A veteran sports columnist meets—and shrugs off—Internet outrage

Corky Simpson is seventy years old. As if to prove it, he refers to himself as “a stubborn old mule” and uses words like “whippersnappers.”

Simpson uses other words, too, though: a veteran sports journalist, he is known for the kind of colorful, evocative writing that the best sportswriters produce, writing that, in 1988, led him to be named the AP’s Sportswriter of the Year. Simpson’s name is so well known—especially around his current home of Arizona—that the headlines of the columns he wrote, until recently, for the Tucson Citizen were preceded by only his first name. (E.g., “Corky: Olson’s woes will play out in the spotlight”; “Corky: Tucson High marks 100 years of sports glory.”) Retired as of 2006, Simpson writes a weekly column for the News and Sun of Green Valley, a small retirement community in southern Arizona.

Corky Simpson is also a voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which each year decides the new crop of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In a recent column, Simpson published his list of the players he’s voting to the HOF. The list included such players as Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, and Don Mattingly. It did not, however, include Rickey Henderson, baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored—the guy whose “numerous accomplishments,” SI.com declared in December, “should make him an overwhelming choice for the Hall of Fame next month.” (“Somebody asked me did I think Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer,” baseball statistician Bill James said back in 2001. “I told them, ‘If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.’”)

Well, enter the Outrage. Many baseball fans—who found their way to Simpson’s column via links on ESPN, Deadspin, The Big Lead, and other sports blogs—were (choose your adjective) shocked/appalled/indignant/just-plain-pissed at Simpson’s omission of Henderson from his list of eight picks. (BBWAA voters are allowed to choose up to ten.)

And, this being the Web and all, those fans made their anger known. Here’s Richie Rich of Home Run Derby (motto: “Not nearly as Yuppie as other baseball sites”):

I’m really struggling to understand how an Award-Winning writer like Corky Simpson leaves Rickey Henderson off his ballot. Did Simpson think Henderson was too cocky and didn’t show enough “reverence for the sport?” Did he not realize he was on the ballot? Does he think no one should be voted in unanimously?

Either way … it deserves an explanation. Our efforts to contact Mr. Simpson have been unsuccessful.

Or could it all just be a big publicity stunt. Nothing draws attention like leaving a sure-fire Hall of Famer off your ballot.

HRD’s assumption of nefarious commercial/PR motives for Simpson’s omission is, it turns out, generous. Because the consensus among most sports bloggers who addressed Simpson’s column was that the award-winning journalist must be stupid. Or lazy. Or forgetful. Or full-on senile. Here’s Deadspin’s Rick Chandler:

Time to end this farce, OK? How do you look at a Hall of Fame ballot and not vote for Willie Mays? If you’re doing that, your so-called career needs a laugh track. Of course, dementia could be an issue: Simpson is retired, and writes a weekly column for the Green Valley News and Sun, which serves a retirement community in Arizona. Their lead photo on the front page today is a kid with a chicken on his head (this is true).

The Web site of the paper in question, the News and Sun—which gets an average of 1,500 to 1,800 hits a day, its lifestyle editor, Regina Ford, told me (Simpson’s column alone, as of yesterday morning, had gotten 7,200)—bore the brunt of the baseball blogosphere’s vitriol. To wit, a small sampling of the comments left for Simpson:

Reeds Johnson wrote on Jan 2, 2009 1:29 PM:

” Are you stupid or just senile?

Rickey Henderson is the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game and one of the 20 most valuable players…EVER. ”

KillThCork wrote on Jan 6, 2009 2:20 AM:

” Where is Rickey?

This writer is a joke. Old people should not be allowed to vote for the HOF. ”

Jeff W wrote on Jan 6, 2009 8:16 AM:

” What in the h___ is wrong with someone for them not to think Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Famer? ”

John wrote on Jan 7, 2009 8:44 AM:

” You are a disgrace to Journalism as well as Baseball. This is an obvious attempt to draw attention by omitting Henderson. ”

paj wrote on Jan 7, 2009 9:01 AM:

” Who are you Corky Simpson? Do you know ANYTHING about baseball? Your exclusion of Rickey Henderson is indefensible and frankly embarassing for you. ”

wamski wrote on Jan 7, 2009 9:08 AM:

” Are you kidding me? This guy should NOT be voting for the Hall of Fame. He is a joke. ”

Dave wrote on Jan 7, 2009 9:09 AM:

” Morons like this should have their votes taken away. “

There’s much more in this vein. (One of the more eloquent, from a commenter who dubbed him/herself “SimpsonSucks”: “Cork is a dork.”)

So…what’s it like to see your vote—and a column whose traditional audience is generally limited to retirees—met with such Web-based outrage?

Not so bad, actually. “It doesn’t bother me,” Simpson told me, “because, one, I’m too old, and my skin is too thick, and I’m a stubborn old mule from Missouri.”

And also because Simpson simply doesn’t spend much time on the Web, he says, so is pretty much immune to the heated rhetoric that often permeates its (virtually anonymous) conversations. “I think of the literature on the Internet in the same way that I think of the literature on the walls of public bathrooms,” Simpson says. “With the exception that the literature on the walls of public bathrooms is a little higher class.”

Simpson readily admits that the Henderson omission was an oversight (but: not a snub!). “I picked eight guys,” he says. “My mistake is that I could’ve picked two more, and I didn’t. And had I really used my brain, I would’ve picked two more guys, and I would’ve put Rickey Henderson on there for sure.”

Still, though, Simpson thinks, the anger directed at him is ridiculous. He’s just one guy, he says—his vote isn’t going to keep Henderson out of the HOF, so why make such a big deal about it? “No one in the history of baseball has ever gotten into the Hall of Fame on a unanimous vote,” he notes. “I mean, we’re talking about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson—nobody. And if anyone out there thinks that Rickey Henderson can carry one of those guys’ shoes, he’s crazy.”

And he laughs off charges that the Henderson omission was a publicity stunt. “You couldn’t possibly sit down and say, ‘How could this ballot be controversial?’” Simpson says. His Rickey-less slate was a simple slip-up, nothing more. And the attempts to read more into it—publicity, senility, whatever—only validate, as far as Simpson is concerned, his take on the Web: “The Internet is like a sewer. It’s very necessary, but you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time there.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.