Humanity, humor, heart mark life of Steadman

June 11, 2000|By Michael Olesker

ON THE DAY they opened the doors of the brand-new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, John Steadman had a plan. He hired a man with a small airplane to fly over the first Opening Day crowd. The plane would trail a banner behind it. The banner would declare, "The Babe Says Hi."

The idea was scratched by the U.S. Secret Service. The president of the United States was attending that day, so no planes were allowed over the ballpark. But the notion was vintage Steadman. Babe Ruth grew up here. He lived on a street that was now short center field. John only wanted to remind people, in the Steadman manner that blends earnestness with a twinkle in the eye: We have a history here.

And, lest we forget, it involves laughter, and games in the sun, as well as a connection to figures of considerable reverence.

The other day, a new book of Steadman newspaper columns arrived. It is called "Days In The Sun." It is full of reverence, and fun, and wonderful stories linking yesterdays with today.

On its cover is a picture of Steadman, looking as though someone has just told him the most hilarious story. Naturally, he will share it with the immediate world. For most of his 52-year newspaper career, he wrote 300 columns a year. Nobody does such a thing any more. John Steadman, somebody once said, is the last of the eternal verities.

He has always called himself a broken-down newspaperman. He said this the other night, when a few hundred people gathered, in the warehouse offices at Oriole Park, ostensibly to celebrate his new book. This was a fraud. We were there to celebrate John Steadman. It is no secret that he is fighting cancer. But the place was filled with people cheering him on, and assuring him of better days to come.

"I'm glad the new book is out," Brooks Robinson told the big gathering, "but I'm looking forward to John's next one, and the one after that."

"I don't know why anybody's feeling down," John Unitas added. "My man's not going anywhere."

Others were there just to throw their arms around Steadman and tell him how they love him: Lenny Moore and Jim Mutscheller, Jim Parker and Artie Donovan, and Peter Angelos, and old friends such as Lou Sleater and Lou Grasmick and George Young and Vince Bagli, and hundreds more.

In the days when Steadman was sports editor of the News American, he put together a staff of writers to rival any paper in the country's: Neal Eskridge and N. P. "Swami" Clark, Clem Florio and Charlie Lamb, Jim Henneman and Chuck McGeehan, Walter Taylor and Bill Christine, men whose bylines became household names.

John wrote the lead column, and Eskridge the off lead.

"Neal writes from the head, and I write from the heart," John said. He was partly right. John's always had a soft spot for those down on their luck, and a sentimental streak a mile wide. But he's been tough on those such as Irsay and Rosenbloom when they had it coming. And his instinct, always, is to reach for the glad moment, the joy, and the snapshot that reminds us of our common humanity.

In the first season of glory of the Baltimore Colts, they stunned the powerful Chicago Bears, 51-38, on a Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. In his Sunday morning column, Steadman wrote, "Through the tunnel and into the dressing room. Outside, 52,622 enthralled spectators looked at each other and shook their heads in disbelief. This had been the Baltimore Colts' finest hour. Their greatest game. Their most important victory."

And then, in a couple of paragraphs, in the bedlam of that locker room, he got to the stuff that counted.

"Above all the pandemonium," he wrote, "came a voice. It simply said, `How 'bout the prayer?' Like the snap of a finger, like the throwing of a switch -- the scene became quiet instantly. Thirty-five professional football players dropped to their knees. They were Baltimore Colts."

He was reminding us of a common Steadman theme: the brotherhood of man, the human beings behind the box scores and the blocked punts.

And, always, he's had that sense of fun. Years ago, John lived in Towson, on Brook Road. Obviously, this would never do. The Orioles had a third baseman of some renown. One morning, accompanied by a newspaper photographer to record the event for posterity, John climbed a ladder and hammered an "s" on the name of Brook Road.

Another time, he showed up at work in bird-watching gear. He said he was in search of the real Baltimore Oriole. Another time, he wore his old Navy uniform to work. Why not? It felt like a good idea at the time. Sometimes, you go with an instinct.

He is the most self-effacing of men. A dozen years ago, when the News American folded, John seemed not only grateful but almost surprised that this newspaper would want to hire him. He's missed some of his own essence. He is not the broken-down sportswriter of self-description. For a half-century, he is one of the great people of conscience in sports. He is our teller of stories. They come off ball fields, and out of locker rooms, but mainly out of the human heart. The heart is John Steadman's, which is transcendent.

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