Hall of Fame wordsmith Gage shares love of game

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Cooperstown, N.Y. — An elementary-school teacher had a simple assignment. Well, it was simple if you had a gift for writing, as Tom Gage always did.

"Here are 25 words," the teacher said. "Write a story, using each one of them."

"Some of the time, my stories were about monsters," Gage said. "I was only 10 years old at the time.
"But mostly, they were about baseball."

Gage, a Detroit native, has spent nearly his entire life in and around baseball, particularly Tigers baseball, including the last 36 years as a beat writer — most with The Detroit News, three months with Fox Sports Detroit.

He accepted his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday with a wildly humorous and heartfelt speech in accepting the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually for baseball-writing excellence.

Gage, in a 13-minute speech, shared the stage with dozens of living Hall of Famers, including the great Tiger, Al Kaline, who once inscribed a ball, "My good friend, Tommy Gage." That ball was given to Gage by an uncle back when he was a kid.

"Never did I realize," said Gage, "that some day, I would call him my friend."

Gage also mentioned Alan Trammell, Sparky Anderson, Jim Leyland and several other former Tigers in a speech packed with anecdotes — both funny and poignant.

The whole thing came back to baseball.

"If you've loved baseball all your life, I am you," said Gage, 67, of Grosse Pointe. "If your first memory of watching TV is baseball, I am you. If you couldn't wait for the first day each spring the new baseball cards came out, once again, I am you.

"I am the adult version of a kid."

Gage was elected the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in December, beating out longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy and the late Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gage always downplayed his chances leading up to the announcement, and even when he got the call from Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers Association of America, he said, he still wanted to make sure O'Connell didn't have the wrong number.

That's a reporter, for you, always double-checking.

He went into the sports-media wing of the Hall of Fame on Saturday along with another Michigan native, Dick Enberg, who earned the Ford C. Frick Award for his career in sportscasting.

Enberg might've been the more widely known of the two award winners, but Gage had the crowd of thousands at Doubleday Field eating up his speech.

"I'm not a famous guy. I'm not a familiar face. What's worse in this day and age, I don't have that many followers," Gage said, to another round of laughter. "In the Legends Parade later on, you'll find me on the who-the-heck-is-that float."

He had his serious moments, too.

"Baseball is not an easy beat," he said. "You miss weddings, you miss funerals, you miss birthdays. I say my son (J.T.) is 29 going on 18 because of all the birthdays I've missed.

"My career has been work and it's been fun, but it wouldn't have been the splendid balance it was if I didn't have a true saint at home, understanding my job and more amazingly understanding me. My wife, Lisa, is the light of my life. I met her at a Christmas party. She almost left before I got there, one I nearly didn't go to.

"I'm glad she didn't, and I'm glad I did."

Gage's life and career have always had a funny sense of working out.

He told a story Saturday about his first journalism job, as a hard-news reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. An editor had sent Gage and a few others out on the city looking for stories. Gage was behind the wheel, and soon found himself in a nasty wreck that totaled his car.

He was fine, and able to get out of the car — only to see a truck flying toward the stalled car with no lights that Gage had smashed into. The truck hit the car, which went spinning in a flurry of sparks right toward Gage, who did all he could think to do. He leaped to his left, not knowing he was on an overpass.

"I returned to work on crutches two months later," said Gage, "and the paper rewarded me with a place in the sports department."

By 1979, he was the Tigers beat writer for The Detroit News — a job he held until this past spring, when The News made a change, taking Gage off the beat.

Gage then left in March for a job with Fox Sports Detroit, which since has laid off its entire writing staff.

"It broke my heart," Gage said of his ultimate decision to leave The News, "to whom I have given every ounce of effort."

Gage told several quick, colorful stories of his time on the beat, recalling such Tigers characters as Walt Terrell, Enos Cabell and Richie Hebner.

He recalled stories from his childhood, like saying goodbye to baseball cards when he was leaving for vacation, and playing the board-game All-Star Baseball as a kid. Once, his dog ate one of the player's cards — the late Gus Zernial. Even at a young age, Gage noted, he was able to report about a disabled-list transaction. Eventually, he noted, his "pen became my bat."

Gage's speech will be aired on MLB Network at 11 a.m. Sunday.

He finished with a quote from a Whitney Houston classic.

"Give me one moment in time where I'm more than I thought I could be," Gage said. "This is that moment for me."