THE GIANT FROM SOUTHIE
I primarily remember Will McDonough working the sidelines for CBS on football Sundays, when I was a kid. Aside from his distinctive Boston accent, pock-marked skin, and goofy ears, he never stood out to me; just another fugly, old guy talking head. But I became a bit more familiar with him over the years, periodically reading his column in the Boston Globe, and recognized his status as one of the top insiders covering the NFL.
Howard Bryant offered a revealing portrait of McDonough, and his relationship with longtime rival at the Globe, Peter Gammons in his informative, yet maddingly uneven book, “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston:”
The rise and influence of the Boston Globe were illustrated no better than in the rivalry of its two greatest writing stars, Will McDonough and Peter Gammons. Each in his own way reflected the city’s strengths and weaknesses through his copy and approach to the job
For its long-term effects on a city and its signature sports franchise, there would be no more lingering, important story in Boston baseball history than race, and more than any two reporters in the city’s history, Gammons and McDonough would shape the parameters of the discussion. They would do this not only by what they wrote, but also by what they did not. In the truest testament to the power of both, McDonough and Gammons would spawn a generation of reporters that would emulate the two giants in both style and personality.
Both moved the market in their own way. McDonough did not believe the Red Sox were a racist franchise and thus would pay no future penalty for past decisions. He would not cover the story of race and the Red Sox as a story at all, but more as a fabrication created by people intent on damaging the legacy of Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin, of whom McDonough was especially fond. More than any other reporter in the city, it would be McDonough who would deny the existence of race as a legitimate factor in assessing the club
Will McDonough was different. He was every bit as ambitious as Gammons, and his zeal to be an insider was equal to that of Gammons. No sports department would ever boast a baseball and football writer that were more wired into their subjects than Will McDonough and Peter Gammons. Where the two differed was not so much in the end results, but in their personalities. Class would be a central issue. Not only had Gammons attended the Groton School, on the elite prep schools in the nation, but his father served on the school’s faculty.
McDonough was a tough Irish kid from South Boston. He was from the streets. He was an Irish Catholic in a city where being so was only a benefit because of hard struggle. Being tough mattered, especially being from Southie, where no one gave anyone anything. In fact, it was the opposite. Everyone in Southie saw the anchors of life they coveted being taken away. He attended Northeastern University and joined the Globe in 1959 at the bottom rung, as a copy boy. If Gammons climbed at the Globe from being deigned a star and taking full advantage of a great opportunity by outworking the competition, McDonough saw his own rise through nothing except grit, tireless sourcing, and connections
As a football writer, Will McDonough would grow to be a giant. He knew the game’s power players and like Gammons, was as powerful a player in his coverage of the Patriots and the NFL as there was in the league. McDonough preferred the old school ways, when reporters and their subjects stood much closer. He enjoyed the insider’s position, when the game was simple and a handshake could be trusted. There were no agents, no complications.
McDonough had his quirks. Over the years, McDonough would almost boast of his retentive abilities. He would write whole stories, with quotes, without having taken a single note. He was quick to ally himself with people in power; over the years three would be few journalists, if any, who would call an owner at home as readily and easily as Will McDonough.
He was combative. The most famous instance of his temper came when he grew tired of the media needling from Patriots cornerback Raymond Clayborn in 1977. When their argument heated, Clayborn inadvertently poked McDonough in the eye, and McDonough responded by sending Clayborn to the floor with the right cross. It would be one of the most famous moments in Boston sports journalism, the day a reporter knocked a player on to the canvas. Pugnacity didn’t stop there. McDonough made enemies, and as his position as a reporting giant grew, he was not the person to cross. He could be cruel, using his column to protect his allies and destroy his enemies, no small hammer. To disagree with McDonough was to risk the wrath of a powerful and well-connected reporter who had a column each week that reached hundreds of thousands. Clark Booth marveled at how complete McDonough’s enmity could be. “When he circled the wagons on you, you were finished. I never saw someone who could be so unforgiving of a person. And he was a giant, so you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”
In one sense, Will McDonough and Peter Gammons were alike. In their daily reporting, neither held the Red Sox very accountable in its culture and climate for minority players. Yet like the other areas of their relationship, it was for wholly disparate reasons. Peter Gammons did not seem to own much of a personal or moral passion for the race question, while McDonough simply did not believe that race in Boston was a story at all.
