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Legendary scribe Peter Gammons’ life is defined by the team he loves, the sport he can’t live without and the others he’s guided along the way. And his personal miracle.
She fell from heaven and landed in Mashpee. That’s where this starts, and exactly where it ends, in a wind-whipped, low-fog Cape Cod village where a retired nurse parked in front of a Stop N’ Shop ATM and noticed a pair of spindly legs dangling from the backseat of a four-door Lexus.
Good thing she was nosy, because it could’ve been another stinking drunk sleeping off the whiskey, bourbon and wine. Summer in the Cape attracts all kinds — grunge bands, neophyte ballplayers and weary baseball scouts, to name three — but if someone’s white patchy legs are strewn out of an open car at around 7 a.m., nine times out of 10 there’s booze on their breath from a dive bar the night before.
But the 76-year-old nurse took a peek anyway because that’s what her servant’s heart told her to do, and as she approached the Lexus she saw the shock of white hair, a look of unconsciousness and a driver’s license left strategically on the stricken man’s chest.
She took his pulse like she’d done a trillion times — locating a faint beat — and dutifully dialed 911, knowing the Mashpee fire department was a convenient two blocks away. She waited there gritting her teeth, monitoring his vital signs, and took a closer, squinted glance at the driver’s license.
She had no idea who this was. This man named Peter Gammons.
■ ■ ■ ■
If only she could’ve asked Roger Maris. That would’ve shed some light. Long before this Peter Gammons was the greatest baseball writer who ever lived — indirectly responsible for the Red Sox’s first World Series win in 86 years, for the Cubs’ first World Series win in 108 years and for furthering the careers of ballplayers, singers, executives and journalists all over the planet — he was just a 15-year-old boy with a frayed autograph book trying not to stare into Maris’ baby blue eyes.
It was summer of ’61, the summer of the Maris-Mantle home-run chase, and he and his parents — Ned and Betty — had driven the 45 miles from their home in Groton, Mass., to Boston for the Red Sox-Yankees series. They were making a long cultural July weekend out of it, spending Thursday night at the theater, Friday night at Fenway Park, Saturday and Sunday afternoon again at Fenway and Saturday night at a concert. Of course, a concert. Ned Gammons was the music teacher at the prestigious Groton School and had passed his sense of rhythm down to his second son, Peter.
Hometown: Groton, Mass.
College: North Carolina
Wife: Gloria, married 55 years
Career highlights: Boston Globe: 1969-76; 1978-1986; Sports Illustrated: 1976-78, 1986-90; ESPN: 1990-2009; MLB Network: 2009-current; The Athletic: 2020-current (contributor)
Writing awards: National Baseball Hall of Fame, 2005 (J.G. Taylor Spink Award); Cape Cod Baseball Hall of Fame, 2022; National Sportswriter of the Year, 1989, ’90, ’93; North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame, 2021; Co-recipient of Harvard University’s Social Impact Award, 2023
Co-founder: Hot Stove Cool Music charity fundraiser (est. 2000), raised approximately $14 million
Not that Peter was in love with classical music. Rather, he was an aspiring Chuck Berry who could pick a guitar and capably sing the blues or rock ’n’ roll. In later years he and his high school buds started a band called The Fabulous Penetrations — “We almost didn’t graduate because of that,” he jokes — but he had reverence for his father and dutifully sat through the night at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
There was a beyond-his-years duality to Peter. If his father hadn’t taught at the elitist Groton School — a blue-blood Harvard and Yale pipeline in a quaint town of just 4,000 people — the family never could’ve afforded to send him there, and, for that reason, Peter related to both the preppies and townies. He played Little League baseball with Bill Shaughnessy, who attended the peasant-like public school and whose prodigious younger brother Dan Shaughnessy was a sports encyclopedia. Dan will say the difference between public school and Groton School was that if a Groton player hit a foul ball into the woods, they’d simply grab a new ball. “We’d want to hop over to get ’em,’’ Dan says.
Peter took the sophistication of Groton and the humanistic spirit of Ned and melded them together. Refined, yet self-aware. Add in his affinity for baseball — which he inherited from his mother, Betty, who suffered through every Red Sox game on the radio — and he was ready to politely ask any Red Sox or Yankee for an autograph that July ’61 weekend.
During Friday night’s series opener, Maris hit his 36th home run, and Mantle smashed his 37th. A magical Fenway evening. The next morning, the Gammons casually ate breakfast at their hotel, the extravagant Park Plaza where the Yankees also happened to be staying. Minutes into the meal, Betty noticed Maris eating alone at an adjacent table and urged Peter to request his signature. Peter had his autograph book ready, but, on second thought, told Betty he’d rather not bother Maris while he was dining.
