Richard Ben Cramer, Pulitzer Prize winner, dies at 62

Former Baltimore Sun reporter later worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote critically acclaimed biographies of political and sports figures

  • Richard Ben Cramer
Richard Ben Cramer (Andre F. Chung, The Baltimore…)
January 09, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun

Richard Ben Cramer, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer and an acclaimed author chronicling the lives of politicians and legendary sports figures, died Monday of lung cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Mr. Cramer, who was 62, lived in Chestertown.

"Richard's work as a gifted writer and deeply principled journalist made our Republic a better place; made us a stronger, more compassionate, and more understanding people," Gov. Martin J. O'Malley, a friend, said in a statement released Tuesday. "We have lost one of the best political reporters of our time."

"He was an extraordinary journalist, and his reporting for The Inquirer from the Middle East was miles ahead of anyone else at the time," said Gene Roberts, who was executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1972 to 1990.

"On top of that, he was a delight to have on your staff. He was so ebullient and enthusiastic about the next story. He was just an amazing guy," recalled Mr. Roberts.

"He had raw talent for writing and reporting and was just so damn good," said Tom Horton, former Sun environmental columnist and longtime friend. "He was born to be a journalist and a writer."

The son of a pharmacist and a school teacher, Richard Ben Cramer was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., where he attended Brighton High School. After being cut from the baseball team, he decided to write for the school newspaper.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Cramer enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, which he described in a 1984 Esquire magazine profile as being in an "insulated white enclave" in Baltimore.

"Right away I loved the town. A great city. Run-down. Crabs five dollars a dozen. Johnny Unitas. National Bohemian beer," Mr. Cramer, a lifelong Yankees fan, told Esquire. "And Earl Weaver's Orioles, congenitally bush."

At Hopkins, he wrote for and later edited The Hopkins News-Letter. After graduating in 1971 and being thwarted in landing a job at The Sun, he earned a master's degree the next year from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

"I graduated from Hopkins in 1972 and he was editor of the News-Letter when I joined," said Michael Hill, now retired from The Sun, where he was a foreign correspondent and later an editor.

"He had a tremendous influence on all of us and many of us pursued careers in journalism. He taught us to take chances, push the envelope," said Mr. Hill. "And just through the sheer force of his personality made us dedicated to spend most of our waking hours at the Gatehouse. You could see that combination of tremendous skill and magnetic charisma throughout the rest of his career."

Mr. Cramer joined the staff of The Sun in 1973, covering politics, City Hall and the Maryland General Assembly. He developed a reputation as a formidable competitor who saw stories where others did not in routine press releases or tips.

It was also said that Mr. Cramer, with his red beard, easygoing and friendly demeanor, learned early on the importance of making an entrance.

Mr. Cramer was quite the sartorial presence as he charged into the newsroom each day wearing finely cut suits, sports jackets and in summer, a seersucker suit that he accessorized with a broad Panama hat.

After sitting down at his desk and taking a deep sip from the first of multiple cups of coffee, he'd light up a fine cigar, whose smoke wreathed his head.

Robert Timberg, who was then his City Hall counterpart on The Evening Sun, remembered Mr. Cramer "as the fiercest journalistic competitor that I've ever had. Sometimes he would knock me out, and at other times, point me. You couldn't help but like him."

"Richard was very good at taking something we decided we wouldn't do and he'd make it into something magnificent. He had an incredible eye for detail," Mr. Timberg said. "He could make a person in a story really come alive."

After leaving The Sun in 1976, Mr. Cramer joined The Inquirer and won a Pulitzer in 1979 for his work from the Middle East.

John S. Carroll, then The Inquirer's metropolitan editor, hired Mr. Cramer.

"I had a slot for a transportation writer and I hired him. Not exactly typecasting, but I got him on board," said Mr. Carroll, who later became The Sun's editor. "It wasn't long before I realized he was truly an original and had a certain brilliance. Also, we had never had anyone like that before."

"He was one of the most gifted storytellers and writers who ever worked a typewriter," said William K. Marimow, who had been an Inquirer colleague and later managing editor of The Sun.

He recalled a vignette in Mr. Cramer's Esquire profile, "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" later published as a book, when a young Williams comes home after a road trip and spends hours practicing his swing in front of a mirror.

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