Steadman leaves us a legacy of fairness

January 10, 2001|By Gregory Kane

READERS OF The Sun have seen several tributes to sportswriter John Steadman in the past week. I hope you will forgive me if I offer another. Louis Grasmick, a friend of Steadman's, thanked me for attending the funeral Friday.

"There's no way I couldn't have," I answered. Sounds cliched, but it is nonetheless true: Steadman's death made many feel as if they had lost a dear friend or relative.

I grew up reading him. I told that to Steadman when I first met him, here in the newsroom offices one afternoon shortly after I became a columnist. True to his character, he seemed genuinely humbled, almost embarrassed. My passion for Steadman's writing started years ago, when he worked for the News American, and I was a wee lad trying to get out of West Baltimore's elementary and junior high schools.

The News American was the paper my mom bought almost every day. Critics of The Sun who have lamented Baltimore's demise as a two-newspaper town also have pointed out that in days past, the News American, not the "Light for all" daily, was the common folks' paper of choice. So, as a loyal Orioles fan, a demented Colts fan and a boxing enthusiast, I eagerly read Steadman's column each time we got the paper.

Steadman's columns about Muhammad Ali impressed me most. Ali - then Cassius Clay - won the heavyweight championship on Feb. 25, 1964, by pummeling the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston in six rounds. The day after, Clay confirmed to the press what had been long rumored: that he was, indeed, a Nation of Islam member. Some people today think of the NOI as a black racist, hate-mongering, anti-Semitic sect. Folks thought even worse of them then, including the liberal black civil rights leadership.

The older sports columnists at papers across the country excoriated Ali when he made his announcement. Having denigrated his religion, they tried a new tactic: they claimed that Ali simply couldn't fight. His first victory over Liston was a fluke. His second was a fix.

Steadman didn't join in this nonsense. He was one of the first sports columnists who insisted that whatever else Ali was, he was a pugilist of superb skills. As a young Ali fan, I was thrilled no end that this middle-class white guy with bushy eyebrows confirmed what I had been seeing in Ali's fights all along. Here was a guy who was going to be fair, who would call things honestly and let the chips fall - and punches land - where they may.

We had a different take on things as of April 28, 1967, the day Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Steadman's column the next day was blistering. Ali, he wrote, had "insulted our war heroes." It was only then that Steadman referred to Ali's religion. Membership in a "hate group," he cautioned, did not become a heavyweight champion.

More than a score of blocks west and north of the News American headquarters on Lombard Street, I saw things a bit differently.

"This guy is totally wrong," I said of my favorite sports columnist. Everyone, I figured, should have been able to see what those in power were trying to do to Ali. He had taken the armed forces entrance exam and performed below the minimum requirements the government, not Ali, had set for youths it wished to turn into cannon fodder. Some months later, the government lowered those standards to include Ali, who just happened to be a member of a religious group critical of that bureaucracy. That, I figured, in the words of the noted philosopher and wise man, Hoss Cartwright, was "quite a stretch of the long arm of coincidence." (Later, I learned that the draft was indeed used as a tool against anti-war activists.)

But I noticed something after that column: I still respected Steadman. In fact, I respected him more. We obviously differed on Ali's stand, but Steadman wrote from the heart. His previous columns proved he had no ax to grind against Ali, that he wasn't one of those sports columnists who had decided never to write a positive word about Ali.

Fairness was one of several Steadman passions. Years ago, I did a positively awful radio show on WEAA, Morgan State University's radio station, called "Readers, Writers and Books." The highlight of the show was interviewing former Colt great Lenny Moore. Were there any sportswriters, I asked Spats, who were especially fair to black athletes in his day?

Moore didn't hesitate. He didn't even have to think. He immediately mentioned my old hero, John Steadman, as the sportswriter who had been most fair. Before legendary Dunbar basketball coach Bill "Sugar" Cain died last year, he told his survivors he wanted four sports journalists at his memorial service. Vince Bagli of WBAL-TV was one, former Evening Sun sports editor Bill Tanton and Afro-American columnist Sam Lacy were others.

The fourth was a guy named John Steadman.

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