Later, as the Gammons were exiting, Peter heard someone from behind say, “Son …” It was Maris, with a gleam in his eye.
“I heard what you said,” Maris told Peter. “And I appreciate that you respected my privacy. Would you like me to sign something?’’
Maris autographed Peter’s book, then asked when he was leaving for Fenway that day. “About 11,” Peter said. Sure enough, at the stroke of 11, Maris was waiting for 15-year-old Peter in the lobby.
“Here son,” Maris said, handing him a signed piece of paper. It was Mantle’s autograph. Chills shot down Peter’s spine, a wave of sensibility gushed to his head.
Roger Maris had become the first Major League player, not the last, to be enthralled by Peter Gammons.
■ ■ ■ ■
If only she could’ve asked Dean Smith. In the mid-1960s, Peter enrolled at the University of North Carolina and became a curious reporter for the campus’s Daily Tar Heel. Taught by Ned Gammons to be inclusive, Peter was especially drawn to the burgeoning head basketball coach Smith, who was about to make Charlie Scott the first Black athlete at the university. On the infamous 1965 day Smith was hung in effigy after a brutal loss to Wake Forest, Peter was sitting near Smith on the team bus and couldn’t believe how stoic the coach remained. Peter had already befriended several players, particularly future All-America forward Larry Miller, who told him how altruistic Smith was. Peter was fascinated.
Smith, sharp as a tack, noticed how the players related to Peter and occasionally let Peter watch his sacred closed practices. “He just took a liking to me,” Peter says. “Dean reminded me a lot of my father. I always thought he was a schoolteacher who was a basketball coach. And sometimes, I think because my father was a schoolteacher, that enabled the relationship to go farther.”
It went so far that Smith gave Peter this firm career advice: “You’re a good listener. You could write for a living.” Not long after — perhaps on a day Peter’s college band, “Little Gam and the Athletes” had just finished a jam session — Peter received an urgent message at his frat house to see Smith. “Figured I’d written something he’s really pissed about,” Peter says. Instead, Smith told him Sports Illustrated’s vaunted storyteller Frank Deford was arriving to do a profile on him, that Peter should observe “how a giant in the industry” conducts an interview. So Peter sat in, riveted and now certain of his calling.
Dean Smith — perhaps because his servant heart told him to — had turned Peter into a sportswriter.
■ ■ ■ ■
If only she could’ve asked Bill Lee. On June 10, 1968, just days after RFK’s assassination, senior-to-be Peter started a summer internship at the Boston Globe sports department. On that first day, he and another intern — a garrulous Boston College grad named Bob Ryan — were assigned to chronicle how MLB was planning to honor Kennedy. Peter called each American League team, while Ryan dialed every National League club. Their dual byline ran on 1A of the stocks edition that afternoon, and buddies already, they went to Boston’s Eire Pub to grab a beer and dream about careers as “ink-stained wretches.” Peter was hooked.
Peter impressed Globe editors with his whimsical writing style. At Carolina, his Journalism 41 teacher once passed out a cookie-cutter exam saying, “If you all write the same lead, I’ll be successful as a teacher.” Peter, trying not to be “a smart ass,” raised his hand to say, “That’s not going to work, sir.” Peter felt badly, but also felt journalism should be about “your curiosity,” how you “related” to your subject matter. “I didn’t want to be the byline,” he says, “I wanted to be the story.”
The irreverent Globe was on the same page as Peter. “Forget the five W’s of journalism: who, what, when, where, why,” Ryan says. “The Globe let us run wild.” So the winter following Peter’s internship, in February 1969, they contacted him during midterms to say, “Can you come to Boston next Monday and start full time?” He dropped out to drive north.
That summer he first laid eyes on Red Sox rookie pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a mercurial lefty out of USC who had the guts to throw a slow, rainbow Eephus pitch — or “Space Ball” — to big-league hitters. Peter loved it. As legend has it, Peter once threw an Eephus pitch himself at Groton School to a stud hitter from Boston Latin named Bobby Guindon. Guindon, who wound up playing five games for the Red Sox in ’64, smashed it 300-some feet into an art department window.
