For 36 years, Tom Gage was the Tigers beat writer for the Detroit News.
He is one of the hardest-working baseball journalists of his time. And he has an unchallenged reputation for fairness, honesty, and integrity.
He is also an excellent storyteller.
He is engaging, yet humble. An honor to his craft.
And a Detroiter through and through.
I spoke with Mr. Gage recently about his life as a baseball scribe. He gave me his thoughts on the team he covered so well, and his plans for the future.
His love for baseball and the Tigers goes a long way back. He remembers the first game he attended as a kid: June 24, 1956 against the Baltimore Orioles at Briggs Stadium. He sat in the lower deck, first base side, with his dad, who was an aeronautical engineer.
It’s no surprise that Gage played a lot of baseball growing up. He also was a hockey player at Grosse Pointe University School (now called University Liggett in Grosse Pointe Woods). In fact, he holds the distinction of receiving the first penalty in school history.
After graduating from high school, he attended a small Division-III college in Lexington, Virginia called Washington & Lee. At first, Gage planned to be a lawyer, but soon came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the best career choice for him. “I could never be a lawyer. I just knew it,” he told me.
Gage had always loved writing, sports writing especially. When he was a kid, he and his friends liked to play a game called All-Star Baseball. “It had little player disks with a spinner,” Gage clarified to me. Three or four of his friends formed a summer league. Gage was a general manager, an owner, a manager, and a reporter all rolled into one. He also wrote up the game accounts of each contest.
When Gage was in college, he wrote a term paper about a real-life gentleman named Jack Thompson, whose dream was to start his own newspaper. After a career at the Chester Times near Philadelphia, Thompson published and edited the Clifton Forge Review. Interestingly enough, he read Gage’s term paper and liked it. He got in touch with Gage, and after the two got to know each other better, Thompson asked Gage if he was interested in a career in journalism. If he was, Thompson had some friends at a newspaper called the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He could recommend Gage.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After graduating from college in 1970, Gage wound up working at that paper as a news reporter (although he had originally requested to cover sports). While driving on assignment one night, Tom hit a stalled car on a freeway in New Orleans. He got out of his vehicle to seek help when suddenly another car hit the same one that Tom just had. Forced to jump to his left, Tom didn’t know he was on an overpass, and down he went. He blacked out during his fall, sustaining a broken hip that kept him out of work for two months. This was in 1971. When he resumed work, the Picayune put him on sports, and he thus has been a sports journalist since 1972. Tom always likes to say that he literally dropped into his career.
He eventually made his way back to Michigan. His first day with the Detroit News was March 1, 1976, and he began writing primarily sports soon after. Back then, the News had three Tigers beat writers: Mike O’Hara, Doug Bradford, and Gage.
What player was especially helpful to the new reporter? In Gage’s own words, he was “never much of a flyer.” So on the team plane, John Hiller would often finagle his way to sit next to Gage to “settle him down.”
It was the summer of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. “He was a fun-loving kid,” Gage told me, “kind of wild, kind of crazy.” But he was also one heck of a pitcher, Gage insisted.
One game in particular stands out from that year. It was July 16. The Bird was facing the Oakland A’s. Fidrych was a notoriously fast worker on the mound. But the A’s Claudell Washington refused to let a rookie pitcher dictate the game’s pace. At the plate, Washington deliberately hemmed and hawed between pitches, stepping out of the box, pacing around, adjusting his gloves and his helmet, anything to throw The Bird off rhythm.
Fidrych didn’t approve of such shenanigans. In a fit of sarcasm, he sat down on the mound while Washington went through his routine. “The next pitch,” Gage recalls, “Fidrych threw right at the guy’s knees.” Not with intent to injure, but just to show him who was the boss. The point is that for all his perceived flakiness, Fidrych was an intense competitor on the mound who refused to take crap from anybody. “He wound up winning that game 1-0,” Gage pointed out. Fidrych, in fact, pitched an 11-inning complete game.
Gage enjoyed covering the 1984 Tigers. “Their greatest legacy was going 35-5.” To fans, it may have seemed like there was no pressure after that fast start. Gage recalled that even Alan Trammell refused to acknowledge any stress. But Gage knew that Sparky Anderson couldn’t relax that year. He didn’t want to be known as the guy who managed a team that collapsed after such a historic start. (The Yankees, in fact, had a better record than the Tigers after that start: 69-52 to 69-53.)
I asked Gage why that ’84 team isn’t always perceived as being one of the greatest of all time. “You have to win more than once,” he said. And that is something those Tigers failed to do.
“Sparky was special,” Gage remembers. “He had a way of talking when he didn’t want to talk, which was to fill his face with food so nobody understood what he was saying.” Gage still remembers an interview Sparky gave with his mouth full of Oreo cookies. Tom used to play hearts with Sparky on the team plane, and he could see how his mind worked—he was always thinking two moves ahead, just as he did as a manager.
What are some of Gage’s favorite ballparks (other than Tiger Stadium)? Professionally speaking, he admits he has a skewed view: For him, a stadium’s ranking has mostly to do with how easily and quickly he could make his way up to (and down from) the press box.
“But as a fan, for pure atmosphere,” he said, “Fenway Park ranks at the top.” Of the newer parks, Camden Yards is his favorite, based on aesthetics. Petco Park in San Diego is right up there as well.
How does Gage feel about sabermetrics and analytics, specifically in how they have affected the coverage of the game? Is there too much emphasis on numbers?
Gage acknowledges that numbers are a good thing, but to be too dependent on them is not. For Gage, the audience was always the key. A baseball writer must have many different styles in order to have a larger readership. Gage would, on occasion, write for the hard-core, statistics-oriented fan. But he always wanted his focus to be on the writing, rather than the numbers. “You have to leave room for the personality of the game, and that includes the personalities involved.” He preferred a quote that would make somebody laugh, rather than a number that would make somebody go wow.
Gage won the coveted J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2015. It is given to one writer every year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Think of it as kind of a lifetime achievement award.
In order to be considered, someone from your own chapter has to nominate you. For a long time, fellow Detroit sportswriter Rob Parker kept asking Gage if he could nominate him. Gage, in his humility, was noncommittal. But Parker was insistent. Finally, Gage approached John Lowe, who actually was the number one beat reporter in front of Gage during his years at the News.
Essentially, Gage wanted to get Lowe’s ok to accept the nomination.
Needless to say, Lowe had no problem whatsoever.
Gage had to write an essay explaining why he was worthy of the honor. He was up against some keen competition for the award that year, including longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Furman Bisher. Also in the running was Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe.
Gage was selected as a finalist, “which was an honor in itself,” he says.
The day arrived to announce the winner. Gage was at home when the phone rang. It was Jack O’Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA, and a good friend of Gage. Gage figured O’Connell was calling to tell him that he was not the winner.
Instead, he told him the good news. “I had to sit down,” Gage said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
These days, Gage is hard at work on a book on the fifty most iconic moments in Tiger history. He has a publisher, and it is due to be released next spring.
This will be Gage’s first book, and after years of newspaper writing he admits that this is a new process. “I’m re-inventing myself.”
He’s been doing a ton of research. “When I started this book, for example, all I knew about Bobo Newsom was that he pitched for Detroit in the 1940s. But now I realize that he was one of the most interesting guys ever to wear a Tiger uniform.”
And Tom Gage can consider himself one of the most talented writers ever to cover the Tigers.