John Lowe’s road to Baseball Hall of Fame as Free Press writer an ‘outstanding’ journey

Detroit Free Press
Gene Myers |  Special to Detroit Free Press

How do you earn a plaque with your picture in Cooperstown?

All while not wearing a uniform, but sporting a signature look of a collared shirt, tie, sports coat, leather shoes and a Panama hat, whether toiling in the chill of the Twin Cities or the heat of Lakeland. All while exhibiting an exuberance unknown to mankind in a sport that stressed keeping an even keel. All while passing on cheap shots, never wavering from the ideals of graciousness and professionalism.

For John Lowe, the former longtime Detroit Tigers beat writer for the Free Press, it all started with weekly hockey articles for the bulletin board in his fifth-grade classroom in St. Louis.

Followed by a five-page hockey newsletter for classmates in the eighth grade, complete with stats, analysis and a tidbit on each of the NHL’s 16 teams, all done on a rickety manual typewriter so basic it lacked a key for the numeral one. (Solution: Type a lower-case L!)

Followed by covering the home games of the California Angels for the Los Angeles Daily News as a 19-year-old college sophomore.

Followed by taking over the Dodgers beat for the Daily News as a 21-year-old in 1981, just in time for Fernandomania, baseball’s 50-day strike and L.A.’s first World Series championship in 16 years.

IN OUR OWN WORDS: Ex-Free Press writer John Lowe joins Baseball Hall of Fame: His colleagues tell us why

Followed by inventing the quality start statistic — at least six innings pitched while allowing three runs or fewer — during a two-year stint with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Followed by 29 seasons — from 1986 to 2014 — covering the Tigers for the Free Press, volunteering on Sundays to assist student journalists at the Michigan Daily and mentoring scores of young sportswriters across the country for decades.

That’s how Lowe earned the 2023 BBWAA Career Excellence Award — for meritorious contributions to baseball writing — the highest possible honor for a baseball reporter, complete with a plaque and picture in the so-called scribes and mikemen wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He will receive his award from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America during the hall’s annual induction weekend on July 21-23.

“I was thrilled, but I was also very humbled and appreciative of so many things,” Lowe told the senior researcher for the hall when the award was announced last December. “The Lord gave me some talent to do this. And at a young age I was able to figure out how it could be used as a way to a career. I was blessed. … The list of people I have to thank is endless.”

Lowe was given that chance to thank those people on Saturday in an awards ceremony at the Alice Busch Opera Theater. After that, he was invited to join the traditional parade of legends motoring through Cooperstown to the Hall of Fame. And the next afternoon, he will be acknowledged during the induction ceremony for third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Fred McGriff.

Lowe, 64, will be the 74th recipient of the Career Excellence Award, joining famous writers such as Ring Lardner (1963), Grantland Rice (1966), Red Smith (1976), Wendell Smith (the first Black winner, 1993) and Claire Smith (the first woman, 2017). It debuted in 1962 as the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, when it was given to its namesake weeks before his death. The award was renamed two years ago because of Spink’s overt racism and opposition to baseball’s integration while leading The Sporting News.

Lowe will be the fourth Detroit writer to receive the award, following H.G. Salsinger (1968) and Tom Gage (2015) of the Detroit News and Joe Falls (2001) of the Free Press and then the News.

They share a place in the hall with the winners of the Ford C. Frick Award, an equivalent honor for broadcasters started in 1978. Detroit’s lone winner has been Ernie Harwell, the late, great voice of the Tigers, honored in 1981. A large microphone Harwell used in the first half of the 1960s is among the exhibits in the wing.

The Road to Cooperstown

Although he started covering big-league baseball as a teenager, joined the Free Press at age 26 and retired as a youthful 55-year-old with his health, enthusiasm and sanity intact, Lowe relished his longtime nickname at the news organization: the Ol’ Seamhead. He proudly wears the label as a seamhead — a term coined in the 1990s by a longtime West Coast columnist, Mark Whicker — and laughs whenever asked to define it.

“What he said was it really cannot be defined,” Lowe said in a recent interview. “It can only be described.”

