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George Kiseda, 80; sports journalist was a cult figure to peers

May 14, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

George Kiseda, a cult figure in sports journalism who helped make it possible to put the words "crusading" and "sportswriter" in the same sentence, died early Sunday at an Alzheimer's care facility in San Juan Capistrano. He was 80.

Kiseda had been in failing health for some time with a degenerative illness called Lewy body disease, said Liz Pataki, a longtime friend.

Principled and uncompromising, Kiseda was ahead of his time in writing about civil rights issues in sports when it wasn't only controversial but career-threatening.

Kiseda wrote for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Bulletin in the 1950s and '60s before finishing his career in 1984 as a sports copy editor at the Los Angeles Times.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Kiseda obituary: The obituary of former sportswriter and copy editor George Kiseda in Monday's California section reported that he wrote The Times' headline for the 1972 USC-Notre Dame football game story, "DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS!" Veteran Times staffers say another editor, Chuck Garrity, wrote the headline celebrating USC's comeback win led by running back Anthony Davis.

He received few awards but much acclaim from many of his peers. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, who received the basketball Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Award, calls Kiseda "the greatest NBA writer of all time" as well as his personal favorite.

Sandy Padwe, a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who became a senior editor at Sports Illustrated and later the acting dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, still gives students a magazine article about Kiseda's career on the first day of class.

"I teach George Kiseda," Padwe said. "He's the model of what every sportswriter should be."

A 1991 GQ magazine article by Alan Richman, "The Death of Sports Writing," carried a blurb that read: "Where have you gone, George Kiseda? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Born March 31, 1927, in Monessen, Pa., Kiseda was a devout Catholic and intensely private. Except for a short-lived marriage, he lived alone much of his life. He was blind in one eye and never drove a car. Scrupulously honest, he lived his principles. Wherever he was, he had a circle of friends, many of them younger writers who, as Padwe noted, "idolized him."

In 1957, the same year that President Eisenhower sent troops to enforce the integration of Little Rock's Central High School, Kiseda wrote a column for the Hearst-owned Sun-Telegraph, saying that Army's football team was about to play Tulane in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where seating was segregated.

James Fulton, a congressman from western Pennsylvania, read it on the floor of the House of Representatives. Army was obliged to move the game to West Point's smaller Michie Stadium. Lamenting Tulane's embarrassment as well as the loss of revenue, a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist replied that Kiseda's column "represented Communism."

The Sun-Telegraph banned further political comment in sports stories. When it folded in 1960 -- "on merit," Kiseda said -- most of the staff was hired by the other Pittsburgh papers but not Kiseda who, says former Pittsburgh Press columnist Roy McHugh, a friend and admirer, "was viewed as difficult."

Kiseda's unswerving perspective led to frequent complaints from management. An anonymous editor, quoted in The Times several years ago, called Kiseda "more of an idealist than a journalist."

Nevertheless, Kiseda was admired by peers as much for his irreverence and sense of humor. Covering the Pittsburgh Pirates en route to their 1960 world championship, he gave his MVP vote to groundskeeper Eddie Dunn, who kept the Forbes Field infield rock-hard, benefiting their ground-ball hitters. The tradition-minded Baseball Writers Assn. of America didn't think it was funny and kicked Kiseda out of the organization.

Hired by the Philadelphia Daily News, Kiseda took a brief, if colorful, turn on the City Hall beat. When Mike Quill, the tough-talking head of the Transport Workers Union, gave a long, theatrical explanation of his motives for a strike that tied up the city and then asked if there were any questions, Kiseda replied, "Yes. You don't expect us to believe any of that, do you?"

Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin later called Kiseda "the best City Hall reporter ever around here."

It was a time of change for sports sections previously devoted to poetic myth-making. Larry Merchant, the young Daily News sports editor who helped launch a new wave by hiring Kiseda, Stan Hochman, Sandy Grady and Joe McGinnis, once said that if anyone had bothered to go downstairs and ask, Babe Ruth might have actually said if he really called his shot in the 1932 World Series.

The young writers were independent -- as Kiseda said, "I root for my story" -- and, as former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Pat Williams later told Richman, "scared everyone in sports to death."

Covering the team for the Bulletin, Kiseda was a celebrity in his own right in Philadelphia's Center City. Trim, dapper and prematurely silver-haired, he was known by the nickname he got from 76er guard Wally Jones, "the Silver Quill."

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