other side because you can't miss anything here and there's not enough support. One of the Globe guys said, "You learn more about your team over there. Go over there." There's truth to that.
The showing-up thing, that was another. Ortiz, that whole shitshow in '13, we did the interview and then he didn't like it. It hasn't been right since then. I understand where he's coming from on that.
But then he called me out after the World Series, after Game Five. We're upstairs hacking for Page One on Game Five, they're up 3-2 now, and he's asking, "Where's Dan Shaughnessy?" So I knew I had to come out the next night just for my own self. I can't have it. It was a day off, it was cold with a late batting practice, it was dark. And I was down there on the top step just waiting for him. No one else knew, but I knew. He appeared, I asked, "You looking for me?" "No." "Okay, just wanted to let you know I'm here." That was that.
TB: Did you always have that stomach for confrontation? A lot of people don't like to have those conversations.
DS: It's weird. It's funny because I have almost none of that in my personal life. I avoid it with my wife or my kids. I just watch TV and stay out of that stuff.
With this, say what you feel. People don't like to be criticized. Just show up. There have been so many different ones—Rice, Boggs, Clemens, Mo Vaughn was a bad one. Sometimes you don't even know what they're about. The Carl Everett thing—what you saw with [Ron] Kulpa, that was me like a week before. It was a real tip-off to everyone else being afraid of him. It was kind of story-worthy, that one.
Usually you try to not have a thing. When David and I had a big one a year or two ago in spring training, it was very loud and I had the [recorder] going the whole time. At the end he said, "This is just you and me, man to man. I don't want anything in the papers." I was disappointed but I couldn't use any of it. Which I didn't, until that stupid Players Tribune thing completely had a new version of everything. Okay, gloves are off on that one now.
Mo had a bat in his hand and was hitting it against the locker. The whole team stopped talking to me when I urged Rice to hang it up in '89 maybe. It was like a code. And it's sort of right: It's not up to us to say when it's time. I kept going up to guys and getting, "Sorry, I can't talk." Good guys. And then Mike Smithson told me. "We had this team vote and we can't talk to you. But I'll talk to you." So I loved Mike Smithson after that.
There was a Boggs one when he was with the Yanks, I remember Danny Tartabull got me out of there. Wade had the veins bulging in his neck. And I loved Wade. The Everett thing was bad. There were times where I was, "This could be the one where they take a pop. They figure it's worth it and it would feel good." But no one ever has.
TB: Do you think players today understand our job as much as they used to?
DS: No, and I understand that. If we didn't ever show up again, their lives would be easier. And they used to need a good writeup, a good article, good press. No one needs anything now. They do it themselves with social media.
It's like the Belichick thing: Only bad things can come of it. So unless you have that personality…. David's just a friendly guy. Pedroia, he hates it. He never says anything, like Jeter. He's got it down. Even if he likes you and trusts you, you're just not going to get him.
That's why I like Price. And I know this knuckleball guy [Steven] Wright will talk to you on his way out to the field the day he's pitching. I love that.
TB: Are we as necessary as we used to be? Everyone's watching the game, everyone sees the highlights.
DS: Yes. Absolutely. And this Cooperstown thing, that they do this, is really a great tribute to the profession and to the writers. We don't get much respect anymore, and the fact that we're still recognized by the Hall of Fame is important and good. We need to reinforce that the work that you guys do and that I used to do is really important. It's still what everybody else uses for their shows and their opinions. They couldn't live without it.
It's the most important thing—the daily coverage. The people that are there, the eyes in the clubhouse, the boots on the ground, just being there. If everybody just had opinions….
This is what bothers me about college kids who want to get a job. "Here's what I wrote about the Celtics." I don't give a shit what you think about the Celtics. Tell me about Emerson, tell me about your team. Tell me something you can go get that I wouldn't know. I'm big on that.
It's absolutely essential work to have. Like when they traded Manny in '08 to the Dodgers, if we weren't there, it would be, "Why'd you trade this guy? He didn't run out a few groundballs but he's still crushing it." And then he hit .400 for them. So yeah, we need to be there so they know. It's essential.
TB: Do you view your column as an extension of your personality, or do you sometimes play a character?
DS: I don't think the latter. I'm a lot more provocative in the column than I am in daily life. It's because of the topic. I wouldn't go to a party and start railing about Trump or Hillary Clinton—or tax rates or abortion or home schooling. I think that's a mistake. People have views that are important. This is, you can hate Manny and I can love him and we can have a beer. That's why some of the reaction and the passion of the readers, sometimes I just wish it didn't have to get all personal. This is fun.
I probably do the elbow-in-the-ribs-in-the-elevator every now and then just because it feels good. But I mean, don't love [the team] more than your families. What's in the column is how I feel at the time. It's not to get clicks or trolling. I love how trolling has become, "I disagree with you, therefore you're trolling." It's anything that's not my opinion. I don't even know what trolling is except if you say something that's different.
And certain fan bases are easier to tweak or tease than others—the Patriots, for instance. I need to resist the urge sometimes to do it. But yeah, the opinions are the opinions. We're blessed to be able to do it and that people care about it.
TB: How different are the reactions you get now when there is social media and all that than maybe 10 years ago?
DS: Well, the immediacy is funny. In football, like in Miami, there are three or four of us in a car that all get there together and leave there together. I'll come up and I'm fast, so I've got to wait until we're all ready to go. Now, the blowback's already coming. It used to be you didn't suck until Wednesday when the mail came in. Now you suck before you even leave the press box.
And the anonymity, I despise that. I'm just never going to get around that. I accept it. It's the life we choose. And I keep an eye on it just so that they're not going after my family or there are things that cross the line. But I'm learning how to block. You don't just block people because they don't agree with you, but it's like an umpire. There are certain buzzwords where, I don't need that.