Lowe’s description: “A seamhead is someone who just truly loves everything about the game, regardless of what’s just happened in the last game or the last season. A seamhead loves knowing as many people in the game as possible, keeping a statistics book, talking baseball past, present and future.

“A seamhead realizes that there are just so many interesting aspects to the game — from the people involved, the strategy, the history, the various franchises and ballparks. And a seamhead knows that when that first pitch is thrown every night, that’s an incredible highlight because you have no idea what is going to come next.”

Lowe’s Hall of Fame path was paved by two fortuitous moves, necessitated because of his father’s career as an aeronautical engineer with McDonnell Douglas. The family lived near San Diego when he was born in August 1959. The family moved to St. Louis in 1964, when his parents became baseball fans, relishing Harry Caray’s over-the-top radio calls and a seven-game World Series triumph over the Yankees.

Little John passed them in a hurry.

His earliest baseball memory was the 1966 All-Star Game, played on a 105-degree afternoon at St. Louis’ new Busch Stadium. The next year the Cardinals won another World Series. He was heartbroken when they blew a three-games-to-one lead to the Tigers in the 1968 Series. A fourth-grade classmate was the son of Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst.

“He was quoted in the Post-Dispatch,” Lowe said. “Even though they lost, Red opened a bottle of champagne or something and gave Kevin a taste. And Kevin, I believe, was quoted as saying, ‘Oh, it tastes awful.’”

Despite the great Cardinals teams of the 1960s — led by Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood — the toast of St. Louis later in the decade turned out to be the Blues, an NHL expansion team that arrived in 1967 and, coached by Scotty Bowman, reached the Stanley Cup Finals its first three seasons (only to be swept each time by an Original Six foe).

Blues mania led Lowe’s fifth-grade teacher to devote the classroom bulletin board to hockey one month. Lowe was asked to write an article for the board each week.

“The day it’s time to change the bulletin board,” Lowe recalled, “the teacher gets up in front of the class and says, ‘OK. Today we’re changing the bulletin board from hockey to whatever.’ And I’m sitting there thinking that might be the end of my time writing hockey. But then I had no idea she was going to say this: ‘But John’s column is so popular, I’m going to ask him to keep on writing it.’ Every week I brought that thing in, that column, and I taped it up to the supply cabinet. …

“That was the first feedback from an adult, other than my parents. … More than 50 years later, I think you sense the importance of it.”

Lowe was hooked. He wanted to be a sportswriter when he grew up.

He didn’t decide he wanted to be a baseball writer until his father’s next move: to Long Beach, California, in the middle of his son’s ninth-grade year.

Soon after, an editor from the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram started making periodic visits to mentor student journalists at Lowe’s high school. He took a shine to Lowe, who was hired as a junior to take calls on Friday nights with the results of prep football games. Before long, he was the one covering games.

By the time he enrolled at Southern Cal, Lowe had been hired part-time at the paper, covering minor-league hockey and prep games and working on the copy editing desk. He spent time at the ballpark with the Angels beat reporter, Tracy Ringolsby, who took him under his wing. (Ringolsby won the Spink Award in 2005.)

Lowe realized his true calling was baseball.

As a sophomore, he was hired full-time at the L.A. Daily News. First, he worked as a copy editor. Then, he covered the Angels. Finally, he moved to the Dodgers beat for 3½ years.

“Southern California at the time I was getting ready to try to get into newspapers was probably the best place in the country to do that because there were so many daily newspapers and they all covered all the major-league teams and the major-college teams,” Lowe said. “So you could at a young age find yourself on a major beat.”

The Road to Detroit

During spring training in 1986, the Free Press’ Tigers beat writer decided he was too burnt out to endure another 162-game grid and resigned. A nationwide search for a successor started at the worst possible time.

Word reached Lowe, who was covering baseball and hockey for the Philadelphia Inquirer since the summer of 1984 but wanted to return exclusively to baseball.

“Again, the Lord was looking out for me,” Lowe said. “Baseball jobs are not supposed to be open at that time. Not only was a baseball job open, at least for me, THE baseball job was open. …

“I remember as soon as I came into the Free Press office on the day of my interview, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

He covered his first Tigers game on May 17, 1986, a 10-4 victory over the Angels in which Lou Whitaker singled, doubled and homered at The Corner. (That same afternoon McGriff made his major-league debut with Toronto.) Lowe covered his last Tigers game 10,368 days later on Oct. 5, 2014, a 2-1 loss at Comerica Park in which Baltimore completed a three-game, first-round playoff sweep.

