Standing atop the Detroit Free Press building in July 1967, Hal McCoy watched the city burn. A brawl had broken out in a bar. Upon police intervention, a riot encompassed the whole city. “You could see flames burning sky-high… I couldn’t get home for three days,” McCoy said.
McCoy, now an 81-year-old sports writer with the Dayton Daily News, stands atop an immense journalism career, 49 years of which have been dedicated to writing about baseball. He describes the Detroit riot as “terrifying,” applying similar language to the decline of newspapers.
Shortly after the riot, an editor with the Dayton Daily News offered McCoy an opportunity to return to Ohio. He leapt at this chance, and has remained there since. Now he writes for the Newspaper’s website and keeps a blog on Facebook.
McCoy, who traveled with the Cincinnati Reds until 2010, survived a stroke in one optic nerve in 2002. Informed that only 15% of people experience this in both eyes, he continued with his career for a year.
“Then I became the big 15 percent-er,” he said.
Sixty-two at the time, McCoy adjusted to blindness entirely independently. He traveled to spring training with the Reds, despite not being able to recognize the athletes visually. In a conversation with then-third baseman Aaron Boone, McCoy contemplated quitting.
“‘I never want to hear you say the word quit again,’” McCoy recalled Boone saying. “He turned me around that day.”
Upon encouragement from his wife, McCoy wrote a blog post asking for someone to be his driver, from home to the ballpark, and back. He received 435 offers and chose Ray Snedegar, a retired military airman.
“We have a lot of common interests. He’s like a brother to me,” McCoy said.
McCoy is not optimistic about the future of print journalism. In 2010, when the Dayton Daily News stopped traveling with the Reds, he became a writer for his newspaper’s website. The printing plant had moved to another town, causing increasingly early deadlines. Print subscribers received two-day-old news. According to McCoy, this was a common phenomenon.
“I fear for the end of newspapers, most of which are now owned by large corporations,” he said.
McCoy infers that if newspapers are declining, so is investigative journalism. McCoy, widely credited with breaking the investigation of Pete Rose’s gambling issues, believes there is no equivalent. Radio announcers are, he said, contracted with the teams they announce. Besides that, he believes that both radio and television are not interested in investigative journalism, “at least not the way newspapers were.”
“Broadcasters say only nice things. Radio is not journalism,” he said.
McCoy believes in professionalism above all else. Rose, who had been friends with McCoy prior to the investigation, refused to speak to him for twenty years after McCoy’s stories broke.
“If you’re a professional, you have to take the high road. You have to do your job, even if it costs you a relationship,” McCoy said.
McCoy’s career and legacy have often come at the expense of his personal life. Married and with three sons, McCoy has covered 7,000 baseball games, and has written more than 25,000 stories on baseball alone. That makes him a Big Red Machine in his own right. As he reflects on the high divorce rate among baseball writers, he describes 12-hour work days and long stretches of time in which he was absent from his family. In particular, he lingers on his sons’ graduations and weddings. “It was at times like these when I realized how much of their childhood I had missed,” he said.
McCoy credits the decline of print journalism to the tightening of regulations regarding press coverage. Baseball writers’ contact with players is now severely limited, to about 20 minutes before and after each game. Writers are not allowed to proceed beyond the locker room.
“It was so much fun to cover the ‘Big Red Machine’,” he said, referring to baseball’s champions during the 1970s. “All those guys were always at their lockers, always willing to talk to the media. Now they’ve gone the other way. Even though it’s in their contracts that they have to talk to the media, they don’t do it.”
Additionally, the popularity of social media allows players to control their image more than in the past. In the athletes’ eyes, this lessens the importance of journalists. McCoy believes that the blog-o-sphere has significantly decreased the quality of journalism. Athletes, already convinced that the press should be their cheerleaders, can now play that role themselves, with no accountability to editors.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, has also severely curtailed journalists’ ability to conduct thorough reporting. Interactions between athletes and writers occur solely on Zoom, are heavily supervised, and limit writers’ access to athletes of the teams’ choosing. “You have to take what they feed you,” he said. “It’s my understanding that they want to keep it that way.”
According to McCoy, there was once an unspoken agreement between journalists and athletes that anything off the field stayed out of print. This boundary no longer exists, partially because of the invasive nature of social media. “Everything is fair game,” McCoy said.
Perhaps the most important factor is the mistrust between athletes and journalists. Athletes are increasingly wary of reporters. There is little understanding of what journalists’ roles are. This mistrust contributes to a hostile environment, in which younger athletes are even harder to write about. “The guys you want to dig deep with, really find out what they’re all about, they don’t want to talk to you,” McCoy said.
The rise in misconduct allegations and other similar stories reflects the culture among professional athletes. When writers traveled with teams in the past, they saw “the warts” that are less visible now. Since writers no longer travel with athletes, now they must dedicate more time to uncovering deeper issues. Despite this, the toxicity prevails. “Too much of the time, the athletes get the benefit of the doubt, simply because of who they are. This makes journalists more important now than ever,” McCoy said.
To McCoy, the future of sports journalism does not look positive. Due to lack of personal interaction with the teams they covered, sports journalists are increasingly less-informed. The instantaneity of social media makes constantly breaking news a necessity, but journalists cannot do their jobs as effectively now as they used to. “That’s my biggest concern with journalism in the future. What is it going to be like? I don’t know,” McCoy said.
The future of journalism is, according to McCoy, uncertain. So is his eye condition, for which there is no cure. Despite this, he’ll keep writing. Though his vision may deteriorate, McCoy says that his blindness has had little impact in general. “Half the Reds don’t even know I’m blind. I’m not ashamed of it. I just want to be treated as a normal person,” he said.
In examining the legacy of Hal McCoy, disability is not often part of the conversation, even among McCoy’s colleagues. Mark Purdy, a 70-year-old journalist who worked with the Dayton Journal Herald—the Dayton Daily News’s rival—admires McCoy’s attention to fine detail. Purdy said, “This guy approaches the beat on a different level than others. … He’s the template for how a good baseball writer should cover the beat.”
Purdy admires McCoy’s rare insight. When visiting Rose’s house, Purdy described the uncommon number of televisions—one in almost every room. “He was so proud of his house, showing everything off. It should have been obvious. What do you think those were used for? Gambling, of course, but I didn’t catch that at the time. I don’t know if Hal saw Pete’s house, but he would have figured that out immediately,” Purdy said.
When asked specifically about McCoy’s vision and the role that his condition played in fellow reporters’ perceptions of him, Purdy was fairly dismissive. “Blindness wasn’t even an issue,” Purdy said. “We all admired the hell out of him, but it wasn’t out of pity. I do remember questioning whether I would have continued if it was me.”
Now, Hal McCoy—writer, husband, father—is known among readers for his articles and “from the man-cave” Facebook blog. His insight is unparalleled. He has one piece of advice for up-and-coming reporters, “Don’t go into print journalism.”