Either way, Spaceman and Gam (Peter’s nickname) had a pitch in common, and they became fast friends the same way Peter had buddied up to Larry Miller at Carolina. With his floppy head of hair, walrus mustache, windbreakers and sandals, Peter was becoming a welcome sight at Fenway, or the Fens, as he called it. By the summer of ’71, Peter was a backup Red Sox writer doing sidebars and asked morning sports editor Fran Rosa if he could pen a weekly column about the Red Sox farm system. He’d model it slightly after Dick Young’s three-dot column in the New York Daily News and call it “Majoring in the Minors.” Baseball’s first notes column was born.
The Globe’s Will McDonough was already writing notes on the NFL, and Ryan the same for the NBA. But what Peter began churning out every Sunday — especially once he took over the Red Sox beat full time in ’72 — became baseball gospel. He was majoring in the majors now. These were nuanced, 2,000-word joyrides through the game. “He was like a gonzo journalist in sports and baseball,” says Dan Shaughnessy, who’d eventually join the Globe.
Peter’s single-minded routine made it possible. He’d wake up as early as 5 a.m. to exercise and read the papers. Then, he’d phone as many scouts, agents and GMs as he could conjure up. He’d get to Fenway, or wherever the Red Sox were, as early as noon to watch early BP or, better yet, shag fly balls himself.
That’s where the real intel came from. By ’75, bench coach Johnny Pesky was hitting him pregame fungos, or Carl Yastrzemski was purposely smacking BP line drives to Peter in the gap. Through it all, he’d pick up nuggets and backstories. He’d then shower, visit the opposing manager and produce original copy full of trade chatter, clubhouse mischief and future stars. “I don’t know anybody who loves anything as much as Peter Gammons loves baseball,” Ryan says.
That Sunday notes column was so rich, Globe sports editor Vince Doria says editors from other cities had him airmail it to them every Monday. GMs would pick Peter’s brain as much as he’d pick theirs. One year, he campaigned in print for the Red Sox to hire Orioles manager Earl Weaver. When Weaver got inundated with phone calls, he said, “What did that [bleeping] Gammons write this time?” Someone answered, “That the Red Sox need you and even if it’s $1 million a year, they gotta pay it.’’ Weaver responded, “I’ve always liked that Gammons.
Peter’s music references made the column hip. In season previews, he’d give every MLB franchise a team song (Baltimore’s being “Duke of Earl”), and, inspired by the Warren Zevon tune, he’d allude to Lee in print as “Excitable Boy.” John Curtis and the 300,000 college students in Boston applauded Peter. He brought his guitar on the road, taught Globe writer Lesley Visser about a blues singer named Bonnie Raitt. “Peter was talking about Bonnie Raitt before anybody else was talking about Bonnie Raitt,” Shaughnessy says.
His copy was littered with music, sarcasm and New England nuance, and Doria’s philosophy was he wouldn’t edit Peter if one out of five readers “got it.” To describe a disjointed Red Sox team, Peter wrote: “25 guys, 25 cabs.” When the Red Sox blew a key game on network TV in August of ’74, Peter wrote: “Like Richard Nixon, the Red Sox went on national television to announce their resignations from the race.”
But his game stories showcased his lyrical genius most of all, and nothing put him on the map more than the 1975 World Series between the Reds and Red Sox. As the baseball world descended on Boston for Game 6 — the Sox trailing three games to two — Peter ended up producing arguably the greatest game story ever written on deadline, a piece crafted on a typewriter in 55 minutes that stands the test of time for every New Englander with a pulse.
At first, it was a blah game. The Sox looked dead in the eighth inning until Bernie Carbo hit a missile three-run home run — “There was this whoosh,” Peter remembers — to tie it up at 6. Peter was taking copious notes in the press box and prioritizing all the signature moments of the game. Dwight Evans’ circus catch in the 11th. Third base coach Don Zimmer saying “No, no, no” to baserunner Denny Doyle in the ninth, and Doyle thinking Zimmer said “Go, go, go” before being nailed at the plate. But in the 12th inning, Carlton Fisk trumped it all with a drifting game-winning homer down the left-field line that he waved fair with hands extended wildly over his head. Peter’s first three paragraphs were silk:
And all of a sudden the ball was there, like the Mystic River Bridge, suspended out in the black of the morning.
When it finally crashed off the mesh attached to the left field foul pole, one step after another the reaction unfolded: from Carlton Fisk’s convulsive leap to John Kiley’s booming of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to the wearing off of the numbness to the outcry that echoed across the cold New England morning.
At 12:34 a.m., in the 12th inning, Fisk’s histrionic home run brought a 7-6 end to a game that will be the pride of historians in the year 2525, a game won and lost what seemed like a dozen times, and a game that brings back summertime one more day. For the seventh game of the World Series.
