No matter what the game was, how long it dragged on or how quickly it passed, how unpleasant the weather or how perfect the setting, it was always better if I got to say hi to Bill Shannon.
He was already a veteran of the press boxes at Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden long before I got into this business in 1979. He knew virtually everything that had ever happened in baseball and probably just a little bit more about everything that had happened in New York sports reporting.
The topics occupied him, mystified him, energized him, endlessly. Off-and-on for several years, we individually dabbled in trying to unearth such mysteries as who had preceded the legendary Public Address Announcer Bob Sheppard at Yankee Stadium before Sheppard got the job in 1951. Off the top of his head Bill went through the identities, resumes, and secret lives of Sheppard’s counterparts at Ebbets Field and The Polo Grounds, and details of the days when the Yankees refused to install a PA and stuck to having men walk around the field with megaphones, and then after rolling out all this information he said, with no sense of irony, “but let me look a few places.”
We were still engaged in what had become a near-decade-long search for the etymology of the official scoring system by which the shortstop is numbered “6” and the third baseman “5” (as in “6 to 3 if you’re scoring at home”). I had found an 1890’s Giants program with “how to score” instructions that indicated it had been the other way round. “Ah, yes,” Bill bellowed, in an accent I knew from my childhood to be authentic New York City, “At some point it was. What we need to do is find out when it changed.” He then launched into a story he’d been told by a veteran writer with whom he had worked in the ’60s, that was from itself from a veteran writer from the teens, who had heard it from one of the combatants, of a near fist-fight between the two official scorers at an early World Series, one of whom adhered to the Midwest preference of “5” for the shortstop, while the other one came from the Northeast, where he had always been “6.”
These tales, these miniature trips through time, were at Bill’s fingertips. They were instantaneous and generously offered and if they could help you, they were so much more joyful for him.
Bill could do this about any topic. And any crumb of research that might enlighten him on something he didn’t know – or better yet, something he mistakenly thought he knew everything about – was like a gift of a gold nugget to him. He was publishing a brief (and impeccable) guide to official scoring (and he was the senior in the field at both New York ballparks, and I never heard anyone complain about one of his decisions) and asked me if I could help him with identifying the ones at some of the early World Series. I dug up the information fairly easily. He treated it as if I had written half the book for him.
It is impossible, it is personally physically painful, to write here that Bill Shannon died in a fire at his New Jersey home this morning, a fire from which his mother was rescued. He was 69 years old. He had worked for everybody: UPI, AP, the local papers, his own stringing service, Madison Square Garden, at least two soccer leagues, Who’s Who In Baseball.
Loss is a part of everything and everywhere, and I’m confident I did not see Bill once in 31 years outside of one of the Stadiums. But as I write this I literally cannot imagine walking into either of the New York press boxes next year knowing I will not see this lovely man again.