COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- For decades, you’ve seen Tim Kurkjian’s words in print. You’ve heard his voice (and his genuine laughter) on television, radio and various other mediums.
What has always shone through is his passion for the sport he’s covered with such eloquence.
Of baseball, Kurkjian said on Saturday, “It’s meant everything to me.”
This, on the day Kurkjian officially received the BBWAA Career Excellence Award for his meritorious contributions to baseball writing -- given out annually during Hall of Fame weekend.
Then there is Jack Graney, who was honored posthumously with this year’s Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting and isn’t known to legions of current fans like Kurkjian but had the same passion for the game.
Graney played in Cleveland for his entire career (1908-22) -- did you know he was the first batter Babe Ruth the pitcher faced? -- and became a pioneer as the first player to transition to the broadcasting booth.
That is quite a legacy, considering current MLB booths are filled with ex-players. Graney, who died in 1978, was represented on the stage by his granddaughter, Perry Smith.
“Jack Graney retired exactly 70 years ago, so it’s doubtful any of you heard him on the air,” said Smith. “Jack’s greatest skill was he had the voice of a ballplayer. He had the ability to bring the game to life from the perspective of a ballplayer.
“He said, ‘I always tried to give the fans an honest account. It was a tremendous responsibility. And at all times, I kept in mind that I was the eyes of the radio audience. I just tried to do my best and hoped my best was good enough.'”
While Graney worked in an era that most fans can only imagine, Kurkjian has spanned different eras of journalism in a career that is still going strong for ESPN. He started as a hard-nosed newspaper reporter for the Washington Star, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore Sun before expanding his wings as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Eventually, he turned into a multi-platform star for ESPN.
However, before you assume that Kurkjian was a natural, he has a story to share from his days writing for his high school newspaper.
“I worked for the school paper, it was called The Pitch,” Kurkjian said. “I was a terrible writer in high school, trust me, and after one especially bad story, one of my gym teachers said, ‘Tim, that might be the worst story I’ve ever read in the school paper. I hope you’re not planning on making this your life’s work.’ And yet, somehow, I did.”
Kurkjian’s high school, by the way?
“Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, named after the greatest pitcher of all time,” Kurkjian said. "I’ve always felt there was a little destiny involved that I went to a high school named after the greatest pitcher ever. And somehow, miraculously, I made a career out of baseball.
Kurkjian has always had a unique ability to uncover stories through conversations with players or by tapping into his friends at the Elias Sports Bureau or other stats engines.
He’s always loved the simplicity of a great baseball moment.
“I went to Opening Day 1982 with the Texas Rangers, and George Wright was a rookie playing in his first game,” Kurkjian said. “I said to him, ‘George, did you have a good time today?’ He got three hits in that game and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never been to a Major League game before.’ So the first Major League game he ever attended, he got three hits.”
Kurkjian chuckled as he told that story. And he reminisced about his early days in the business, and how much he loved talking to and writing about Cal Ripken Jr.
“Yesterday, Cal Ripken went into a room to be interviewed about me instead of the other way around. That was surreal,” Kurkjian said.
Both in his interview with the media and his acceptance speech, Kurkjian flashed the humor that has made him such a huge hit with players, fans and basically everyone who connects with baseball.
“And congratulations to [2022 inductee] David Ortiz, Big Papi,” said Kurkjian. “I checked in with the Elias Sports Bureau and confirmed this is the biggest size disparity between a player inductee and a writer in history. I give up at least a foot and close to 200 pounds to David Ortiz.”
A priceless clip of an interview with Kurkjian from 2007, when the Rangers beat the Orioles, 30-3, was replayed. Kurkjian cackled in disbelief in that 15-year-old interview, baffled by all the choice nuggets from that game.
“Wes Littleton got the save! In a 30-3 game!” exclaimed Kurkjian.
Though he is the ultimate jokester, Kurkjian got serious on the meaning of winning an award that his top three mentors -- Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Jayson Stark -- won in the past.
“It’s an overwhelming experience,” Kurkjian said. “I look at this award that I won, at least now I can acknowledge that all those days away from home, all those weekends that I worked -- and I’m still working weekends and nights and away from home all the time -- it’s all worth it now.”