Ever since that night, Bostonians young and old have treated Peter’s Game 6 lead as local legend. “Like the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” says former Globe and Herald sportswriter Jeff Horrigan. If Peter and Lee went out anywhere in Boston — from Faneuil Hall to Southie to Cambridge — locals would first say hello to Spaceman and then recite the Game 6 lead out loud to Peter’s face.
“Hey Petuh! … And all of a sudden the ball was there, like the Mystic River Bridge, suspended out in the black of the morning. … You’re a wicked pisser, Petuh!’’
What he’d told his Carolina journalism professor had finally come true. Peter Gammons was the story.
■ ■ ■ ■
If only she could’ve asked Ted Williams. Peter’s star shined so bright that even the Splendid Splinter, chronically annoyed at ink-stained wretches, would wave Peter over to tell stories over a bourbon and tonic. Did you know in 1941 Ted used to get updates on Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak from a Fenway scoreboard operator in left field and shout them over to Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s brother, in center? Peter knew. But then, suddenly, baseball was over for Gam. Done.
He’d become too prolific for his own good. Sports Illustrated — Frank Deford’s Sports Illustrated! — offered him its NHL job in 1976, and Peter took it thinking he’d eventually scoot over to baseball. He knew hockey well enough and bonded with Bruins Hall of Famer Bobby Orr. But SI made him move to New York, and Peter says he pined for “the frenetic fandom of New England” and the scent of tobacco chew. While in Toronto for a Maple Leafs story, he moseyed over to the first-ever Blue Jays game. He showed up out of the blue at Brooks Robinson Night in Baltimore. He lasted two years on hockey.
Back to the Globe he went, and with new perspective on life, he began to pay sportswriting forward. He was his father’s son; Dean Smith’s protégé. He’d help the next person in line. He told his homie Dan Shaughnessy the Orioles beat job was open at the Baltimore Evening Sun; shared his Sunday notes with the Philadelphia’s Inquirer’s Jayson Stark; got 23-year-old John Lowe an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Probably 100 writers had similar tales. When Dale Murphy shooed the Globe’s Lesley Visser from the Braves’ clubhouse, Peter waited outside with her. When Rangers beat writer Tim Kurkjian sensed the team was making a trade, he called Peter, who told him, “Yeah, you guys are dealing for Cliff Johnson.” He kindly alerted Baltimore Sun beat writer Richard Justice that the Orioles were signing Don Aase and Fred Lynn. Justice dialed Orioles exec Larry Lucchino, who said, “Where’d you hear that?” Gammons, Justice said. “Well,” Lucchino said, “Gammons isn’t wrong very often.”
An entire generation of baseball writers wanted to be him. Justice wore the same New Balance sneakers Peter wore; bought the same brand steno pad. Peter was the envy of them all. Baltimore all-star Eddie Murray famously spurned the media, but Gammons would still waltz up to Murray’s locker to chat him up. When Justice later told Murray, “Hey, I thought you aren’t speaking to the press,” Murray blurted, “That ain’t the press, that’s Gammons.”
Fenway was Peter’s second home, and he and his wife, Gloria — whom he’d met teaching Sunday school at church — bought a house at 46 Glen Road in Brookline, just 1.1 miles away from the Fens. Peter wanted to walk to games. His new next-door neighbors, the Kennedys, had an admiring young son named Sam who watched Peter leave for night games at 10 or 11 a.m. — “I borderline stalked him,” Sam says — and overheard Peter’s top-secret chats with GMs across a backyard screen. Peter’s access to powerbrokers was unprecedented, and trade deadlines were his personal Christmas Day. He had a pulse on every impending trade, and GMs had the good sense to take his calls. “He was really a special assistant to about 30 teams,” says A’s GM Billy Beane, soon to be a Gammons confidant.
By then, Tigers pitcher Jack Morris had nicknamed him “The Commissioner,” and Peter says three or four MLB teams offered him front office jobs. Legend has it Peter once laid out a three-way trade proposal to Red Sox GM Lou Gorman, who responded, “I haven’t thought of anything like that.” To which Peter said, “Well, by God, you better start thinking of things like that.”
But the epitome of his bandwidth came during the ’85 World Series. It was Game 7, Cardinals-Royals, and tense St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog had locked himself in his clubhouse office beforehand. Ah, but Peter knew Whitey’s secret code. So he knocked, paused, knock-knocked, paused again and knock-knock-knocked. Whitey let him in.
