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Anatomy of a Disgrace

By Les Bowen

For a beat writer, one of the trickiest moments at a game is when all the columnists and reporters from your paper start dividing up who is going to do what, and you have to figure out how much of, say, Brian Dawkins and the pivotal goal-line stand you can use in the game story, without stepping on the toes of the columnist who is writing his entire piece on Dawkins.

When the columnist was Bill Conlin, this was never a problem. I knew without asking that there would be no quotes from Dawkins at his locker, or from teammates about Dawkins and the key stop. There would be tanks defending Stalingrad in the snows of 1943, and ragged, dirty columns of infantry massing, and desperate bayonet charges, with the dying rays of the winter sun reflecting off . . . well, nothing that would have anything to do with what I was writing.

Lately, I've been asked a lot about what Bill was like. Bill lived and wrote in his own peculiar, florid world. It was a world I enjoyed visiting from time to time, but I don't know anybody who wanted to live there, or even to tarry very long after dinner. If any staffer at the Daily News was a really close friend of Bill, I never knew it - and that isn't me just scurrying to distance myself and the paper from an icon in disgrace. Even those of us who enjoyed Bill preferred to do so in small, controlled doses.

I'm writing about Bill in the past tense, even though he is still alive. Only his career and his reputation are dead, along with the joy I used to take in reading those dramatic journeys from the 1-yard line to World War II, or wherever.

Of course, my pain over losing a part of the Daily News and the sports universe I cherished is trivial, in the face of what the seven identified alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse say they suffered at Bill Conlin's hands. But I have never met any of those people. If I could do anything to help them, I would do it. Still, I can't do anything about the fact that when I think of this mess, I think first of Bill, my traveling companion to three Winter Olympics, in Albertville, France; Lillehammer, Norway; and Nagano, Japan. (Actually, I was his traveling companion. With Bill, there was seldom any doubt about that. He was the one choosing the restaurant, telling the stories, thumping you on the shoulder with the back of a bearlike paw, for emphasis. I'm not sure he ever asked me any questions about my life or family, and I'm very sure he didn't much care.)

Years ago, if you were on the road with Bill, you were having an adventure, whether you wanted one or not. We got to Albertville in 1992 and quickly realized the venues were spread out and the bus service was unwieldy. We had been warned that rental cars were scarce. But Bill produced some special, VIP Hertz credit card, left over from his baseball beat-writer days, and somehow, after an antic cab ride into the center of town with a cabbie Bill thought would better understand English if Bill just yelled a little louder, we gained possession of a little, white five-speed Renault I nicknamed "Pepi."

Mostly, I gained possession of it; Bill had been alarmed about the possibility of not being mobile, but once transportation was secured, he had little intention of leaving the press center. Thanks to Bill's ingenuity, Pepi and I chugged up and down the Alps for weeks, despite the habit Pepi's little lawnmower engine developed of cutting off at higher altitudes, on roads with minimal guardrails.

Back at our little suite of apartments one evening, I first glimpsed the Internet, on Bill's laptop, viewing some site that forecast the weather, of course. Bill, always an "early adopter," was navigating the browser with one hand and setting out some sausages and cheeses he had purchased with the other.

"This is disappointing," he intoned, with a glum shake of his shaggy jowls, after biting into some provincial French treat.

I think that also might have been the night Bill told me about his encounter with a completely blitzed Janis Joplin in a San Francisco bar in the '60s after a Phillies-Giants game.

Now that memory, like all the others, is corroded with acid. I have no insights into how any of this could happen, how it apparently happened many years before I ever met the man, except for maybe this one fragment.

I'd say that to do something so unthinkable and devastating to children, you'd have to be short on empathy, and fixated on yourself and what you wanted. And, hey, that was Bill, even if those of us who admired his talent tended to put the best possible face on it.

Long before any of the abuse allegations, a lot of people in the sports-writing business detested Bill. Some of them had reason, a slight, or some journalistic faux pas that had harmed them. A lot of them, I always thought, at least until recently, were jealous. I would hear somebody in a bar where writers gathered ranting about the money Bill made or the allowances the paper made for his behavior (meaning, rudeness or a disinclination to leave his couch, not abusing kids), and I would think, "Yeah, but you've never written a sentence clever or elegant enough for anybody to remember or repeat, and he certainly has."

My favorite short, sweet turn of phrase might be from a column written after a Rich Kotite-era Eagles playoff loss, which occurred just as fans were warming up to the idea of venting their frustrations on talk radio.

"[W]hile the Delaware Valley WIPeed itself . . . " Bill wrote.

Despite Bill's massive ego, he was both smart and funny. Lining up against him, to me, in the days before this scandal, meant lining up with people who were neither. I guess I have to rethink that now. Did they sense something I was blind to, because I enjoyed Bill's wit?

I have talked to colleagues who wish Bill physical harm over this. I can't say I feel that way. I just wish healing for those seven people, and for Bill to make any amends that might be possible. (I have no idea how that would work.) On a much less important level, I wish somehow, I could have my funny stories back, that it was still possible for me to think of Bill and smile.

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