Today, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions upon learning of the sudden death of my friend and mentor, Alison Gordon. Shock and tears soon followed, then the comfort of the common ground of admiration found within journalism circles began to soothe away the initial sting. Finally, came the laughter that most every anecdote about the sassy Ms. Gordon invariably brings began to remind how, if not why, she would want to be celebrated.
Alison simply brought out the best in all around her, whether through humor, wisdom or a show of defiance and grace under fire. Back then, on the first front lines of the battles to break down barriers to female sports reporters, all those attributes were needed. All those attributes were found in that one dynamo known as Alison Gordon.
With her death Thursday, at age 72, we were reminded of just how important a pioneer and barrier-breaker was the legendary reporter for the Toronto Star.
Now, as a wrote for ESPNW.com, I am often referred to as a pioneer. While flattering, I know that I was in the second wave, and that I benefited mightily from those braver souls who went before me, journalists like Alison. The daughter of a Canadian diplomat and someone who called the world her playground as a child, Alison was built to be bold, to make a statement. She was a natural to follow her heart, no matter how rough the road, in the proud tradition of press box pioneers Melissa Ludtke, Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy.
"To me she is a treasured friend and a great comrade at a time when I needed both," said Ludtke, the-then Sports Illustrated reporter who sued the New York Yankees for access in 1977, and won the landmark decision a year later, opening doors for all women reporters on the professional level. "She was funny and fierce and a damn talented writer and reporter who wanted nothing more than to do her job of reporting on Major League Baseball for the Toronto Star."
I don’t have to list an endless number of "firsts" rather than accomplishments on my resume, thanks to Alison. their resumes. Because Alison, like Melissa before her, took care of some pretty big ones for the franchise.
Photo: David Cooper, Toronto Star
Who was the first woman to cover a Major League Baseball team, full-time? Alison, when she took over the Toronto Blue Jays beat-writing duties for The Star in 1979.
Who was the first woman accepted into the Baseball Writers Association of America, as old and established an Old Boys’ Network as there was back in the day? Alison. She walked through that once fiercely manned virtual drawbridge marked BBWAA just as boldly as she had every press box that was adorned with signs reading "No Women Allowed.” And, when and if she faced push-back, she usually disarmed with well-turned witticism or a laugh, showing those more "prone to be horrified" not to ever take themselves, or the troglodytes, so seriously.
Humor was her hidden strength, the art of writing her sword. A noted humorist before moving to the baseball beat, Alison became an accomplished fiction writer after leaving sports. Who could not see the witty, mischievous author in Kate Henry, the reporter/sleuth and heroine of Alison's baseball-themed murder mysteries? One could sense there was twinkle in her eyes even as she named her novels -- "Dead Pull Hitter," "Safe at Home." Brilliant!
It was that human touch that made the litany of achievements but a small part of Alison's story. Toronto was a safe harbor because of Alison, the person, Alison, the friend, Alison, the mentor. Her razor-sharp wit taught me so much, especially how to shrug off the louts with a "didn't land a punch” attitude. Our conversations were not pity parties, but wonderful opportunities to compare notes, laugh at the insanity of certain portions of certain clubhouses. And behind the humor was an immense resolve. And when she did not cave or sink to the level of those who tried to torment her, she made all of her peers proud.
"I saw how a certain Detroit Tiger treated her and lost respect for him for life," said Mike Downey, formerly a columnist for many a newspaper, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Detroit Free-Press. "Alison had all the class he lacked."
Those Alison covered saw the depth of character and strength, as well.
"She was relentless," former Blue Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby told the Toronto Star. "A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure."
Moseby told the Star there was a core group of players that always resisted. Such could be said of every team in the early days. Back then, though, demonstrating your disdain of women was tolerated, if not encouraged, by certain franchises. So, yes, it could be so lonely, and frightening, at times, because the possibility of physical threat often seemed barely contained by the angry, ugly words that were often spewed in your direction.
"We had four or five guys that really rallied around not letting her in the clubhouse, but I don't think Alison gave a damn, to tell you the truth," Moseby told The Star. "She could have very easily taken the words that a lot of guys said and took it to heart and went back to her bosses and said, 'I'm not doing this. I don't get paid to take abuse.' But she never did. She kept showing up. And it was amazing, really. I'm just proud to have known Alison."
I join Moseby in that sentiment. Countless journalists are doing the same today, as well.
"I just remember being so happy when the Blue Jays came to Yankee Stadium; her energy was infectious and just having her there made my step a bit lighter," said Ludtke.
Even after leaving the beat after five seasons, Alison still could rock the SkyDome, and the sports world. For it was her view from the seats that led to the eye-witness account of a couple having sex behind the wide-open windows of the SkyDome Hotel, which overlooked the Blue Jays' outfield.
"He was corpulent, hairy and nude," Alison famously recounted in The Star in 1990. "She was blonde, buxom and wrapped non-too-securely in a towel. They were both old enough to know better than to sit in arm chairs pulled up to the window.”
Not only did she land on Page One, the next day, but in headlines around the world. Priceless!
So, thank you, Alison Gordon. Thanks for the laughs, thanks for lighting the way. The torch you helped kindle shall never dim as long as reporters of all stripes smile at the barriers while kicking them down.