Peter was too big now to stay local, and SI — Frank Deford’s SI — came calling again in ’86, this time with the baseball beat. Managing Editor Mark Mulvoy promised Peter he could still live in Brookline or his other home on the Cape and urged him to buy Red Sox season tickets so he wouldn’t have pangs for Fenway. Peter found a pair of seats just seven rows behind home plate, next to the scouts, and accepted the SI job. He would write an “Inside Baseball” column and dive into the human interest stories he craved. He visited Yankee Don Mattingly’s hometown of Evansville, Ind., and discovered Donnie Baseball learned to hit the ball the other way because the whiffle ball field in his yard had a massive tree blocking fly balls to right.
Mattingly respected Peter — just like an earlier Yankee great, Maris — and agreed to do a three-sided chat about hitting with Ted Williams and Wade Boggs. Peter chronicled it all. When Williams hosted a fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund in Boston, which included Joe DiMaggio, Peter asked Ted if he could write about the Williams-DiMaggio relationship for SI. Ted said sure. But when DiMaggio arrived, Joe said, “I don’t talk to Sports Illustrated.’’
Williams bared his teeth at DiMaggio and then growled what needed to be growled, the ultimate tribute to Peter Gammons:
“This is my event, this is my city, and it’s my f***** friend,” Ted Williams said. “And you’re going to talk to him.”
So Joe DiMaggio talked.
■ ■ ■ ■
If only she could’ve asked Theo Epstein. Theo happened to play Little League and then high school ball in Brookline with a certain Sam Kennedy, Peter’s industrious next-door neighbor. But under the instructions of Sam’s father Tom, a minister who had grown close to Peter, Sam had to be wary of inviting over friends who might eavesdrop on Gam’s backyard GM calls.
So as the years passed, Theo Epstein was someone Peter knew in name only. Sam would tell him Theo is at Yale. Sam would tell him Theo is an intern for the Orioles. “I’d always say, ‘Keep an eye on this guy,’” Sam says. Peter would file it away in that baseball brain of his.
Sam wanted a baseball internship himself and asked Peter for advice. Peter urged him to write to every big league club, and, in the spring of ’93, Sam finally heard back from a team: Mattingly’s Yankees. The Yanks asked Sam to provide three references. “My first was Peter Gammons,” Sam says. “So that was pretty good.”
If SI made Gammons a literary star, ESPN made him a national sensation. The network, under the wise leadership of John Walsh, had entered the information age. No more tractor-pull shows or fluff. Walsh wanted to put sportswriters on SportsCenter, no matter how they looked or dressed, and if Peter was the spitting image of 19th century president Andrew Jackson, the cover of the $20 bill, so be it. Walsh hired him away from SI in 1990, the first sportswriter ESPN ever put on-air.
At first, Peter’s peers guffawed, considering Gam himself used to call local TV guys “barking dogs and frauds.” But he was paving the way for them all. That is, unless he flopped. The genius of Walsh was he understood Peter was a man of the people. So, at Peter’s first ESPN spring training, Walsh had him filmed interacting with fans. “Hey, Petuh! How the Sox gonna be, you wicked pisser?” Peter would charm them all. Once back at ESPN, Walsh shoved in a tape of the fan exchanges and told Peter, “See, that’s your job. It’s no different from people coming up and talking to you. Only now you just look in the camera and do it.”
That was the breakthrough, and in Peter’s ESPN years, he had exclusives with problem players (A-Rod and Albert Belle), elegant players (Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter) and rock stars (Johnny Ramone and Huey Lewis). President George W. Bush called him “Petey.’’ He went to Cuba with his trusty producer Julie Chrisco Andrews, saw teenagers Kendrys Morales and Yuli Gurriel and decided they were future big leaguers. Filed it away in his baseball brain.
His scout friend Billy Beane had just become the A’s GM in ’98, and Peter suggested he select lefty pitcher Mark Mulder with the second overall pick. “The first guy who told me about Mulder was Peter Gammons,’’ says Beane, who ended up drafting the kid. Fact is, Peter spent parts of every summer at the Cape Cod League and had seen Mulder pitch for the Bourne Braves in 1997. Peter was royalty at the Cape, from his home in Cataumet to his favorite gym in Mashpee, and his baseball brain had catalogued every prospect up there.
His ESPN duties included “SportsCenter,” “Baseball Tonight” and Diamond Notes for ESPN.com. “He was a volume guy, and ESPN and SportsCenter was a volume place,” Walsh says. But Peter eventually needed help, and channeling his father and Dean Smith, Peter told Walsh, “Get Tim Kurkjian.” Later he said, “Get Jayson Stark.” Later he said, “There’s this young guy who just went to the New York Times, Buster Olney.”