Part of the reason Gammons shied from racial issues, though Glenn Stout, was the same reason the entire Boston journalism community did: He could Boston journalism avoided race issues was [sic] because Boston and its surrounding regions were overwhelmingly white. There was not much clamor for sticky racial issues that, if uncovered, would spoil the fun of following the Red Sox. There was in the 1970s and ’80s enough backlash from busing that it was a risky gambit to harp on the Red Sox and their race record.
But the biggest reason Peter Gammons avoided writing about race was his personality itself. He was an insider, not a moral crusader. Race aside, he would not be the type of reporter—after he became a giant name in the business—to take unpopular stances or choose to dissect complicated, messy issues that deviated from the game’s power structure. He could be brilliant at it, as he was in his underrated 195 book “Beyond the Sixth Game,” a brief but entertaining and informative book on the dramatic way baseball—and the Red Sox in particular—had been affected by the advent of free agency. Gammons also chose to be a baseball insider, and to be a true insider it is unwise to take too many unpopular stances, lest sources view you with unwanted suspicion. There is no question that his journalistic legacy suffered from this choice, but his import and influence in the game rose tenfold
Meanwhile, Will McDonough was not a social engineer, and did not see his position as responsible for cultural accommodation. He tended to view the world in simple, rhetorical terms. Life was what it was. It was not perfect, and you played with the hand life dealt you. His view of race relations was conservative, and like many a Boston Irish Catholic, he still saw himself at times as a hounded minority, although it had been nearly a century since the Irish in Boston won a political and popular majority. He was exasperated by the racial question in Boston, unable to empathize with the notion that it was a difficult, uneven city for blacks. For McDonough, because life was imperfect, you had to adapt to the culture; the culture didn’t adapt to you. Thus, he grew short with social alchemies such as bussing or black players pressing for rights. He preferred players who came to Boston, kept their heads down, and kept their mouths shut. This was especially true of black players, the more vocal ones having traditionally the more trouble in Boston. Once, he received a letter from Mo Vaughn’s father. Vaughn was involved in a bitter contract struggle and McDonough was slamming him mercilessly in his column. “I responded to his letter, father to father,” McDonough said. “And I told him, ‘I’m going to give you some advice for your kid. Tell him to be quiet and play ball. That’s how you do it around here.'” It was a typical McDonough response: unapologetic, pointed, and impolitic.
The result was a conservative, angry voice that was reactionary in the face of a new generation of player, black and Latino, with different cultures and belief systems
McDonough saw race in Boston in clear and linear terms, but he also was looking from the lens of a great and powerful Boston majority, the Irish Catholics. He was part of the in crowd in Boston, the political power brokers in the city. McDonough privately enjoyed that a Southie kid like himself could himself [sic] become a power player in the city. William Bulger, a Southie son who would rise to be state’s senate president, once hired McDonough as his first campaign manager. He grew impatient with talk of institutional and cultural racism, the type of insidious belief structures that permeate an entire organization but have no single culprit. To believe that the Red Sox could have developed a racist culture over a half-century, he wanted the guilty unmasked. “Everyone keeps talking about the Red Sox being a racist ball club. Well, who was it? Was it Tom Yawkey? Was it Joe Cronin? Was it Dick O’Connell? Who?” McDonough’s temper was easily inflamed by race, an illustration of impatience with a difficult topic that belied his Boston roots. He wanted the smoking gun. To Will McDonough, if the cross wasn’t burning on the lawn, racism didn’t exist. Bud Collins, who considered himself a longtime admirer of McDonough as a journalist, separated with his old colleague in the area of race. “It was one of the many areas where Will and I disagree,” Collins said. “But it might be the most important.”
“Will McDonough,” though Tom Mulvoy, “is the most elemental guy I know. He always believes he’s right. Nuance isn’t Willie McDonough. He makes his call and that’s it. You’re not going to get philosophical treatise from him.”
Just as a note, my copy of “Shut Out” is an advanced uncorrected proof, which should explain the few grammatical errors.