A trusted conscience passes, leaving a void no one can fill

John Steadman : 1927 - 2001

January 02, 2001|By John Eisenberg

BALTIMORE WITHOUT John Steadman isn't as proud and passionate, isn't as distinguished and distinctive, isn't as special and ever thus.

Baltimore without John Steadman is a city that has lost a trusted conscience it can't replace.

Baltimore without John Steadman is, well, hard to imagine.

He spent a half-century writing gracefully, objectively and powerfully about sports on the pages of the News-Post, the News American, The Evening Sun and The Sun, his career spanning the entirety of Baltimore's modern era as a major-league sports town. He saw it all and knew it all, from Marchetti to Modell, from Richards to Ripken, from old Oriole Park to PSINet Stadium. There wasn't a moment he didn't observe, a personality he didn't analyze, a development he didn't interpret - all with a set of clear-eyed sensibilities that set him apart.

He died here early yesterday after spending his whole life in Baltimore and batting cancer for the past two years with a tenacity few will match, touching so many lives and leaving such an indelible mark along the way that you almost can't say much about him now that people don't already know. But for those who don't know, and also for those who do, on this day of all days, it belongs in print, for the record, so no one can forget what a fine example he set in his job and his life.

Seldom does a newspaperman rise above the daily muddle and become a landmark, but Steadman did. No business was done, no issue settled, no image finalized until he had weighed in. For 40 years, what he thought about sports in Baltimore mattered more than what anyone else thought.

He earned that respect the right way, by being real in print, by never talking down to his audience, by approaching issues with an open mind, by using his instincts and intellect to work his sources and form his opinions and, finally, by battling from his side of the fence with a fierceness that never abated.

Yet as fierce and emotional as he was, even as he grew older and became ill, he was always the gentleman, always ready with a smile, an ear, a generous hand.

John Steadman made you proud to be in the newspaper business. If only the rest of us could handle the job so deftly.

I wouldn't dare cast myself as having spent a long life with him; we formed a bond relatively late in his life, after I joined The Sun in the '80s and we started covering the same ballgames and such events as the Super Bowl and the Masters. We shared a computer in the office and we'd both jogged, followed country music and been humbled by the cruelest game, golf. We talked for hours about sports and people, the past and the present. He was the best of the best as company, original and opinionated, a listener and a peerless storyteller.

Those who thought he was lost in the past had it all wrong. He treasured the old days, sure, but he was still modern and sharp and knowing. He could cut through the nonsense in sports today, differentiate between the phonies and the real deals. And he could still dig up a scoop. He was the one who knew first that Pat Gillick was coming to work for the Orioles five years ago and that maybe pro football's return finally was brewing.

When the latter became a reality, it didn't bother Art Modell so much that the young, wiseacre columnists in town ripped him for pulling the Browns out of Cleveland - he almost expected that. But when Steadman, a heavyweight, ripped him, that cut to the bone.

The column spoke volumes about Steadman. He held others to high standards, and they were unyielding standards, and woe unto those who didn't measure up.

It was almost exactly two years ago, during the holiday season, when he wheeled his chair over one morning and uttered a sentence I won't forget: "I think I've been dealt a bad break." He'd lived clean and right for 70 years, but a tumor had sprouted on his breathing tube, malignant, inoperable. He would undergo treatment.

My father, a physician, clucked his tongue when he heard the news. "A tumor on the breathing tube is bad, bad news," he said. Within weeks, my father was dead himself, suddenly, on an operating table. Steadman was hospitalized and weakened from treatments, but he summoned the strength to call from his bed, near tears at the thought of my loss. He was such a friend to many, the one who came to visit at the hospital or gave the speech no one else could bear to give. His generosity was deeply felt and boundless.

Watching him try to carry on in spite of his illness over the past two years was inspiring and heartbreaking at once, hard to watch yet impossible not to admire. His tumors and treatments battered him, yet he never missed a column and never missed a Ravens game until last month. He was really sick, but as he saw it, that was no excuse for losing his passion.

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