At around the same time, Peter set his sights on none other than Theo Epstein, who had ascended to director of player development for the Padres. During Game 3 of the ’98 Yankees-Padres World Series, Theo was in his usual post behind home plate, using a speed gun to input the velocity and pitch type up on the scoreboard. When suddenly, he says, Peter “appeared out of the ether.”
Every other writer was in the press box, but Peter was behind the batter’s box, picking Theo’s brain. He’d earlier filed Epstein’s name away in his baseball mind, and now they were finally meeting. Throughout the game, Theo was uncannily predicting which pitches Padre pitchers would throw and their locations. He saw Trevor Hoffman warm up for a save opportunity and told Peter, just from watching Hoffman’s arm speed, that Trevor was going to struggle. Sure enough, Hoffman blew the game.
From that day on, Peter kept writing about the savant Theo Epstein. Peter felt the same about Beane, whose “Moneyball” theorem was revolutionizing the sport. When the Red Sox offered Beane $12.5 million to become their GM in 2002, Beane drove to the Cape with his daughter Casey to consult with Peter. It was a brilliant, no-fog day in Cataumet, and Beane decided he could get used to New England. It’s the scene that didn’t make the “Moneyball’’ movie — Billy and Peter roaming the Cape, riffing on Jason Varitek. “Peter may be responsible a little bit for my flirtation with the Boston Red Sox,” Beane admits. “The whole ordeal: my going, not going. Peter very much was a confidant for me. He wasn’t a writer, a journalist. He was a friend.”
When Beane turned the job down for family reasons, Epstein ultimately got it, buoyed by Peter’s endless endorsements. “Peter became a huge advocate for me in the way he’s done for countless others,” Theo says. “I’m sure that he made my path smoother when I got to Boston, both as assistant GM and when I got the GM job.”
When the Red Sox broke the 86-year Curse of the Bambino in 2004, Peter probably deserved a ring. He helped create Theo. Actually, Peter was creating a lot of things, including music. Along with Horrigan in 2000, he had started the antithesis of a charity golf event — a charity rock ’n’ roll concert called “Hot Stove Cool Music” that initially featured two bands named “Thurman Munson” and “Carlton Fisk.” Through the years, Peter brought in Paul Barrere from his favorite band Little Feat, Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo and Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. “How could that be?’’ Kurkjian laughs. “He covered Eddie Murray and played with Eddie Vedder.’’
Pitcher Bronson Arroyo made his musical debut for Peter. Bernie Williams, Peter and Buddy Guy jammed on-stage together. Before long, Theo and his twin brother Paul merged their charity, “The Foundation To Be Named Later” with Hot Stove Cool Music, raising thousands to send kids to college through a platform they dubbed “Peter Gammons Scholars.”
A force of nature, Peter — who’d named his dog after Bonnie Raitt — was not only writing original music, he was releasing an album in the summer of 2006 called “Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old.” The album was legit and included self-deprecating songs such as “Bad Teeth” and “NyQuil Blues.” But the song that perhaps resonated most was a ditty about a girl who’s raised to be perfect and learns a little imperfection can go a long way.
The title: “She Fell From Heaven and Landed on Her Face.”
■ ■ ■ ■
Days before the album’s release, on June 26, 2006, that retired 76-year-old nurse Agnes Rockett-Bolduc landed from heaven, all right. Not on her face, but in the Mashpee parking lot alongside a dying stranger named —what did the driver’s license say? — Peter Gammons.
Just back from a weekend White Sox-Astros series in Chicago, he had driven solo to his favorite gym early that morning to speedread four different sports pages on the StairMaster. But, along the way, his head began to throb and pulsate in a way that disarmed him. This was beyond a headache. While he could still see straight, he pulled erratically into that Stop N’ Shop lot, parked crooked across two spaces and staggered to his backseat to lay down —never closing the door. Somehow, he thought to lay his driver’s license on his sternum. “I remember nothing about that,’’ Peter says. “It was just one of those inexplicable things that humans do.”
The closest hospital was 11 miles away in Falmouth. But once the EMTs realized in the ambulance this was a brain aneurysm, not a heart attack, an order went out for Peter to be airlifted to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Then the fates got involved again.
