Rick Hummel never aspired as a kid growing up in Quincy, Illinois, to be a baseball writer. He wasn’t even pursuing that career after graduating from the University of Missouri’s esteemed journalism school.
“It was one of the last things I thought about,” he said. “I thought it was too intimidating.”
But Hummel brushed that apprehension aside long ago, and now is in his 48th year (and 49th season) of covering the Cardinals and Major League Baseball. He is one of the most respected “ballwriters” in the history of the profession, was inducted into the writers’ portion of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 and the press box at Busch Stadium is named for him and one of his mentors, former Post-Dispatch baseball writer and sports editor Bob Broeg. The local chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America sponsors an annual internship at the Post-Dispatch, in Hummel’s name, to aspiring sports journalists at Mizzou.
And Hummel, who turned 75 in February, reaches another milestone on Saturday. It is the 50th anniversary of his first day at the Post-Dispatch.
“Hard to believe,” he said, recalling that he started pounding out his stories on a bulky typewriter — on which he often had to change the ribbon, he points out — then sending them to the office via a fax machine-like device.
“They’re like the dodo bird — both are gone now,” he said, chuckling about the days that preceded the current system of writing on easy-to-use laptops then filing stories by high-speed internet connections.
The ‘trust’ factor
Hummel has seen not only the technology, but the sports media business, undergo massive changes in his career.
The loudest voices often draw the most attention, the most critical columns get the most online clicks. But Hummel is true to his straightforward approach, chronicling what is going on without inserting a lot of hyperbole.
Bob Costas, one of the nation’s best sportscasters ever, began his career in the 1970s broadcasting games of the American Basketball Association’s Spirits of St. Louis. Hummel, who was a few years older than Costas, ended up covering the team for the Post-Dispatch in his pre-baseball beat days. The two have been friends ever since, and Costas long has appreciated Hummel’s style.
“He gets the facts, paints an accurate picture and lets the readers draw their own conclusions,” said Costas, an avid baseball follower and reader of material about the sport. “Other guys across the country who have covered a team might have more of an acerbic edge. But Rick’s advantage over time is that he is universally regarded as trustworthy. He adheres to a way that is old-school, and that has served his readers well.”
Costas talked about how important for a journalist it is to build trust, to properly handle off-the-record information.
“I’ve never heard someone say about Rick, ‘You quoted me out of context,’ or ‘that was BS,’” Costas said. “... One day at a time he built his Hall of Fame statistics. There was nothing that flashy, just solid, well-written and reported stories” for decades.
“Some guys are there to stir it up. But they don’t generally last 50 years.”
Hummel covered the Cardinals through the entire rollicking “Whiteyball” era in the 1980s, in which manager Whitey Herzog guided the team to three World Series appearances.
Herzog, who turns 90 in November, still holds Hummel in high regard.
“He and I got along great,” Herzog said. “Hummel trusted me and I trusted him. He never misquoted me or never wrote anything that wasn’t true. A lot of times, I’d make a comment on Tuesday and a writer would use that three months later (when circumstances had changed). He’d never do that.”
Both share a passion for the sport.
“I love being with people who love their job, and he certainly does,” Herzog said. “He loves the game, he’s very knowledgeable. I couldn’t have had a better beat writer for those 10 years, I was very fortunate to have him as my beat writer. If he would call, I’d return it as soon as I could. To this day, if Rick Hummel calls I call him right back.”
Hummel was tagged with the nickname “The Commish,” short for commissioner, in the ‘70s when he and some of his friends formed a league to play APBA Football, a board game. He became the commissioner of the circuit, as well as “handling an office pool or two” over the years — including an NCAA Tournament bracket that was a spring training staple before being KO’d by coronavirus protocols the last two seasons. That ended a 40-year streak.
Hummel now is known throughout baseball simply as “The Commish.”
“Baseball players think it comes from my knowledge of baseball, which is fine — no need to correct that,” Hummel said, chuckling.
Costas said the nickname is apropos and also relates to Hummel’s writing style.