I'm used to it. It's part of when I go out and speak, I tell these stories. I was booed at my daughter's wedding toast. Evidently you're not supposed to say, "Sometimes the oldest is the most special." All the younger ones were booing me.
Like in spring training, that thing with Pablo. He said, "By the way, Happy Easter," and I thought he said, "Go away." And an hour later, [Red Sox PR] is running me down and I felt bad and went up and deleted it. Basically I'm so used to people telling me to fuck off that I assumed that's what he was doing. No hard feelings about it. And I went and told him, "That was unfair. I'm sorry." That's what I've become accustomed to.
TB: What nickname that you've been given do you mind the least?
DS: I basically accept everything. The mayor of Hartford called me a Chia pet, which I thought was pretty good. Obviously, Carl Everett with Curly-Haired Boyfriend. I thought that was pretty clever. Clif Keane is the guy who first took me up here, he covered the '46 Red Sox in the World Series. He liked Holy Cross guys and he was good to me. He would come back later and sit back there and he called me the baby-faced assassin. I liked that one. I wore that one with honor.
The Shank thing started with the Celtics. I think Kevin McHale probably invented that, and I loved those guys. When I hear it from them, it feels like a term of endearment. When it's out in the street and WEEI listeners, not so much.
I've made little names for everybody. Carl Everett I called Jurassic Carl. I thought that was a good one. If you're going to dish it out, you've got to take it. That's all part of the mix.
TB: Do you think you could have been the same kind of columnist in a different market or is Boston the perfect spot?
DS: That's a good question. I would say Boston. I don't think the role would have worked as well without growing up here. I still tease Ryan, he's only been here since '68. He's a Trenton guy; he doesn't know.
There's something to growing up here, in the region. They don't trust outsiders and they don't trust new people. So the new people, it's always tough. I just feel like it just works better—growing up a Red Sox fan, growing up a fan of all the teams, knowing what that Celtic thing was like and the legacy, just watching how hot the Bruins were with Orr and how hot the Celtics were during the '80s and how hot the Patriots are now. The Sox had '67 and '75. Having lived that is helpful.
TB: Who do you think of as your target reader when you're writing?
DS: It's not like Alex [Speier]'s target audience or Greg Bedard and the people who really get into the Xs and Os of it and the strategy. It's much more of a broad brush. "For those of you who just flew in from Guam, here's what's going on." My wife doesn't know sports, so I try to be mindful of people picking it up. I won't just make a reference to a Yasiel Puig situation as if everyone's supposed to know. I do a lot over the years of the Page One stuff, and so I'm not going to put Cover 2 on the front page of the Globe. I don't even know what it is. I know it's jargon.
It's not for the DraftKings people and the analytics people. I think there is a loss of well-crafted writing there. I don't think people of that age understand it or care. It's just a loss. That's nobody's fault. It's evolution. I'm not doing the "Get off my lawn" thing. It's just that things are different; they evolve.
You guys can't possibly care or put as much craft into the game-story writing as Gammons did or we did. There's no time and people don't appreciate it.
TB: What do you think of advanced stats?
DS: Yeah, I'm making fun of them a lot. Alex gave me the booklet this year from the Sloan thing at MIT. Those are hilarious—seminars on ball-screen analytics. It just really amuses me. And this notion that they're quantifying hockey and basketball now is just amazing. There's a lot of quantifiable stuff here. Information is good. It's just so over the top now. There are generations of people who think that's the whole game, and I'm not a fan.
It makes my skull implode. But hey, there's a place for everything. For those who love it, knock yourself out. I think some of the managers have the best grasp of it. They like information. Tito was pretty good with it overall. I was pretty close to him, and we talked quite a bit about it doing the book. He had some hilarious things about some of the guys coming down with lineups and things like that.
TB: Who are the guys in the industry you like to read?
DS: So many good ones, and I'm not as current. Tom Boswell and all the years spent trying to compete with that. I always liked the northern California guys, Ray Ratto and Bruce Jenkins. The New York guys. Tyler [Kepner] is so good. [Tom] Verducci I think is as good as ever. I just can't believe how good he is, how he plumbs into characters and situations. He's so thorough and he knows so much. I could never do that.
And Peter. Peter Gammons, it saddens me that people don't know what a great game-story writer he was. You couldn't wait to get the morning paper to just read Gammons, to read his funny, lyrical game story. He was the best there ever was at the daily, I thought. We had great role modeling around here.
Everybody sort of brings a different thing to it now. What Alex does, what Nick [Cafardo] does, what Pete [Abraham] does. Pete's a beast. He can just crank out. It's great to work with him because he wants to do everything. I love that. I just can't believe how much energy he has and all of you have. I do that beat for a few days down in Florida and I'm dying. I'm sore at the end of the day. It's like being a rancher.
I like Patrick Reusse in Minnesota and some of the older guys. Roger Angell. He's 94 years old now and what he does is still great. He's a god. A legitimate god. We've been really blessed.
TB: What does the Hall of Fame mean? A lot of those guys you mention are in.
DS: That's what's so special about this. It's by far the greatest honor that I'll ever be a part of. To go on that wall with those guys, those great men. Gammons and 'Sides [Whiteside] and I all did trips together. To join them up there as a fifth Globe guy.
And Roger Angell. And the beat guys, the grinders—[Paul] Hagen and [Tom] Gage. All those years. I got to fly cross-country with Dick Young on the writer's charter. Jerome [Holtzman]. I just have little connections to a lot of them. To get to join them, it's such a great honor and I'm absolutely over the moon about it. It is, it's really special.