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OBITUARIES : Jerome Holtzman, 1926 - 2008

Hall of Fame baseball writer in Chicago

July 22, 2008|Paul Sullivan | Chicago Tribune

Jerome Holtzman, who went from copy boy to baseball Hall of Famer in a distinguished career as a Chicago sportswriter, died Saturday in Evanston, Ill., after a long illness. He was 81.

"It's a sad day for everybody in baseball," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Jerome was a Hall of Famer in everything he did, in every sense of the word."

Holtzman was a baseball beat writer and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times for three decades, starting in 1957. Affectionately called "the Dean" by colleagues, he moved to the Tribune as baseball columnist in 1981 and was inducted into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.

Holtzman came up with the formula for baseball's "save" rule in 1959, a move to acknowledge effective relief pitching. In 1969 it was adopted as an official rule, the first major addition to baseball statistics since runs batted in were recognized in 1920.

"The reality is, he revolutionized baseball," former Sun-Times columnist Bill Gleason said. "He glamorized the relief pitcher, who was just another guy" before the save rule.

Holtzman wrote six books, including the classic "No Cheering in the Press Box," an oral history of baseball as recounted by 24 sportswriting legends such as Paul Gallico, Shirley Povich and Red Smith. The book, published in 1974, was reissued in 1995 with six new chapters and remains a popular text in college journalism classes.

"He was the consummate writer," said George Vass, a former colleague and friend who collaborated with Holtzman on two books. "No one was ever more dedicated and clear-minded about the sport, those who played it and wrote about it."

After Holtzman retired as the Tribune's baseball columnist in 1998, Selig hired him as baseball's official historian.

Born in Chicago on Dec. 11, 1926, and raised from age 10 in an orphanage, Holtzman began his newspaper career as a copy boy in the Chicago Times sports department at the age of 17 in 1943. He served two years in the Marine Corps during World War II and returned to cover high school sports at the Times and Sun-Times before moving to the baseball beat in 1957.

Holtzman traveled with the Cubs and White Sox for the next 28 years, usually changing beats at midseason. He was an influential leader in the Baseball Writers Assn. of America and a longtime member of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, which voted on candidates who had been overlooked in voting by the baseball writers.

Holtzman famously looked out for his friends, even the ones who were trying to beat him on stories, such as the late Wendell Smith, a pioneer among African American sportswriters. The two became fast friends and fellow Hall of Famers.

Holtzman was always primed for a big scoop, including the news during the 1974 World Series that Oakland pitching star Jim "Catfish" Hunter would be granted free agency after A's owner Charlie Finley failed to honor certain provisions in his contract.

"He beat everybody on the beat," Gleason said. "It was during a World Series, and he was so far ahead of everybody it was amusing."

Holtzman also was a hard-bitten reporter who didn't back down from those he covered, most notably then-Cubs manager Leo Durocher. Holtzman once bragged he had spent an entire season not talking to Durocher because the volatile manager had slighted him.

Former White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond said every relief pitcher in baseball was beholden to Holtzman because the "save" rule has dramatically increased their value.

"Pitchers owe him," Hemond said, and he recalled introducing Holtzman to one reliever who was "pleased to meet the man who made me a lot of money."

After 38 years at the Sun-Times, Holtzman was told that his style was too old-fashioned for modern-day readers. Just when Holtzman feared his career might be over, he got an offer from Tribune editors across Michigan Avenue to become the paper's featured baseball writer. He immediately rewarded their faith by breaking the story of the settlement of the 1981 baseball strike.

Holtzman is survived by his wife of 59 years, Marilyn; two daughters, Alice Barnett of California and Janet Holtzman of Wilmette, Ill.; a son, Jack Merrill of Los Angeles; and five grandchildren.

A public memorial service in Chicago is planned.

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