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So long, Pally
March 17, 2014 - John Mehno
The first time I sat in the press box was a Friday night in April of 1974, Astros at Pirates.
I was a teenager, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, fearing that at any moment some sensible adult would come along to throw me out. This is the big time. These people are professionals. Pay attention. Focus on the game.
Jim Rooker's first pitch missed the strike zone, and Charley Feeney stood up and yelled, "Get him out of there, Murtaugh." Then Charley sat back down and Jackie Powell started rubbing his shoulders.
Jackie was a guy who ran the telecopier to transmit the story Charley was writing. He wasn't an official employee of the paper, but he liked to hang around the press box and that was how he earned his spot. Shoulder rubbing was optional.
Charley was the beat writer for the Post-Gazette, a job he held from 1966 through the 1986 season. Charley died on St. Patrick's Day at age 89, after too many years of health challenges. Before Pittsburgh, Charley worked for several papers in New York, covering the Giants and Yankees at various times.
Modesty kept him from writing one of the best stories -- his own. Charley was a high school dropout who was fascinated by the newspaper business. He started as a copy boy and worked his way up. He was a baseball writer when that was one of the most important jobs at a paper. When his New York paper folded in 1966, the Post-Gazette hired him to cover the Pirates, and he made the transition smoothly. An old-timer named Jimmy Jordan told me the staff had a lot of trepidation about a dreaded New Yorker coming in, but Charley soon won everyone over.
Charley had a big personality, which included calling almost everyone "Pally." As he explained, "I even call my wife Pally -- on our good days." Charley was a dogged reporter and an average writer. The combination worked fine. He would ask tough questions, and he would write critically of the team he covered. But he was always fair, and he was always accountable. In a world where some people hit and run, he was there every day, ready to confront any fallout from his stories. He was always decent to new people on the beat, which isn't always the case. He was willing to help anyone who was willing to work.
Charley worked in a time when baseball writing was a full-time job. He would cover spring training, then cover through the World Series. The P-G didn't have a Sunday paper in those days, so he got Saturdays off. Often, though, he was at the ballpark anyway, serving as an official scorer. He lived with diabetes, but that didn't prevent him from putting in the long hours necessary to cover the beat six days a week, from start to finish.
Charley wrote for the reader. That sounds fundamental, but it's not. Some people write for their peers or to send messages to the team they're covering. Charley kept the job as uncomplicated as his prose. When that guy picks his newspaper off the porch in the morning, give him what he needs to know about the Pirates.
He retired at 62, because he couldn't stand the paper's intrusive sports editor and he was being tortured by a crazy travel policy. Travel arrangements were handed over to a madman who cut corners to show the bosses how he was saving money. Going from Pittsburgh to Houston is tough enough without that connection and layover through Newark that saved the company $20.
In retirement, Charley rarely visited the ballpark. "I don't want to be a hanger-on," he said. Instead, it seemed like he was a recluse. He stopped by once on old-timers day, despite his protests that, "Pally, they come back to see their teammates, not old sports writers."
The Hall of Fame honored him with its Spink Award in 1996. Overwhelmed and humble, he was quoted as saying he felt his inclusion was like Bill Almon getting in the Hall of Fame. (Almon was a 1980s Pirates infielder of modest accomplishment). Typically, Feeney regretted the line when he saw it in print and tracked down Almon's phone number to apologize.
Make no mistake, Feeney belongs. He was on top of what was happening every day, and that's what a beat writer does. Things are different in so many ways because of social media and Internet platforms. But the mission is the same: Get the information for people who want to read about the team.
Charley Feeney, who honed his skills in the ultra-competitive New York market, did that as well as anyone. It was a privilege to learn from him.