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Cooperstown, N.Y. — Tom Gage wasn't always a baseball writer.

Early in his career, as a cub reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, he actually covered hard news. Well, OK, he at least tried to cover hard news.

"My first assignment was to cover a bunch of speakers, about eight speakers, in one night; minor elected officials in New Orleans," Gage said. "A drain commissioner. I didn't know what a major story was involving the drain commissioner.

"I went back and told my night city editor, 'I don't know how to do this.' And if he hadn't really had patience with me, I don't know where my career would've gone."

Gage was a history major at Washington and Lee University, so he might've used that degree. Or he might've been a lawyer, "and not enjoyed it."

But one editor made all the difference for a career that began with Gage earning $125 a week, and this weekend includes a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I had to be honest," Gage said. "Luckily, that night city editor took me step by step in a story, and from there I was headed in the right direction."

Gage, 67, the Tigers beat writer for The Detroit News for 36 years, was to get his place in Cooperstown on Saturday afternoon as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball-writing excellence.

He's the first Detroit writer to win the award since 2002, when Joe Falls, also a former News writer, accepted the honor.

And Gage was there to cover Falls' speech, all because an editor decades ago and many miles away believed in a young kid from Detroit.

His baseball-writing career began when he came to The News in 1976, and was named the Tigers beat writer in 1979. He figures he's written 11 million words during his career, but he still put that interest in history to use over the years.

"I promised myself that I just wasn't gonna be a hotel and ballpark guy," said Gage, who lives in Grosse Pointe with his wife, Lisa. "Back then, with print deadlines and many of the games beginning at 8 o'clock, you had basically all afternoon. You weren't looking down at your phone, you weren't looking down at your computer.

"I said, 'I'm gonna enrich my life by getting to know Minneapolis, by getting to know San Francisco, Boston,' and I did.

"I went to museums, I went with you (Danny Knobler, former Tigers writer for MLive) to a couple of battlefields. I wanted to educate myself along the way."

All the while, he educated generations of Tigers fans, with a writing style that could be understood and enjoyed by everyone from the most casual fan to the die-hards.

Interestingly, his dad, Claud, who took him to his first Tigers game in 1956 (Section 123; against the Orioles), wasn't a big baseball fan.

As an engineer, Claud was much more interested in the structure of the baseball stadiums.

"The baseball in our family skipped a generation," Gage said earlier Saturday, when, in an odd sight, he was the subject of the press conference. "My grandfather love it, and my father didn't."

Gage, who counts 54 ballparks and more than 5,000 major-league games on his resume, obviously loved it, too.

He arrived in town Thursday, checking into a swanky hotel room overlooking glorious Otsego Lake. His fellow baseball writers toasted him a ceremony Friday night, and more than 100 friends and family, including Al Kaline, were to do the same at a private party Saturday night. In between all that, he was to deliver his speech — which he promised would include a splash humor, as well as a few tears.

"There have been many times this weekend already when I can't believe it," Gage said. "And sometimes when the media haven't been able to believe it."

On Friday, a radio station from Chicago wanted a few minutes of his time.

He said sure, but it'd have to be later, since he, of course, was a tad busy.

That's when someone at the radio station said, "OK, well you are in Boston with the team, right?"

"'No, I'm not, I'm in Cooperstown,'" Gage said, laughing. "(They said), 'Oh, have a great time. There's some great guys going in this weekend.'" I missed my moment. I should've said, 'Well, I know the writer and he's a real jerk.'"

Gage's timing was off there, but it usually was spot on during his writing and reporting.

There was no greater case of timing, though, than his "lede" — the opening lines to a story — for his off-day story between Games 2 and 3 of the 1989 World Series, in which the A's led the Giants, two games to none.

Gage opened: "The only thing that can save the Giants now is an act of nature, rendering the field unplayable."

Sure enough, before Game 3 in San Francisco, a massive earthquake struck, ravaging the city and postponing the World Series for 11 days.

"The mail I got from that, one guy called me an evil wizard. Many people blamed me," Gage said. "I didn't mean anything by it!

"I offended a lot of people that day, but some people thought it was a good lede."

And that's more than could be said for his story about the drain commissioner.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

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