What’s In a Name?

Why Pocket honors a sports writer

By R.E. Graswich
November 2020

Everybody makes mistakes, including local governments when they give names to parks, schools and streets. Sometimes those mistakes get fixed. Jedediah Smith Elementary School south of Broadway became Leataata Floyd Elementary in 2012. Smith, an early 19th century frontiersman and slave owner, was scrubbed for a neighborhood volunteer.

Sometimes they get it right the first time. Pocket is home to a 21-acre park called the Bill Conlin Youth Sports Complex, filled with soccer and baseball fields, picnic areas, the Lynn Robie dog park and a new playground that opened this summer. The sports complex is a fine tribute to a legend of Sacramento journalism.

Bill Conlin spent 60 years reporting, writing, editing and enlightening for two Sacramento daily newspapers, the Bee and Union. He died from cancer in 1997 at 84.

Conlin was best known for sports columns and friendships with legends such as Joe DiMaggio, Al Davis and Charles Finley. But his columns covered more than personalities. He dug deep into the business of sports. He questioned motives and impact. “Always check ticket sales and parking receipts,” he told me.

In the 1960s, Conlin served as news editor of the Union. Under his leadership, the Union nearly caught the Bee in a circulation war that defined a swashbuckling journalism era unimaginable today.

Competition between the two local newspapers was relentless. Smaller than the Bee and poorly financed, the Union hunted for scoops. When the newsroom heard complaints of Sacramento Police beating up and robbing vagrants and drunks, a Union reporter volunteered to test whether the allegations were true.

Conlin was not inclined to let a reporter make himself a police victim. Conlin knew the journalist risked serious injury. But the reporter insisted. He headed Downtown with a wallet full of cash, drank heavily at several bars and encountered the cops. Taken to the old Hall of Justice on Sixth Street, he was shoved into an elevator, relieved of his wallet, beaten and thrown into a cell.

The Union had its scoop—a story that shocked readers and forced authorities to address police brutality and thievery against the city’s most helpless. The reporter won acclaim and a nickname: “Bird,” short for jailbird.

Bill Conlin saw no humor in the affair. He moved back to sports, immersing himself in baseball, football, boxing and horse races. In 1976, he was named sports editor of the Bee. To the end of his life, he wept when telling the story of Bird’s courage.

Here’s how the park was named for Conlin: The idea originated with Jean Runyon, the most influential public relations person in town. Soon after Bill’s death, Jean asked me to help memorialize our friend. Bill was my mentor. I instantly agreed. I worked for the Bee then, but the Bee had lost interest in Conlin. Fortunately, City Councilmember Robbie Waters admired Bill’s legacy. He agreed to support the project.

The big hurdle was finding a park that wasn’t already named. There was a new, expansive, unnamed park in Waters’ district, a South Pocket site near Interstate 5 planned for soccer, baseball fields, playgrounds and picnic areas. Conlin wasn’t from Pocket—he lived in Land Park—but Waters believed the new park on Freeport Boulevard presented a fine way to honor an iconic Sacramento newspaperman.

We created a campaign to highlight Conlin’s unmatched journalistic accomplishments. I made presentations at Parks Commission and City Council meetings. The “yes” votes were unanimous. We raised money for signage to honor Bill and help with park development.

Jean Runyon died in 2009 at 82. The Little Theater at Memorial Auditorium is named for her. Robbie Waters died this July from coronavirus at 84. His name lives on at the Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven Library. Also this summer, Bill’s son, William Conlin III, died from cancer at 68.

Years pass and people die and names become blurs, even names on parks, schools and streets. It’s nice to know some names are worth remembering for good reasons.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@iclould.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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