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It occurred to me that the world, or baseball, anyhow, owes Jerome Holtzman his own action figure. Being the freshly designated "official baseball historian" is all very nice, but action figures say it louder these days.
Why an action figure for Holtzman? There are heroes and there are heroes and no one will find a better one than Holtzman in a long day's march, to borrow from "the Dean" himself.There Holtzman is behind the batting cage. Now in the dugout. At Sammy Sosa's locker. Doffing the old chapeau to Jerry Manuel. Making sure he says hello to all the umpires.
"I always had a soft spot for umpires," Holtzman said. "Why? Because sportswriters have more in common with umpires than players. The players dislike us both, probably sportswriters more."
No one ever hated Jerome Holtzman, no one ever will. Eddie Stanky, when managing the White Sox, saw every writer as a communist, and even he could not ignore the decency in Holtzman. Herman Franks, who bullied writers as the Cubs' manager, loved Holtzman for giving as good as he got.
"You had to stand up to Herman," Holtzman said. "I never let him know I thought he was a pretty good manager. Once a paper in St. Louis asked me to write an advance for the Cubs coming in to play the Cardinals and I agreed if they didn't put my name on it.
"When the club arrived in town, there was this glowing story in the St. Louis paper about Herman. He just growled at us, `Why can't you guys write like this?' "
Cubs legend Billy Williams was saying the other day that he was responsible for naming Holtzman "the Dean," a term of affection and respect.
"I guess it means I know everything, but I don't," Holtzman said. "And it wasn't Williams who first started calling me that. It was John Hillyer, a White Sox beat writer. He'd say, `Got a question? Ask `the Dean.' "
I have and I do, and Holtzman has been as helpful as he is accurate. The only advice he ever gave me about writing baseball was "Be at the park early." Holtzman is a thorough and insightful writer, but his greatest talent is getting into any stadium parking lot anywhere in the world.
Here's what I never liked about Jerome Holtzman. He is always asking me what I am reading. Sometimes it isn't anything, or I'm reading John Grisham, and I'll have to make something up, something worthy of Holtzman's respect. I never want to disappoint Jerome Holtzman.
So, I'll say, "I'm going back through Anthony Trollope. You get so much more the second and third time." My fear is that Jerome will catch me with an Elmore Leonard in my computer bag.
Holtzman is the only writer who could call balls and strikes from the press box, which he did in the Cubs-Padres playoff opener in 1984, and make it seem like journalism. Replacement umpires lasted one game with Holtzman revealing their inadequacies.
The last game we covered together was a recent Yankees-Sox double-header. Before I knew about his leaving his beloved newspaper work, he added it up, all the words, all the years.
"I've had a byline in Chicago since 1946," Holtzman said. "What is that, 300 a year, more than 15,000 bylines? Maybe that's a record."
OK by me. OK by any of us who scribble on sports. Any record there is for this sort of thing, Holtzman deserves. We'll all line up behind "the Dean" in awe.
"When I was 15," Holtzman said, "I would stand at the press gate at Wrigley Field. It used to be out there in the left-field corner. Other kids would clamor after the ballplayers. I would watch the writers come in. I was never more thrilled than when one of them would talk to me. Oh, I liked the players, but I was fascinated by the writers."
I once confessed to Holtzman that as a young writer, I would sit in dugouts between ancient sports columnists Red Smith and Shirley Povich, impatient and irritated when they would be trading stories with each other and the manager or player I was interested in talking to.
What I wanted to know from Ralph Houk was who would be his left-hander out of the bullpen. What did I care about traveling on a train with Christy Matthewson or Walter Johnson?
"You should have taken notes," Holtzman said.
Holtzman did just that, of course, and created "No Cheering in the Press Box," a history of that generation of sportswriters before television, or much radio for that matter. Povich and Smith are both in the book.
"Greatest thing I ever did," Holtzman said. "It is the thing I am most proud of. They use it in a dozen colleges as a journalism text."
Holtzman is in seven Halls of Fame and created the save, the last baseball statistic added to the game. And he's proudest of a book about a bunch of press box autocrats who were as old as he is now when he sat down to save their stories forever.
"Saves," Holtzman scoffed at his own creation. "That's just a rule. The other is a book. I'm a writer."
Baseball might be gaining a historian, but journalism is losing a treasure.
And one more thing. Anyone actually making up the Jerome Holtzman action figure, two things. Make it tireless and get the eyebrows right.