Dr. Arthur Day, chief of medicine at the hospital, was supposed to be playing golf that day, but was conveniently accessible because his golfing partner never showed. An utterly confident brain surgeon, Dr. Day explained to Gloria the aneurysm was a “two-percenter,” meaning Peter had a 2% chance of a clean, good-as-new recovery. The Red Sox once had a zero percent chance of ever winning a World Series before Theo arrived — so she took the 2%.
Because doctors don’t do post-surgery interviews, what happened next is chatter among Peter’s close friends such as his ESPN producer Andrews and Cape Cod buddies Keith Carroll and John Keenan. But apparently the minute Dr. Day opened Peter’s skull, the aneurysm burst. If Nurse Agnes had never fallen from heaven, if the doctor had played 18 holes, if Falmouth Hospital had not rushed an airlift, the best baseball writer of a generation would’ve been gone.
Dr. Day finished the repair, but word was it was touch and go. Doria, who was now an executive at ESPN, called Kurkjian that night to say in a hushed voice, “Tim, I need you to write Peter’s obit. Just in case.” Kurkjian, who worked at ESPN all because of Peter, fell apart. “I wrote Peter Gammons’ obituary in full tears,’’ Kurkjian says. “I mean, I was weeping as I was writing. Hardest story I’ve ever written in my life.’’
Peter wasn’t allowed any visitors at first. Bobby Orr showed up and was turned away. No one could tell Peter it was the trade deadline, for fear he’d get overexcited. Soon, Theo arrived with Sam Kennedy — who would eventually become Red Sox president — and the visit shook both of them up. Peter would talk about baseball from the ’40s, the ’90s, the ’70s, incongruent stories that made it seem the catalog in his baseball brain had been tipped over.
“Peter wasn’t Peter for those few days,” Sam says. “The file cabinets in his brain, I think, were shuffled a bit. I remember Theo and I walked back up Brookline Avenue to Fenway from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and talked about ‘Oh my God, Peter might never be the same.’”
One day, a FedEx package arrived. From Don Mattingly. Gloria opened it to find a gaudy, gargantuan rapper’s-style cross. Peter smiled, slipped it around his neck.
He wouldn’t take it off.
■ ■ ■ ■
Three months later, Peter was back. It’s miracle material, but Andrews knew he was cogent when he was recovering at Mashpee’s Rehabilitation Hospital of the Cape and Islands and spied a baseball game on the TV. “Wait a minute,” Peter asked, “when did Austin Kearns become a National?”
Andrews had to spill the beans then: “Peter, you missed the trade deadline. That’s when the Reds sent Kearns to Washington.” Ah, he said. The card catalog in his brain was firing on all cylinders. Dr. Day urged him to drive alone to Fenway for a September Red Sox-White Sox game to prove to himself he was healed. He could visit Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen, chat up Theo and Sam.
Peter was sketchy about it, but he handled the Route 128 traffic and glided into the Fens. He sat in his seats seven rows behind home plate. The Commissioner was back. In the weeks and months that followed, he returned to ESPN, ran a 5K and walked five miles a day all over the Cape wearing headphones, talking to Beane and other GMs.
Kurkjian finally confided, “You know, Peter, I wrote your obituary,” and Gam answered, “Yeah, I should read that sometime, I guess.” Eventually, he left ESPN for MLB Network because, according to Doria, Peter felt ESPN was prioritizing football. “He wasn’t incorrect in that assessment,” Doria says.
MLB Network was a more natural fit and built a studio for him on the second floor of his Cape home, overlooking the choppy water. They sent him to the 2016 World Series to see the Cubs — and new GM Theo — win their first title in 108 years. Peter’s Theo.
If Peter was upbeat before the aneurysm, he had even more of a servant’s heart now. He and Gloria never had children, but “sons” of Peter were scattered through baseball. For instance, his friend Scott Bradley, a fellow Tar Heel and the head coach at Princeton, asked him to help his former player Mike Hazen find a job. Peter had Hazen scout the Cape Cod League, and Hazen’s reports were so detailed Peter disseminated them across MLB. Cleveland hired Hazen on the spot, then Theo scooped him up in Boston. Now Hazen’s GM of the Diamondbacks.
“Peter lives his life with this incredible sense of justice,” Theo says. And does so even though there’s new injustice in his. For the past three years, Peter’s been stricken with multiple myeloma — a blood and bone disease — and needs a periodic form of chemo. “I tell people I’m like a 1995 Volvo with 160,000 miles,” Peter says. “I have to be maintained the rest of my life.”