“He’d be a fair judge in any case,” Costas said. “He’s never going to go off the deep end one way or the other.”
Once at Busch Stadium II, Hummel was in the press box lunch room and someone came up and loudly said, “Hey Commish, long time no see, great to see you.” Standing behind Hummel — facing the other way — was Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball. Selig turned around and said, “good to see you, too.”
Hummel said Selig has told him, “I’m the Commish everywhere except St. Louis.”
Top of the list
Hummel has reported on 35 World Series and soon is to cover his 41st consecutive All-Star Game, part of the approximately 7,000 baseball contests he has written about. But the biggest moment in his career has nothing to do with the sport.
Before getting his first Cardinals assignment, in 1973, and until he took over the beat full time in 1978, he had a variety of assignments at the Post-Dispatch. He worked the copy desk sometimes, and among his writing assignments were to cover high school and college sports, the Spirts of St. Louis team and St. Louis University hockey. He also wrote about amateur boxing, and one of the best ever to come out of that local program was Leon Spinks.
Spinks had turned pro and after winning his first six bouts was in Las Vegas in 1977 to fight, with the winner receiving a matchup with the legendary Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title.
The Post-Dispatch sent Hummel there to cover the Spinks-Righetti fight. Ali was in town for the fight, and Hummel wanted to interview him about Spinks. He went through the boxer’s handlers, with little luck. But one night he spotted Ali in a casino, made his way through the boxer’s large entourage and got close enough to ask for an interview.
Hummel got more than he sought. So much more, in fact, that he considers what unfolded that night to be the highlight of his career.
“A bunch of the group ended up on an elevator, and as it went up people were getting off on different floors,” he said. “It ended up he and I were the only ones left, and all that was left for the elevator was the penthouse level.”
They went to the boxer’s suite, and Hummel said Ali excused them from his wife so they had a private conversation. The exclusive interview, with arguably the world’s most famous person at the time, lasted nearly an hour. But Hummel’s stay in the suite was not over.
“Ali said, ‘Now that I’ve done you a favor, could you do one for me?’”
Ali had been asked to give commencement speeches at Harvard and Oxford, one of which he already had delivered but wanted an audience for what he planned to say at the other.
“Would you listen to this?” Ali asked, wanting a critique.
No, Hummel did not utter one of his trademark lines: “See ya, buster!” Instead he was regaled by the loquacious boxer.
“I was spellbound,” Hummel said. “It was nothing like you’d expect to come out of his mouth.”
No braggadocios talk, no theatrics, in fact Hummel said he did not find one thing that he would recommend to change.
“He was wonderful,” Hummel said. “He went through everything from politics, to leadership — what it takes to be a good leader — to religion. There was very little about athletics.”
It certainly was a night to remember.
While there have been countless highlights for Hummel, he also has been through tough spots.
Sports journalism can be a tough career for those trying to maintain a family life, what with its night and weekend hours in addition to a lot of traveling. Hummel found out firsthand, and the lifestyle led to late night hours in watering holes both locally — primarily the recently closed Missouri Bar and Grille — as well as regular haunts throughout the National League.
"I should have adjusted better — the adjustments were made by everyone else,” he says. “I adjusted later, but it came at a cost.”
Hummel now is married for the third time, after two divorces, and spent a lot of time away from his three children while they were growing up — something he now laments.
“There was too much partying,” he frankly says.
He finally had enough. The guy who was the life of the party, whose “spray the infield” call to the bartender meant to pour everyone a drink — on Hummel’s tab — quit drinking.
That was a generation ago, and he said he was concerned then that he’d lose touch with his drinking buddies.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Hummel recalls. “I didn’t lose any. I just don’t see them at 4 a.m. anymore.
“The one thing I’ve done, that I really have accomplished — irrespective of my family — is to stay off (alcohol). I have not had a drink in 21 years.”
He has had professional tumult, too. Hummel, who had a stint in the Army and a sportswriting job in Colorado Springs before joining the Post-Dispatch, covered his first Cardinals game in 1973. He continued to write about other sports while also serving as a backup on the baseball beat to Dick Kaegel before Kaegel was promoted to a management position early in the 1978 season.
