A Visit with Boston Globe Sports Columnist Bob Ryan

Written by Bill Higgins | Photography by Derrick Zellmann

Bob Ryan celebrated his 72nd birthday in February, but only a full head of silvery white hair is evidence of his chronological clock. He officially retired in 2012 from The Boston Globe, where he resided for 45 years as a defining voice of New England sports.

Ryan, however, isn’t the retiring type, so you won’t find him idling leisurely in a rocker at his home in Hingham. In his final submission as a full-time columnist for the Globe on August 12, 2012, from the Summer Olympics in London, he wrote: “Let’s not call it retirement. I choose to call it Transition to Phase Two…I’ve covered the events I wanted to cover…I am fulfilled. My goal is to gain personal life flexibility and to eliminate obligation. I want to do what I want to do and not do what I don’t want to do. And my wife of 43 years, the former Elaine Murray, is the perfect companion with whom to do or not do whatever it is we’re going to do or not do.”

“See me in a year or so,” Ryan concluded. “I’ll let you know how it’s working out.”

We visited with Ryan at his 19th-century house and found him as energetic as he seemingly was the day he arrived at the Globe as a summer intern in 1968. He bounced from his chair to show off a landscape painting by accomplished artist Tommy Heinsohn—yes, the former Boston Celtics star and NBA Hall of Famer—and then a prized collection of books on music. “If sports is my No. 1 passion, then music is a 1A,” says Ryan. “I can’t imagine a day without music.”

Ryan’s home office, chock full of memorabilia, resembles a museum.

His interests run the gamut from Broadway show tunes, to Sinatra, to the Beatles. “From the time I was 6 or 7, we always had music in the house. When I was 10, for Christmas in 1956, I got a record player. The next day I took my blue Schwinn bike and rode to the store. My first purchase was ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ by Jerry Lee Lewis.” These days jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli is a favorite.

Ryan also enjoys movies. “Casablanca” tops his all-time list. However, it was sports writing for the Globe that took him around the country and the world. He covered 11 Olympics, 29 college basketball Final Fours, World Series, Super Bowls, NHL Stanley Cups, college football bowl games, golf, boxing, Triple Crown horse races and even a dog show. Still, he always returned to Hingham, where he has lived since 1973. (A $20 traveler’s cheque was the down payment on his first house on Sycamore Lane.)

He continues to write columns for the Globe, usually weekly; he makes regular TV appearances on ESPN and other Boston stations; he’s a guest on several radio shows and, as a sign of the times, has developed his own podcast and is a contributor to “The Sports Reporters” podcast. So, six years into his so-called “retirement,” how’s it working out? “It’s been going along very nicely,” Ryan reports. “I’m good busy right now and I don’t want to be any busier.”

He often begins his day with the morning newspapers from Hennessy News. He reads six papers: always in print, never on the Internet. “I don’t acknowledge that as a viable way to absorb information,” he says. He might then stop by Redeye Coffee Roasters. He also enjoys The Snug Irish Pub in Hingham Square and Stars on Hingham Harbor.

But he is most comfortable at home and in his downstairs office, which resembles a museum, albeit cluttered. There’s a seat from the old Boston Garden mounted on original parquet flooring; a large bookcase—chock full and sprinkled with memorabilia—covers a wall; file cabinets are stuffed with old magazines and newspapers; his desk is overflowing; there are posters (one of Babe Ruth, his favorite athlete); and photographs, many with media credentials hanging from the frames.

Ryan made his reputation chronicling the Celtics and the NBA, but baseball is his first love. “Basketball made my career, but if you asked the 23-year-old me, you have a choice between basketball and baseball, I would have said baseball. It’s still the best game.” For 40-plus years Ryan has kept score at every game he has attended, as a reporter or a fan. “It keeps you more engaged. There are always little tidbits and quirky things that make baseball baseball. I never leave home in the spring without a scorebook. You never know when a ball game is going to break out,” he smiles.

Ryan in an old Boston Garden chair.

Ryan has written 12 books, among them biographies with Celtics Hall of Famers Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy, and most recently his own best seller, “Scribe, My Life in Sports.” But he isn’t close to a final chapter and the enthusiasm instilled in him by his father as a young boy growing up in the 1950s in Trenton, New Jersey, hasn’t diminished. “I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t going to a game. I was always involved with sports. That was A, and B was I loved to read.”

When he was 11 he created “The Sportster,” a one-page column with a circulation of one. He wrote about his exploits in a church basketball league. That humble beginning planted the seed. After graduating from Boston College, and a year after his Globe internship, Ryan joined the staff and was assigned to the Celtics beat in 1969.

Bill Russell had retired after winning 11 titles in 13 years, but soon Dave Cowens arrived, and together with Havlicek, a new Celtics run of championships began. After a lull, the Bird era began and produced three titles. Another NBA banner went to the Garden rafters in 2008. Ryan was there for them all. “Bird’s the best player I ever covered and Havlicek’s right there,” says Ryan. “Cowens was the most intriguing. He was intellectually curious without being an intellectual, totally uninhibited.”

And of Russell, he doesn’t equivocate: “The greatest winner in the history of North American sport. There’s no second place.”

The arc of Ryan’s career in Boston gave him a front row seat to title-winning teams in basketball, baseball, football and hockey. The final piece was the Bruins’ Stanley Cup in 2011. “They hadn’t won anything since 1972. I wasn’t considered a hockey guy, but I enjoyed the hell out of it,” he says. “I knew I was near the end. I’m grateful I was still relevant. It was a nice bonus.”

Of the Patriots, he says: “They were a joke of a franchise, trust me, but then Belichick and Brady came along.” Ryan’s top football moment was the Pats tuck rule playoff game in 2002 in the snow against Oakland, and Vinatieri’s two kicks. “So much drama. That started it all.”

And, of course, he was there when the Red Sox triumphed in 2004, ending decades of futility. Among his best memories are Games 4 and 5 in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. The Sox were down 0-3 and facing elimination. “It was 11 hours-plus of baseball and both games ended on the same day. Big Papi (David Ortiz) won them both, a home run in Game 4 (in the 12th inning after midnight) and the single in Game 5 (in the 14th inning). That got the Sox back in the series, and we know what happened. As a student of history (his major at Boston College), yeah, that was pretty special.”

The games continue and so, too, does Bob Ryan, now on the threshold of 50 years as a voice of sports. “I’m a transplant and I never made any secret that I wasn’t from here, but no one in the business was more of a fan, and my passion was a perfect for match for Boston. It’s been a great marriage. I don’t think anyone could have had more fun.”

Ryan made his reputation chronicling the Celtics and the NBA, but baseball is his first love.

For all his treasure trove of tchotchkes, trinkets and collectibles, Ryan says there are four he cherishes. “You mean, the proverbial question, if the house was burning down, what would I save?”

1. A photo of Ryan with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, taken in Monte Carlo in 1992 before the first game of the U.S. Olympic Dream Team.

2. A special-edition copy of John Updike’s famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” on Ted Williams’ final game with the Red Sox. It’s inscribed “For Bob Ryan, from an admirer, John Updike.”

3. Red Auerbach’s 1952 book “Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach,” autographed and preserved in a plastic Baggie.

4. Ryan’s scorebook from Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs. It’s autographed by Jackson, who added “Mr. October.”

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