John Harper knows baseball

John Harper knows baseball

Go into the New York Daily News site and look for sportswriter John Harper ’77. You’ll learn he has been the baseball columnist there since 1994 and has published more than 5000 articles. And in his spare time, he’s co-written five books, including a biography of Yankee pitching great Mel Stottlemyre.

Go into the studios of the Mets-owned SNY Network in midtown Manhattan and you’ll learn John Harper also does TV, once a week, sharing banter and opinions with show host Jonas Schwartz and others on Daily News Live. Way too modest to talk up his star turns, Harper nonetheless looks the part, handsome and genial at a young 60.

So how did all this start?

“At UB!” he smiles. “Well, actually, I played baseball since back when my dad coached us in Little League, but UB recruited me out of Parsippany High School and gave me a scholarship. I played second base and some shortstop.”

He did well enough to make All-New England his senior year, and after graduation in 1977, he went on to play for the Raybestos Cardinals, one of the elite semipro fast-pitch softball teams of the day. It was a (short) stint that brought travel and appreciative fans, and he loves the memories.

“But I knew the Yankees weren’t about to come looking to hire me. I used to -wander around the UB campus wondering what else I could do with my life besides play sports. I decided I might be able to write about them so I majored in journalism.”

And write he did. Harper landed an internship, which stretched into a ten-year stay at the Morristown Daily Record, covering everything from high school games to Super Bowls. He regularly made his way to New York City to interview big-time pros and learned that “if I asked dumb questions or got the facts wrong, these guys would be in your face.”

Sports reporting is actually pretty brutal. Not just because of the facts, scores, stats, and stories you have to get right, but try covering games in real time with 50,000 people in a stadium. And making deadline.

“You do learn to focus and write fast,” says Harper. “Your writing comes under tremendous scrutiny because people are so passionate about sports, especially the fans. You can’t fake it with New York fans.”

And then of course there’s the competition, all those other journalists in press boxes and locker rooms. There’s a natural camaraderie, but make no mistake. Everybody is looking for his or her own scoops.

The best of these reporters become true specialists and sometimes columnists, and that turned out to be Harper’s story. He managed so well that the NY Post came calling in 1988 and made him the Yankees columnist. Then five years later the Daily News stole him away, adding the Mets to his assignment.

Along the way he’s found time to pair up with pals like longtime Boston sportswriter Tony Massarotti and produce books, also on deadline. Their A Tale of Two Cities: the 2004 Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry and the War for the Pennant was written and published almost as soon as that baseball drama had ended.

Harper, who has racked up years of on-the-job travel, credits his wife Liz for the steadying influence of a happy home life. They met in high school, and they’re still in Jersey where they raised two sons and Liz established herself as a successful realtor. Harper is delighted that as a family they’ve been able to share many adventures related to, no surprise, big sports events.

His favorite professional memory? That goes way back. Game 6 of the ’86 World Series, the Mets’ comeback in the 10th inning after two outs to beat the Red Sox. Harper recounted the story in 2013 to the Connecticut Post:

“It was nightmarish from a work standpoint, having to rewrite instantly to make deadline, but it was about as dramatic as it gets, and historic as well. I’ll never forget the noise of the crowd and the emotion of the players on both sides afterward.”

He may indeed never forget that one but there’s more to come. The very busy John Harper, shaped early on by the spirit of UB sports, is still adding to his very full memory bank.