Sixty-eight years of Cleveland sports and he still loved it
My best day as a sportswriter was the afternoon I spent at Hal Lebovitz's house. There was so much history on the walls of his office. After all, this was a man whose writing career in Cleveland predated the Browns very existence by eight years.
Hal first started writing just as a means to get local high school baseball stats and results into the local papers in 1938. Nearly 67 years later, he was still writing three times a week at age 89. He started with no byline and ended up in the Baseball Writers & Broadcasters Wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He still received letters almost every week about a column originally entitled, "Have you ever cut a boy?" that he wrote in 1964.
It meant a great deal to me that Hal liked me and my work. He didn't like everyone's. It was pure joy to know the local writers I did not enjoy also earned Hal's wrath.
He was the most beloved and best writer in this town for over six decades because he loved telling stories. It didn't matter if it was a high school kid, a small college player or a multi-million dollar player. He found the story and he presented it to the readers like they were friends.
There were some ironic coincidences that came out that day I got to spend with Hal. His first job was as a vendor for the Cleveland Indians as was mine. The only difference, I think, is that the peanuts I sold were a little more expensive at the old Stadium then his were at League Park. Our first adult jobs were as teacher and coach. He, like myself, coached nearly every sport. Our forays into sports writing were unexpected careers. When Hal shared this to his wife, Marge, whom he still referred to as his bride, she turned to me and said, "Now you just have to find someone as wonderful as me." If I could only be so blessed.
I would have spent days in that office just listening. That day inspired me and made me a better writer. He encouraged me to start writing columns as well as the features and game reports I was already writing. I went into that day thinking I was a teacher who now wrote and left thinking, "If Hal says I have talent then I must."
This Friday I returned to my alma mater for a football game. I wondered how I would be received. This fall both Lutheran West's volleyball and golf teams have received some press thanks to weekly emails from coaches Stephanie Roberts and Karen Wittrock, but not so much for the other sports. The football team went into Friday's game 6-2, with the two losses to undefeated teams, attempting to earn a playoff berth. Trying to cover 68 teams, someone is always left out and upset.
I entered the press booth and my former (now retired) biology teacher who once walked on the court of an intramural basketball game to grab me by the neck (in his defense, he thought I had stolen his equipment-- I hadn't but I did 'liberate' all of his goldfish) said to me, "I have been reading your articles. You do a good job."
I was a bit stunned. Before I could say thanks, my former guidance counselor and the voice of the Longhorns told me, "You have the best sports page in town."
A few moments later, my former history teacher said, "Hal meant a lot to you didn't he. I am sorry to see him pass away."
In the next instant my former English teacher and current Longhorn assistant coach stopped on his way up to the coaches booth, unawares of what was just said and offered, "You are the next Hal. And I am not blowing smoke."
Heady stuff for someone worried he would get yelled at for not giving the team the press it has deserved.
I know I am no Hal Lebovitz. No one is and no one ever will be. But like Hal, I do what I do because everyone has a story. I love sports and it is venue where the best stories can often be found. Hal resisted efforts to make a book of his columns for years. Thankfully, his son took on the task and we will forever have something to remember him by.
I doubt that I will ever make it into a national comic strip, Cooperstown, or even on to Les Levin's television show like Hal did but knowing Hal liked me is reward enough. And reason enough to keep going.