But he still does essays for MLB Network, still writes for The Athletic, still has half a million followers on Twitter. He still thinks about returning to Carolina at age 78 to finish his journalism degree. He still defends Bill Buckner, still wears Mattingly’s cross, still is close with today’s players such as Bo Bichette, still sings Pearl Jam, still signs autographs on Andrew Jackson $20 bills, still hears, “And all of a sudden the ball was there, like the Mystic River Bridge, suspended out in the black of the morning. Petuh, you’re a wicked pisser!”
Eventually, the nurse who fell from heaven, Agnes Rockett-Bolduc, figured it out. Not from Roger Maris or Dean Smith or Bill Lee or Ted Williams or Theo. She figured it out from her husband a few months after the aneurysm. He had been chiding her for walking up to a mysterious man in an empty low-fog parking lot when the guy could’ve been a mugger.
And just as he was saying this, Peter’s picture flashed onto their TV.
“That’s him,” said Nurse Agnes.
“Peter Gammons!” her husband howled. “Thank God you stopped!’’
Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy: “A game didn’t happen until you read Gammons’ account of it.”
Former Globe Sports Editor Vince Doria: “Peter created this whole sensibility about the Calvinist winds of doubt that swept through New England about the Red Sox, sort of married the Red Sox to the roots of New England.”
The Globe’s Bob Ryan on Gammons: “He knew the quirks and oddities of the game. He found out Carney Lansford was a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake.”
The Athletic’s Jayson Stark: “I went to a Cape League game with him, and it must have been what walking through Independence Hall with Benjamin Franklin was like in like 1784. And the giveaway item of the night was a Peter Gammons baseball.”
Stark on the best baseball writer ever: “Grantland Rice is on that wall, Ring Lardner is on the wall and Red Smith is on that wall. But Peter stands up above everyone. Everyone.”
Former ESPN executive editor John Walsh: “Peter’s the bard of baseball. Boz [Thomas Boswell] the poet. Murray [Chass] the treasurer. Peter, the muse.”
Billy Beane, A’s executive: “He’s one of those guys who are sort of the center of the spoke for baseball. Certainly, in my lifetime, he’s maybe the greatest ambassador the game has had.”
Red Sox President Sam Kennedy: “Everybody says his passion is baseball, and that’s true. But when I think of Peter, his true passion is people.”
Former Globe writer Lesley Visser: “If you got to be around Peter, it was like landing in Oz and it all turns color.”
Former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo: “You hear the stories about Salvador Dalí walking into a party in New York City and the music stops. In a lot of ways, Peter has become that guy.”
Favorite song lyric: “I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on” — from Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist”
One of his least favorite Red Sox trades: Jeff Bagwell to Houston for Larry Anderson. He pulled over to the side of the road and cried.
One of his least favorite Fenway traditions: Neal Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Best auctioned item at a Hot Stove Cool Music charity event: Theo Epstein’s gorilla suit for $13,000.
Gammons on covering the Red Sox for the Boston Globe in 1970s and ’80s: “It’s almost like you’re writing a letter to someone every day in a town like that where people really care.”
Gammons on writing game stories: “In my brain, it was a long song. It was like Bob Dylan writing like a nine-minute song. Because it was easier to write in rhythm.”
Gammons on his famous MLB notes column: “I still get people who stop me and say ‘I love your Sunday column.’ I haven’t written a Sunday column since 1985. But it’s all right because I’m so flattered by that.”
Gammons on writers who’ve gone to TV: “[Tom] Verducci’s a terrific kid. I think of all the guys that have gone through the newspaper business into TV, I really think he’s pretty close to being the best, if not definitively the best.”
The Braves become independent, another MLB team is leaving Diamond Sports Group and the TNT brand enters the U.K.
SBJ I Factor presented by Allied Sports — Charles Altchek SBJ I Factor presented by Allied Sports features an interview with Charles Altchek, president of MLS Next Pro and a member of Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class of 2023. Altchek talks with SBJ’s Abe Madkour about how joining the Mets early in his career led directly to his influential position at Major League Soccer, the opportunity to work without a net when he helped launch MLS Next Pro, and how he’s handled his biggest career and management challenges. SBJ I Factor is a monthly podcast offering interviews with sports executives who have been recipients of one of the magazine’s awards, such as Forty Under 40, Game Changers and others.
Legalized sports betting is in the third inning according to Scott Warfield. The PGA Tour’s VP of Gaming says that the industry is heading in the right direction and there is plenty of opportunity. Warfield joins SBJ’s Abe Madkour and John Ourand from Orlando in this edition of SBJ Spotlight.
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