In between, Lowe was on the scene when Frank Tanana’s shutout and Larry Herndon’s home run won the AL East on the final day of the 1987 season; when Cecil Fielder became to the first American Leaguer in 29 years to reach 50 homers, on the final day of the 1990 season; when Tiger Stadium ended its 87-year run on Sept. 27, 1999; when the Tigers avoided tying the 1962 Mets’ modern record for futility of 120 losses by winning five of their last six games in 2003; when Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter, won the pitching Triple Crown and captured the MVP award in 2011; when Miguel Cabrera became the first Triple Crown batter in 45 years in 2012; and when the Tigers won back-to-back-to-back-to-back AL Central titles in 2011-14.

Early in his Free Press career, Lowe became well-known in the business as one of the best in the baseball-writing business.

Why didn’t he leave for a bigger market? “The answers are self-evident. Soon after I left the Free Press … I got together with (former columnist) Charlie Vincent. And I said something and he agreed with it. I said, ‘For the newspaper we were at and the city we were in, you could not have had a better career in sportswriting.’ How could there be a better job than to cover sports for the Detroit Free Press and for the Michigan fans?”

Besides being known as the anti-Oscar Madison for his more formal attire topped by his Panama, Lowe was known for a sunny disposition, contagious enthusiasm and coolness under deadline pressure. His standard answer to most questions was “outstanding.”

Why the attire? “I got this from my parents. You always look neat and presentable. That was the only way I felt comfortable dressing for work. … But I’ve loved hats since I was a kid in elementary school.”

Why the enthusiasm? “I just wanted to always convey that I was doing outstanding. It’s not like I sat down with a thesaurus or something. ‘And so now what word do I want to use?’ It was just my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m fired up. I’m thrilled to be here. Let’s go.’”

He had another standard answer when he was asked in airports whether he was traveling for business or pleasure: “Business, but it’s a pleasure.”

“John did his job with great regard for the tenets of journalism and respect for the traditions of baseball,” said Jon Paul Morosi, a colleague at the Free Press in the late 2000s and now with the MLB Network. “He didn’t take cheap shots — in print or even idle press box banter. He wrote with fairness and an appropriate measure of fascination. We don’t often see that approach lauded on social media channels. That’s OK. John Lowe is in the Hall of Fame, which should tell you plenty about the permanence and value of those ideals.”

Lowe declined to write a farewell column upon his retirement, a reflection of a humble nature and not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings by forgetting that person. He still passes on listing his favorite Tigers or games that he covered.

But Lowe never hesitates to talk about his all-time favorite baseball moment. Its roots started on May 2, 1939, when Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig told his manager at Detroit’s Book Cadillac Hotel that he could not play in that day’s game against the Tigers. That ended Gehrig’s iron man record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Fast forward to Sept. 6, 1995, at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, when Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st straight game.

Why, 28 years later, still that moment? “First, there was no loser. And you say, well, Gehrig was the loser. No, Gehrig was the biggest winner of all. Cal Ripken, who grew up in that area, right there in Babe Ruth’s hometown, brought Gehrig out of Ruth’s shadow in a way that nobody else could have done, for all the people who did not remember Lou Gehrig. At that point, it had been 56 years since Gehrig had played his last game and Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium.

“In fact, my favorite moment of that whole evening was when Ripken got up to the microphone afterwards and talked about the courageous Lou Gehrig, and the crowd in Camden Yards just went, ‘Looou, Looou, Looou.’ So it was a fantastic moment for Gehrig as well as for Ripken.

“And what is it that we so prize about baseball? It’s that you have to do it every day. And this was the ultimate celebration of just showing up and doing it every day.”

Just like the Ol’ Seamhead. For 29 seasons in the Motor City. And now forever in Cooperstown.

Gene Myers worked at the Free Press from 1983-2015, the last 22½ years as the sports editor.

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