Hummel was offered the lead job. But as was the case when he became a sportswriter, he wasn’t immediately enthralled with the idea of covering the team full time.
“I asked him to see how I liked it” for the rest of that season.
The job quickly grew on him, and he was in the main chair for 24 years. But he didn’t leave on his own terms. After the 2001 season, he was taken off the beat by what now is a previous regime at the Post-Dispatch. He was named the paper’s national baseball writer, a newly created position in which he’d report on baseball in general, not specifically the Cardinals. The news was delivered during a lunch meeting.
“I was told I’m too close to the team, as were some covering other teams, that the paper was changing beats,” Hummel recalls.
He was not happy, and asked the bosses what they were looking for from the Cardinals beat writer. When he was told, Hummel said he responded: “If you’re looking to hire somebody like that, it would be me!”
Hummel is back to where he was when he began covering baseball.
The national beat disappeared as time went by, management changed at the Post-Dispatch and Hummel returned to the Cardinals beat, in a support role — at first to Joe Strauss and now Derrick Goold.
“I’m covering about 70 games a year now, plus doing sidebars,” he said, as well as having an online presence. “I guess I’ve come full circle now. I’m the backup baseball writer.”
But he is much more than that to his colleagues, who gathered Monday at the Post-Dispatch to honor Hummel on his milestone.
“He has all of this knowledge, all of this experience and he’s willing to give it away if you seek it out,” said P-D sports columnist Ben Frederickson, who was the Post’s Hummel Intern in 2011. “Yet he never once held it above anyone’s head that I’ve seen, and that’s a remarkable thing. He has helped guide and inspire countless people at the Post-Dispatch … and all over the world who have sought him out for advice and wisdom, and he’s always been willing to offer it.”
Sports editor Roger Hensley said that when he joined the department he had some trepidation about becoming the boss of some prominent “larger than life” sportswriters and “none come much bigger than Commish Hummel.”
The mood at the celebration was both serious and light.
Hensley acknowledges he sometimes “states the obvious” in his conversations with writers about what they need to do, and recalls Hummel’s response when frustrated once: “Hey buster, I’ve been doing this for a while, you know.
“That’s about as harsh as he gets. He will do anything asked of him and busts his tail.”
Goold, the paper’s current Cardinals beat writer, cherishes his relationship with Hummel.
“For 18 years I’ve been to the right hand of the master of baseball writing,” Goold said at the function. “In those 18 years, Rick has taught me a lot, we’ve talked a lot of baseball. … Most of all he taught me how to deal with disappointing people.”
On Goold’s first trip to Wrigley Field: “I sat down (and hear), ‘I thought Commish was coming.”
Three years later in Pittsburgh: “We were hoping Commish would come.”
In Los Angeles: Before some games, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully would sit in the Post-Dispatch seat in the press box. When Goold arrives, “He’ll (sigh). ‘Was really hoping Rick was coming.’ You haven’t disappointed anyone until you’ve disappointed Vin Scully.”
Hummel wants to stay on the job through next season, which would present another full-circle situation. The All-Star Game next summer is scheduled to be played in Dodger Stadium, where in 1980 he covered his first Midsummer Classic. Then after the 2022 season he plans to be done as a full-time “ballwriter,” though he’d like to continue on a part-time basis.
He added that he appreciates his wife, Melissa, “for encouraging me to keep working as long as I want to and am productive.”
That he certainly continues to be.
“He’s still a beast” on the job, Goold said, adding Hummel has “an institutional knowledge that no one else has. He can tie what (Cardinals manager) Mike Shildt did yesterday to something Whitey Herzog did in the ’80s to something Red Schoendienst did” in the ’60s. "No one else can do that.”
Goold said Hummel’s impact is profound, fueling the “best fans in baseball” reputation St. Louis has gained.
“That comes from the fact they’ve been the best informed fans in baseball,” Goold said. “Rick Hummel is the reason why.”