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Monday, December 24, 2001
Updated: December 26, 9:03 AM ET
Schaap was a pioneer ... and a good guy

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist

Dick Schaap was one of the very best journalists of his generation, a man whose career reflected the enormous generational changes in his profession forced upon it by technology. He was a man of newspapers, magazines, books (lots of books) and, finally, as print began to decline in the middle of his career, of television, a world into which, unlike so many of his print colleagues, Dick made the most natural of transitions.

Dick Schaap
Dick Schaap was one of the first sports journalists to recognize the coming of a racial revolution in America in the 1960s.
He was also a very good man. He treated a vast range of people with respect and dignity, and he conferred on them uncommon good will. As such, he was unusual -- almost unique -- in the richness and breadth of his friendships in a world where relationships are increasingly adversarial. He was simply one of the best-loved people in this profession. That is rare. Not many journalists can manage to do high-quality work and yet retain the friendship of many of the people they cover -- and compete against.

He wrote his own memoir this past year, and he subtitled it, in self-deprecating satire of all the ghostwritten books he had produced, "Dick Schaap As Told To Dick Schaap." When he finished the manuscript, he sent it by for a blurb. I read it and enjoyed it, though when I put it down, I was touched by no small amount of melancholia, and even a bit of envy. Dick, it was clear, though we were almost exactly the same age and had covered many of the same things, had had a great deal more fun than I had had over the years.

We met for the first time as college journalists, representing our respective school newspapers at Harvard Stadium in the fall of 1953 at a Harvard-Cornell football game, he on his way to being the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, me on my way to becoming managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. We were, in the way of ambitious young college journalists, properly wary of each other. (If both of us knocked on the door of the New York Times or the Herald Tribune after we graduated, what would happen if there were only one opening?)

There was, it would turn out, plenty of room for both of us, and we ended up longtime colleagues over what is now more than six decades of reporting. Eventually, I went to the Times, and he went to the Trib; I went overseas, he stayed in New York and became one of the last Trib city editors and, in time, a columnist for the paper. Though his column was citywide, his best work was always in sports, in no small part because he never saw sports as a narrow, enclosed place -- as the Toy Department, as it was scathingly known in most newspaper circles. Rather, he enjoyed it not merely for the athletic competition inherent there, but he saw it as serving as an important window on the larger American society.

Read Schaap
Back in February, Page 2 ran an excerpt from Dick Schaap's memoir, "Flashing Before My Eyes." Click here to read Schaap's reflections on the night he introduced Billy Crystal to Muhammad Ali.

Because of that, he became at a rather early age -- in his 20s -- a very important figure in the world of modern sports journalism. Long before it was fashionable, indeed beginning when it was quite unfashionable, back in the late '50s, he was far ahead of the curve in writing about the rise of black and Hispanic athletes. More, he wrote not merely about their athletic abilities, but about their feelings as well.

This was at a time when few black athletes had made their way into the top level of professional and college sports, and were still greatly outnumbered by white athletes. But where blacks were even more outnumbered was in the ownership-management hierarchy of sports -- and, to be blunt, in the world of sports journalism.

That world was very white, too, and surprisingly inflexible. Most of the more influential figures in it had come up in a very different era, some 20 or 25 years earlier, accepted far more rigid racial premises, and had little tolerance for athletes who were in any way different from the norm, or in any way outspoken. Many of the sportswriters and editors of that era thought they were greatly advanced in their thinking if they wrote that it was all right for Jackie Robinson to play for Brooklyn. They did not, however, want to hear about his off-the-field grievances, his troubles in finding a house or getting a meal in a restaurant.

It could be said that the empathy factor in this world was rather marginal. Most of the leading people in sports and sports journalism reserved what little empathy they had for themselves, or for people as much as possible like themselves.

  Dick was dramatically different. He was not just talented but sensitive, and he had something which would serve him well for the rest of his career -- the gift of instant friendship. He reached out to a generation of young black athletes, some talented, some not-so-talented, at a time when few other reporters were doing it, and he brought to his reporting a sense of what it was like to be different. 
  

Dick was dramatically different. He was not just talented but sensitive, and he had something which would serve him well for the rest of his career -- the gift of instant friendship. He reached out to a generation of young black athletes, some talented, some not-so-talented, at a time when few other reporters were doing it, and he brought to his reporting a sense of what it was like to be different.

Dick intuitively understood that something very important, indeed profound, was taking place in our society in terms of race. He was right, of course -- nothing less than a revolution was taking place. And if one of the great windows on it was in the South, where the Civil Rights movement was just getting under way, then perhaps the other exceptional window on it was sports, where for the first time the descendants of slavery were being given a chance to display their talents.

In 1956, Dick voted for the great Syracuse running back Jim Brown for the Heisman Trophy. Brown was self-evidently the greatest college player in the country, but a jury of white journalists from another generation obviously thought that it was a bit precipitous to honor him. He came in fifth. Yes, fifth. To Dick's credit, when he found out that Brown had been jobbed, he boycotted the Heisman voting for more than two decades.

Nor was the Heisman incident unique. Some two years ago, along with Glenn Stout, I put together a collection of sports reporting to be called "The Best Sports Stories of the Century." One of the things we wanted was not merely the very best writing over those 100 years ... we wanted to reflect the broad social changes in American society that had taken place over the years. Obviously, that meant we had to pay a good deal of attention to racial shifts as they had evolved over that span.

Here Dick's work was invaluable, because he had focused on such issues so early on. Originally, I wanted to use three of his magazine pieces (the only magazine writer from who we ultimately took three was the estimable W.C. Heinz). One of Dick's pieces, written in 1958, detailed the anger of Pancho Gonzales, the great tennis player, brought on by his years of mistreatment by the white tennis establishment. Another was a piece in which Dick told of taking Muhammad Ali around New York in 1960 when he was very young, very innocent and still known as Cassius Clay. And the third was a lovely early piece on Wilt Chamberlain.

In the end, because the book was already a bit too long, we had to cut the Chamberlain piece. But Dick was pleased -- two out of three, he said, was not bad.

It is hard to think he's gone. He seemed in recent years as youthful and exuberant as ever. Nearly 50 years of covering sports had not worn him down or made him cynical. He was, at the end, as optimistic and enthusiastic as when he started out.

His puns were as bad as ever, his heart as generous as ever. He had become silver-haired, and was a good deal more handsome than he was as a young man.

No one was nicer to younger reporters. One of the few people I ever heard him badmouth was a collegue who he thought had mistreated women and younger reporters when we were all much younger.

He remained remarkably tolerant of those he covered. If he could see their flaws as some of us did, he could also find in some athlete who seemed (at least to me) absolutely without redeeming qualities something likable. Redemption came easily to him. He could see in someone else's lesser qualities otherwise submerged signs of their humanity.

He always thought what he did was fun, and as such he made it fun. It is hard to think of his not being at the center of some group and having fun, oblivious to the clock.

When I was young and just starting out, I thought there would be a lot of people like Dick in this business. But now that I am older, I am grateful for the few like him, and that I was lucky enough to meet them.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.