A Baltimore legend, champion of underdogs

Sportswriter: A man of grace and humor, he told the stories of the greats and the little guys of Maryland sports for more than a half-century.

John Steadman : 1927 - 2001

January 02, 2001|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

John Steadman, who chronicled the Maryland sports scene in his newspaper columns, books and commentaries in a career that spanned seven decades, died of cancer yesterday at a Towson hospice. He was 73.

A one-time minor-league baseball player, Mr. Steadman rose to the top of his craft and won election to the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame last year. With a bent for the offbeat and a passion for the past, he fleshed out the seminal figures in sports, both celebrated and obscure, enlightening readers of Baltimore newspapers for more than a half-century.

"It's the men and women in sports who interest me rather than the games they play," he once said.

Mr. Steadman's forte was re-creating historical flash points; some of his reminiscences read like Norman Rockwell paintings.

"I loved John's columns," said William K. Marimow, editor of The Sun. "I loved it when he wrote of Larry Kelley of the 1936 Yale football team or Jimmie Foxx, the great Maryland native," and baseball Hall of Famer. "He wrote history with such precision and complete recall that it really brought those people to life."

Mr. Steadman's prose -- he championed the underdog -- mirrored his own temperament, said Mr. Marimow: "As careful and meticulous as he was with his columns, John was the same way with relationships -- a very thoughtful, compassionate person."

A Baltimore native, Mr. Steadman grew up in Govans, the son of the city's deputy fire chief. He played football on vacant lots, swam in Guilford Reservoir and sneaked into baseball games through loose boards at old Oriole Park.

Those Tom Sawyeresque memories remained with him for life. Years later, he wrote of the tricks of boyhood sledding around Baltimore and "hopping on the rear extension of an automobile bumper and getting pulled up the 41st Street hill. Sometimes you'd go for miles -- until your arms got tired or you ran out of snow on the highway and then the runners of the sled made sparks and the grinding noise made the driver alert that he had trailers he didn't know about."

Mr. Steadman was 13 when his father was stricken by a heart attack at Fire Department headquarters. John Francis Steadman, 49, died en route to Mercy Hospital, leaving his wife, Mary, and three young children -- John, the eldest, Thomas and Betty.

Mr. Steadman graduated from City College, where he lettered in baseball, football and basketball and wrote for the school newspaper. Signed as a catcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he spent one season in the minors and hit .125 before swapping his bat for a pencil.

A trusted newsman

In 1945, the Baltimore News-Post hired Mr. Steadman as a $14-a-week reporter. For much of the next 55 years, he would attract a marble-step readership loyal to his straightforward style, the cavalcade of characters who paraded regularly through his columns and Mr. Steadman's unflagging obstinacy on issues close to his heart.

Like the selection of a name for a new ballpark.

"When John got on your case, he drove you to the wall and never let up," said Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, recalling the flap over the naming of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1991. Mr. Schaefer, who was governor at the time, said that Mr. Steadman relentlessly "bugged me about calling it Babe Ruth Stadium. He campaigned for it and got very mad when I said I couldn't do it."

Woe to anyone who crossed Mr. Steadman, said Mr. Schaefer: "His eyebrows could be piercing."

Mr. Steadman established his reputation early on. In 1952, he scooped the country with a story on Baltimore's return to the National Football League -- a piece that earned him a $25 bonus. The money went for a beer-and-shrimp bash for the News' sports department.

"John had a thousand sources. He could find out stuff that no one else knew," said Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' Hall of Fame third baseman. "He wouldn't ask you a thousand questions, either; people volunteered information to him."

His sources trusted Mr. Steadman no end.

"John is the one newsman I've never been concerned about talking to," said John Unitas, the Colts' Hall of Fame quarterback. "If you told him something off the record, he'd keep it to himself. There aren't too many [reporters] you can say that about."

Gino Marchetti, the Colts' Hall of Fame defensive end, called Mr. Steadman "the only Baltimore newsman that I really, really trusted. He was morally sound; he never crossed the line."

`Ripken before Ripken'

Mr. Steadman shadowed the Colts from their first scrimmage in 1947. That year his iron man streak began -- he attended every pro football game played by not only the Colts, but also the Ravens. Up until Dec. 10, he covered 719 games in a row. He was one of only eight reporters in the country to attend all 34 Super Bowls.

Toward the end of his streak, Mr. Steadman sometimes sat in the press box in a wheelchair.

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