Jack Disney dies at 80; Los Angeles sports journalist and racing publicist

Jack Disney wrote about pro baseball before Los Angeles had a major league team. He covered the Lakers when they moved here from Minneapolis and, he told people, might have been responsible for USC keeping legendary football coach John McKay.

Disney, a Los Angeles-based sports journalist and horse racing publicist for nearly 60 years, died Monday at his home in Irvine of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his twin brother, Doug. He was 80.

Disney was a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner from 1954 until the newspaper closed in 1989, reporting on a variety of sports, including the NFL's Raiders and a Lakers team that featured superstar Elgin Baylor and a youngster named Jerry West.

"He enjoyed not only the writing, but the social aspect of it, and getting to know these people that were well-known and that he admired," Doug Disney said.

One of the people he admired most was McKay, the USC football coach known for his quick wit and winning teams. In a 2012 Times profile, Disney said he helped convince then-USC President Dr. Norman Topping to keep McKay around after his first two seasons, both subpar.

Why would Disney care? Because, he said, "McKay was quotable."

Born June 1, 1935, Disney worked as a publicist for Hollywood Park and later Santa Anita after the Herald Examiner closed. He also became part of a horse ownership group called "Indizguys Stable," partnering with his brother, former Angels Manager Buck Rodgers, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Ross Newhan and others.

The ownership group enjoyed a fair share of success, but Disney said his biggest win at Santa Anita was when he reconnected with Emily, who became his third wife.

"One day," Doug recalled, "he called me up and he said, 'Do you remember this girl that we went to junior high school with named Emily?' I said, 'Yeah, you dated her.' He asked, 'Do you have a yearbook that shows a picture of her?'

"I dug one up and gave it to him."

Emily had called Disney at his office to catch up after years apart. That phone call led to 19 years of marriage.

Disney retired from Santa Anita Park in 2012. To commemorate his career, the track created a race in his honor and the city of Arcadia anointed January 27, 2013, "Jack Disney Day."

Even as Disney's health began to worsen, his interest in horse racing never waned. Debbie Olsen, the publicity coordinator at Santa Anita and Del Mar racetrack, said she called Disney "almost every day" to catch up and so Disney could handicap the races.

"He wasn't just a co-worker," Olsen said. "He was a great friend, a good mentor and just an all-around nice guy."

Along with his twin brother and wife, Disney is survived by sons Rick and Mitchell and two grandchildren.


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times