`Didn't we have some great times?'

John Steadman : 1927 - 2001

January 02, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AND SO DEATH came yesterday to John Steadman, and maybe to an era. He was our great rememberer. He went back to a time when the ballplayers seemed to come down from Olympus instead of the accountant's office, a time when the sportswriters told of broken-field runs instead of broken relationships between adoring fans and ballclubs sneaking off for sweeter financial deals.

He thought a clean conscience counted for more than anything. He saw sports as a community's great common denominator and helped create a whole era of good feeling around here, a time when the Baltimore Colts showed a city how to shake off its historic inferiority complex and the Baltimore Orioles were the best team money couldn't buy.

He believed in underdogs, and he wrote about them with passion; but he cultivated characters, and he saw the world with a twinkle in his eye. When he was sports editor of a newspaper of dear memory called the News American, he assembled a team of reporters to match anybody's: Neal Eskridge and N. P. "Swami" Clark, Clem Florio and Charlie Lamb, Jim Henneman and Chuck McGeehan, George Taylor and Bill Christine, men whose bylines became household names.

John would arrive early each morning and sit in a corner of the crowded, chaotic third-floor sports office, where he batted out six columns a week. Nobody does such a thing any more. Typewriters and wire machines clacked noisily, and a conveyor belt carried copy paper to a fourth-floor composing room where linotype operators and layout men worked and, on the side, ran a semi-profitable gambling operation.

By the time John finished writing, maybe an hour or so after he'd first sat down, the phones would be ringing, and the characters he cultivated would come marching in: the racetrack tout Mr. Diz; or Balls Maggio, the rescuer of stray balls from the Jones Falls; or street corner guys with no last names; or Tom White.

White was the paper's executive editor. He'd stroll in five or six times a day with the name of a horse written on a piece of copy paper, which he'd wrap around a couple of bucks. He'd hand it to a fellow named Walter Penkilo, bent over his typewriter, who would run the money up to the guys taking bets in the composing room. It was, as they say, a colorful place.

When the News folded almost fifteen years ago, and another newspaper of dear memory, The Evening Sun, hired John to write a sports column, he could barely believe his good fortune. He was the humblest of men. He described himself as a broken-down sportswriter and missed his own essence: the conscience of the press box, the carrier of legends, the man who looked for the heart beating behind the box scores.

Forty years ago, in the heat of the Orioles' first true pennant chase, they played the New York Yankees in the Bronx. The game was televised back to Baltimore. Late in the game, Mickey Mantle fouled a pitch behind home plate. Clint Courtney dropped it, and Mantle, given a second chance, hit the next pitch for a game-winning home run. While the rest of the town vilified poor Courtney, John had his own perspective. Imagine, he wrote the next day, poor Courtney's utter humiliation.

More than 30 years ago, in the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, while others wrote of trivial ballgames, John wrote: "It's an indictment upon us all that there was ever a division between the races." He wrote, "That we were born white was only a matter of heritage. We have never been faced with the indignities and sorrow" that black people have known. He wrote, "Now, more than ever, we must be our brother's keeper."

He broke me into the newspaper business in the summer of 1966. John was 38 then. One morning, feeling whimsical, he wore his old Navy uniform to work, wrote his column, and then headed up to the composing room to lay out the day's pages.

The city editor, Eddie Ballard, got a whim of his own. He sent a reporter out to grab a couple of cops to arrest John for impersonating a military officer. The cops went to the fourth floor, where all hell broke loose. The guys in the composing room, thinking it was a raid on their gambling operation, fell over each other running for the doors.

Once, I saw John commit an immensely brave act. At Tom White's funeral, the eulogy was delivered by a minister who didn't know Tom and said not a syllable about him. The service was about to end when John strode down the center aisle, stood by a microphone and said, "I don't think we should leave here without saying a few words about Tom White."

Twenty minutes later, having delivered a wonderful eulogy, John stood at the back of the funeral home. White's niece approached him and said, "Your eulogy was right on the money -- which is more than I could say for most of my uncle's bets."

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