A tireless reporter, Hirsch writes last column


December 07, 2003|By TOM KEYSER

Joe Hirsch never intended to retire. He figured on working until the end, and that's how it should have been.

But because of failing health, Hirsch, 75, had no choice. Yesterday, his final column appeared in the Daily Racing Form, the publication for which he began writing in 1954. During the second half of the 20th century, Hirsch became respected - no, revered - as a tireless reporter and a gallant man.

"He's a throwback to another society, when courtliness counted," said Joe Durso, former reporter for The New York Times. "I think of him as kind of St. Joe. I've told him that, and he just laughs."

For nearly two decades, Hirsch, who lives in New York City, has coped with Parkinson's disease. That, combined with other ailments in recent years, forced him to retire. Anyone who watched him type a story, one painstaking keystroke at a time, or walk hunched over from scoliosis - side-to-side curvature of the spine - into a restaurant or racetrack paddock couldn't help but marvel at how he'd kept working this long.

In an interview with The Sun two years ago, Hirsch said: "I have the best job in America. Why would I want to do anything else?"

He won numerous awards for his writing and service to racing, including the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1992. One piece of writing stands out. It alone was enough to define a career. As the lead to a story about Kelso, five-time Horse of the Year, Hirsch wrote: "Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso ... but just once."

The soft-spoken Hirsch was known as much for his association with horses as for his association with Joe Namath. The two Joes were roommates in New York for three years when Namath began playing quarterback for the New York Jets.

Sonny Werblin, an owner of the Jets as well as Monmouth Park, called Hirsch in Florida one night in late 1964. Hirsch said Werblin told him: "There's a young fellow I'm trying to sign. His name's Joe Namath. He's going to be at Tropical Park tomorrow. Buy him a drink or something. Tell him I'm all right."

Hirsch continued: "I found Joe the next day - at the bar, appropriately enough. I took him to dinner that night. We hit it off."

Despite Hirsch's being 13 years older, that was the start of a friendship that has lasted four decades. In an interview with The Sun, Namath said: "I love him. ... I trusted his judgment early on. I didn't know New York at all. ... There're certainly a lot of wonderful stories. Let me put it this way: We danced a lot of evenings at a lot of different places."

In a story Namath wrote for the Racing Form that was published last weekend, he wrote of Hirsch: "There may not have ever been a greater writer who covered a sport."

Hirsch still brightens at the mention of Namath. Asked about their times together, Hirsch said: "We always had fun. I can't tell you more. Yours is a family publication."

For nearly 40 years, Hirsch compiled the popular feature "Derby Doings" about the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. It became too demanding in the mid-1990s, and Hirsch turned the duties over to Steve Haskin. Haskin remembers Hirsch introducing him to people.

"We would walk through the dining room, the turf club, the high-rollers' room," Haskin said. "Wherever Joe went people would just jump out of their chairs. I mean every top figure in the sport would jump out of their chairs and go rushing to him to say hello.

"He had built up this reputation. And I don't mean just a reputation as a sports writer, but a reputation as, really, a great man."

Hirsch said he doesn't have any plans for retirement. For the first time in his life, he said, he's going to do nothing.

Friends, to the end

When no friends or relatives stepped forward to bury Jimmy Brown, his friends at the track did.

Brown, 68, died of a heart attack Nov. 16. For 15 or 20 years he had hung around with a group of men in the Sports Palace at Pimlico. The men would worry about each other if one didn't show up for a couple of days.

Just when they were ready to start checking on Brown, Duke Pollack, one of the men, learned that Brown had died. He also learned that there was no one to bury Brown and that his body was about to be donated to science.

"There was no way I was going to let that happen," said Pollack, a retired contractor who lives in Baltimore. "This was one of the nicest people I'd ever met in my whole life, and I'm 76 years old."

Brown was a veteran of the Korean War who seldom talked about himself. His buddies at the track knew little about him, except that he was, in Pollack's words, "a super-nice human being."

In just a couple of days Brown's friends at Pimlico as well as workers at the track chipped in nearly $2,000 to bury him. On Nov. 25, in a flag-draped coffin with a bugler playing taps, Brown was laid to rest at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills.

N.Y. suspends Shuman

Mark Shuman, who leads trainers in wins at Laurel Park, was fined $5,000 and suspended 20 days last Sunday by stewards in New York for violating the state's medication and racing rules.

Shuman works for Michael Gill, the country's winningest owner, and trained Askara, who, after finishing second in a race Sept. 17 at Belmont, tested positive for Celebrex, a banned substance similar to the commonly used drug Butazolidin.

The stewards checked Shuman's records, which indicated that veterinarians had "tapped" one of Askara's ankles, a common procedure during which fluid is drained and a lubricant-type substance is injected. The procedure was apparently done four days before the race - one day closer to the race than New York rules allow.

Shuman hired Alan Foreman, the Baltimore lawyer, and Foreman appealed the steward's decision. Foreman said that aspects of the case raise questions about New York officials' handling of it. The controversial Gill, whose trainers and veterinarians have been in trouble before, said this was another case of his being singled out and treated differently from everybody else.

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