It was pretty heady stuff being a sports fan in Baltimore in the late ’50’s through the ‘60’s and early 70’s. The arrival of major league franchises in football, baseball and basketball gave a port town built on immigration and industry a new identity. The Orioles, Colts and Bullets were part of the fabric of daily life.
Teams’ association with their cities was very tight. No one thought of the owners as anybody but great guys in town, part of the community, all pulling in the same direction. Television wasn’t much of a factoring sports coverage, still blossoming itself with three channels and no remote. The newspaper was a sports fan’s lifeblood. The game summaries, the standings, the agate type statistics all brought far away contests to life. The sports columnist explained it all, knew your heroes first hand, hung out with them, ate with them, drank with them, shared their pain and their triumphs and let you know how it felt to be there.
John Steadman was the Baltimore sportswriter in those times. Actually John Steadman was the Baltimore sports writer for all times. Steadman died in Baltimore on January 1st after a long battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 73.
I bring this up now because he was in my thoughts most of the day during the championship games between New York and Minnesota and Baltimore and Oakland. How fitting, I thought, if it’s another New York/Baltimore Super Bowl. John Steadman would have liked that. He wrote the history of the Colts/Giants championship game in ’58. “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” it’s called.
He never missed a game where a professional football team from Baltimore was playing. Never. Really. Since the Colts became the Colts in the ‘50’s, Steadman saw every football game the Colts, and now the Ravens ever played. In person, home and away. He never kept a running tally, never referred to it as “The Streak” or anything like that (719 in a row by the way). Exhibition, regular season, post-season, championship games, Super Bowls, John Steadman was there.
Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, John Steadman’s brother, Thom, lived three houses away from us. That made us some kind of celebrities. I mean, his brother lived around the corner, and that meant John Steadman had to visit sometime, right? His nephew was a boyhood playmate of mine. I might see him, right? All of this fuss over a sportswriter you ask?
Being a sportswriter then meant something very different than it does now. A local sportswriter was just that, somebody who was local. They grew up in your town. They went to high school somewhere down the street. They had the same frame of reference as you. You’d see them in church, or at the store. They were part of your town, understanding the ups and downs. Not just a disembodied voice, but rather, somebody real.
There were two papers in Baltimore when I was growing up. The Sun, where my Uncle Angelo worked as a graphic artist, and the News-American, where John Steadman was the columnist. The News-American more closely reflected our lifestyle, but we took the Sun, probably out of deference to my Uncle. In fact, I even had a Sunpapers route. Delivering the paper from my bike in the afternoons and from the back of the family station wagon on Sunday mornings.
But I read John Steadman.
I was too young then, didn’t really know anything about anything, except I wanted to be either John Unitas or Brooks Robinson, but I knew, somehow about John Steadman, Baltimore’s conscience. Somebody who didn’t just write about the game, but rather about the people who played them and what they meant to us.
In journalism, there are a lot of hard-bitten people, cynical by nature, caustic and sometimes just generally mean spirited. Steadman was the exact opposite. Gracious, unfailingly polite and well dressed, call him a throwback if you will, Steadman had a passion for people. And that’s what separated his writing from all the others. Not his analysis of the x’s and o’s. Not his questioning of a manager’s pitching move, but rather his insight on why. He favored the underdog and was willing to take an unpopular stand.
I saw John Steadman a lot when covering events around the country. At our first meeting, I introduced myself, said I was from Baltimore and enjoyed his work. From then on, John Steadman called me by name and always introduced me as “a Baltimore boy” to whomever he was with. When Jacksonville was awarded an NFL franchise, Steadman gave me some insight about how Baltimoreans were taking it. “not very well,” according to a man who knew. I once saw him present long-time Baltimore sportscaster Vince Bagli to the authorities at Augusta National, saying Vince needed a credential. Nobody does that! Steadman did, it was the fair thing to do, according to the fairest writer in the land.
One of the things about my job that I never considered when I got into this business is the relationship with other journalists. Writers and broadcasters, veterans and rookies, all bringing a different perspective to the table. I also never considered the chance I might have to sit, side-by-side with legends, like John Steadman and talk with them, watch them work and learn something. And I never considered the chance I’d have to tell them publicly what a profound impact they had on my career, and in turn my life.
I had that chance last year at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee meeting. All I said was “it’s rare you have a chance to tell somebody, publicly, what they’ve done for you and they don’t even know it. I’m what I am today because of John Steadman. I grew up in Baltimore, reading John Steadman, and that’s one of the reasons I chose this profession. You made it seem fun, and important at the same time. So, thanks John.”
And I sat down.
Steadman was very sick at the time, but was excited about a new chance at treatment he was getting in the coming weeks. Excited and somewhat embarrassed because he was getting a chance to see some world famous doctor only because of his “celebrity.” Which he thought was silly. When the meeting ended, one-by-one, the selectors made their way to Steadman’s side of the room to shake hands, knowing it would probably, for many of them, be the last time. John knew it too. But he never wavered, listened intently as if it was the most important thing ever said to him. I shook his hand and tried to speak, but all I could get out was “I meant it.” He leaned over, nodded and smiled and patted me on the back.
So, thanks John.
To read more about John Steadman’s career in journalism go to www.baltimoresun.com/archive/ and type in “Steadman” in the search box. Tributes to Steadman and some of his writing can be found there.
Here is the info you need to make donations to
The John F. Steadman Scholarship scholarship fund:
Checks made payable to:
The Trustees of the Baltimore City College Scholarship Funds, Inc.
The John F. Steadman Scholarship
The Trustees of the Baltimore City College Scholarship Funds, Inc.
C/O William Dunbar, President of the Trustees
801 Quincy Road
Towson, MD 21286
Note on your check that the contribution is intended for “The John F. Steadman Scholarship.”