By Marty Appel
Tom Meany was one of the gentleman writers of baseball in the mid-section of the 20th century, whose books and magazine articles were a staple of what the nation’s fans of the time seemed to demand: good reporting, nothing too controversial, writing designed to harbor baseball as the National Pastime. None of this is to suggest criticism at all; it was a time when the game mattered dearly to millions, and men like Meany satisfied the thirst for information.
He was born in Brooklyn on September 21, 1903, the same year as Henry Gehrig, Leslie Townes Hope and the New York Highlanders took root. They were to become Lou, Bob and the Yankees, but Tom was always Tom, and this is his centennial too.
He went to St. John’s Prep in Brooklyn where he played football and baseball and wrote for the school newspaper. By the time he was 19 he was writing baseball for the Brooklyn Times, and he got to cover the 1923 World Series, Yankees vs. Giants, just after turning 20, in what was Yankee Stadium’s first season. He was the official scorer in Ebbets Field before his 26th birthday.
He was a beat reporter covering the Dodgers until 1929, when he joined the New York Telegram, covering all three of the New York teams at various times. The biggest scoop of his career would come on Thursday, June 2, 1933, when he wandered into the Giants clubhouse at the Polo Grounds after the game with the Phillies had been postponed by rain.
In those days, the writers saw plenty of the players in hotel lobbies and on railroads. The clubhouse was seldom visited before or after games. That was the player’s sanctuary, and the readers did not demand quotes from the players as they do today. Nor did newspaper deadlines encourage them.
The rain pelting the Polo Grounds created a gloomy setting for this little side trip to the clubhouse , but lo and behold, what did Tom stumble upon but a notice in the manager’s office that John McGraw had resigned and was turning over the club to Bill Terry, to whom he had not spoken in years. It was to be announced the following day. McGraw was the Giants, as Connie Mack was the Athletics. He had been managing the team for 30 years.
But he was now in bad health, overweight, looking not unlike W.C. Fields, and his team was in last place. He himself decided on the change.
Meany had the scoop of the year, but the story had to share billing with Gehrig, who crushed four home runs for the Yankees that very day. (It was typical of Gehrig to be overshadowed on his biggest offensive day).
Meany went on to write for the merged World-Telegram, for PM, and for the New York Star, and in 1949 delivered his first book, Babe Ruth, a biography. It preceded the Babe’s own autobiography by a year and stayed in print for many years as part of Grosset & Dunlop’s Big League Baseball Library. He followed this with four “greatest books, ” inventing a genre that has been often imitated since – Baseball’s Greatest Teams (1949), Baseball’s Greatest Hitters (1950), Baseball’s Greatest Pitchers (1951) and Baseball’s Greatest Players (1953).
Baseball’s Greatest Players was viewed as a very important book at the time, coming as it did, in the 50th anniversary year of the first World Series. Meany’s selection of the 25 greatest players even rated a foreword by Commissioner Ford Frick (an old sportswriting colleague), and his choices, and those not selected, created much street banter among fans at the time. All of his choices were or would be Hall of Famers, and the only active players to make the list were Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. It was the choice of Campy, the only catcher among the 25 that stirred the most debate, especially with Yogi Berra doing just fine for the Yankees. To Meany, Campy was the best catcher in baseball history.
He wrote The Magnificent Yankees in 1952 and kept it updated during the ‘50s, and would later add The Yankee Story (1960), which presented an historical look at the team. (The Magnificent Yankees included bios of active players only).
In 1953, he delivered The Artful Dodgers (assisted with chapters by Dick Young, Harold Rosenthal, Arch Murray, and others), which was an early version of The Boys of Summer, that is, biographies of the Dodgers of that era, without the after-baseball visits that Roger Kahn would provide.
Since Tom was a Brooklyn guy, his greatest affection may well have been for the Dodgers. He visited Ebbets Field on December 31, 1959, when the Dodgers lease officially expired on the ballpark, and the team’s caretaker turned over the keys to a new landlord, who would oversee demolition. In the January 20, 1960 issue of The Sporting News, he wrote, “Being Irish, I have attended my share of wakes, Lord have mercy on us all, but on New Year’s Eve at historical Ebbets Field, I went for the first time to a wake without a body. The corpse was alive and kicking 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. All that was left at Ebbets Field was the spirit and that was giving up the ghost at noon.”
In 1954, he strayed from his roots to write Milwaukee’s Miracle Braves, caught up as he was in the successful transfer of that franchise from Boston to Milwaukee. (He also turned out a Red Sox history). But he returned “home” for The Incredible Giants (1955), to complete his New York trilogy.
His newspaper career over, he was by now sports editor of Collier’s magazine, and he could be found contributing to all the leading periodicals of the day. When Collier’s expired, the Yankees put him on the payroll, however slightly, to work with the team’s PR department on game days. (They would later do this for The New York Times’ John Drebinger as well).
Meany found time for still more books, and in 1962, the newly formed New York Mets tabbed him to be the team’s first public relations director. A year later, the team’s last in the Polo Grounds, he moved over to become Promotions Director, holding that job until his death.
Kings of the Diamond, published in 1965, would be his final book. Employed as he was by the Mets, he worked on it with co-author Lee Allen of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who dedicated it to Tom as “a great reporter who brought so much intelligence and wit to the game he loved, and who passed on just as this manuscript was in the final stages of preparation.”
Meany’s death at 61 ended his prolific writing days, and his long tenure on the New York sports scene. In 1975, he won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which put him in the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.