By Marty Appel
The New York sports scene was rocked in late October by the death of Bill Shannon, 69, at a fire in his New Jersey home.Shannon was one of those fellows you thought would go forever, and in fact, never even considered what his age might be.
He was best known to New Yorkers as the lead official scorer at both Yankee and Met games – he’d been doing it since 1979 – and so occasionally, if a controversial call came up, the broadcasters might mention his name.
Bill Madden of the New York Daily News was in San Francisco for the World Series when he heard the news, and we spoke the next day. “You won’t believe this,” he told me. “To the baseball writers, he was like Bob Sheppard – he was the Voice of the Press Box, just as Sheppard was the Voice of Yankee Stadium. This is huge news here where all the writers are gathered.”
Shannon was an institution not only because of his thorough knowledge of scoring – and his reasoned explanation of anything controversial – but also because of his authoritative announcements in the press box. He’d recite each departing pitcher’s stat line in a unique deliberate style, and then repeat it rapidly as though to say, “And for you slackers who missed it…..”
His thorough knowledge of the scoring rules could be compared to a Supreme Court justice’s knowledge of precedent in ruling on a case. He was never unsure of himself, and seldom would be change a call. But, he’d always be up for a good debate. “I’m sorry, but a Major Leaguer has to make that play,” he often say. “That’s why they are playing at this level.”
He was, unquestionably, the greatest sports historian in New York, able to tell you what the count was when Fred Merkle got his most famous hit in the Polo Grounds, as well as the medalists in the Six Day Bicycle races held a century ago. And he wasn’t just brilliant on matters of sports. Tell him it was like Woodrow Wilson’s faux governing of the nation in the final years of his presidency, (he’d had a stroke), and he’d tell you which cabinet members (along with Edith Wilson) filled in most admirably.
The man knew his stuff.
Sadly, his greatest work is unpublished. He compiled an encyclopedic dictionary of some 1500 people who played a significant part in the history of New York sports. The entries, averaging 150-200 words, exist alphabetically, be they athletes, media, executives, or “auxiliary” figures like Harry M. Stevens the concessionaire or Lon Keller, the artist who designed the Yankee logo. On weight alone, it would have been a tough book to publish, but hope abounds that it may one day find its way online as a research tool. By Shannon’s estimate, he had about 500 more to write. But this book needs a home one day, even in an unfinished form.
I knew Shannon since his days as PR Director at Madison Square Garden (thank you Bill, for tickets to the Concert for Bangladesh), and worked with him on various projects over time.
Bill had his hand in a number of books over the years, including contributing to a long run of the annual “Who’s Who in Baseball” editions with Norman MacLean, and “This Day in New York Sports.” In 2006 he wrote “Official Scoring in the Big Leagues,” unique in its field and published by the New York Sports Museum & Hall of Fame, an institution he founded but never got to realize a physical building for. The Official Scoring book not only includes instructions and recommendations, but also a history or scoring, a list of all official scorers for no-hitters since 1947, and World Series official scorers since 1903. (Shannon himself served as one in 2001 and 2003).
But Bill’s best work, to me, was a 1975 book called The Ballparks, with George Kalinsky, the Madison Square Garden photographer, providing the photo research. By now we are familiar with loving tributes to America’s ballparks, which present themselves so well photographically and historically. This was the first. It was written before the current era of “retro-parks,” and thus dealt with relatively new “cookie-cutter” parks in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, and so forth. But the wealth of history in this, covering the parks back to the turn of the 20th century, is what still makes it unique. Even a section on Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, home to some Brooklyn Dodgers home games in the ‘50s, is included with a fabulous spread of Dodger action at the park. There are plenty of diagrams, stats and historical records in an ample appendix, lovingly compiled by Bill. But it is the rich text and photo captions that have the Bill touch. And where a ballpark was once a minor league facility, you can be sure the rich history of the minor league franchise is well documented too.
Bill had no family other than an aging mother who survived the fire, and Major League Baseball paid for his funeral. With him went a knowledge of New York sports that is unlikely to ever be duplicated.