1997: Jerome Holtzman

By Jason Wolf

The Buffalo News

Oct. 10, 2019

“This is the only job I ever wanted.

“I love the people, the excitement, the games, the profession and knowing I have a story before anyone else.

“It’s the best job in the world.”

That’s what Jerome Holtzman often told his colleague, Dave van Dyck, during their travels covering the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the longtime sports writer wrote in memoriam in the Chicago Tribune, and had Holtzman written a chapter on his own life and career in the same first-person style of his acclaimed oral history of sports writing, “No Cheering in the Press Box,” that may well have been his lede.

Holtzman, known as “The Dean” of American baseball writers and credited with creating the statistic known as the “save,” was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1991. He received the Red Smith Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors in 1997. He was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2004 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

Holtzman’s impact and accomplishments have been well documented since he died following a stroke on July 19, 2008, a week beyond his 82nd birthday. But had he written this story, he’d have likely told it straight, his prose accurate, unadorned and unimpeachable, as one might expect from the man who authored the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on baseball.

Holtzman wrote for his hometown newspapers for 56 years, beginning as a copyboy at the Chicago Daily Times in 1943. He served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, returned to the paper to cover high school sports for 11 years and was promoted to cover Major League Baseball in 1957. He continued in that capacity with the Chicago Sun-Times and The Tribune, where he served as the baseball columnist and national baseball writer from 1981 until his retirement in 1999.

Holtzman also wrote a column in The Sporting News for 30 years and authored six books, including “No Cheering in the Press Box,” which first published in 1974 and features the recollections of 24 revered journalists, including Red Smith.

After leaving The Tribune, Holtzman was named the official historian for Major League Baseball.

“As a baseball writer, columnist and historian for more than 50 years, Jerome Holtzman was a beloved figure and made an incredible impact on the game,” then-baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in 2008. “He created the save statistic which in turn increased the importance of the relief pitcher. He was a giant in his industry and a much deserving member of the writers’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Those of us who knew him and worked with him will always remember his good humor, his fairness, and his love for baseball,” Selig said. “He was a very good friend of mine throughout my career in the game and I will miss his friendship and counsel.”

Holtzman was born in Chicago on July 12, 1926.

His father died when he was 10, and since his mother couldn’t support the family, he spent the rest of their childhood in an orphanage.

“I thought it was terrific,” Holtzman told The New York Times in 1990. “The building was about a half-block square, and there was a ball field beside it, and we had ice cream every Friday night. My wife, Marilyn, says there has to be something wrong with someone who likes an orphanage.”

Sports Illustrated featured Holtzman in a June 2019 article commemorating 50 years of the save.

It recounted how Holtzman spent the 1959 season watching Cubs teammates Don Elston and Bill Henry, and suspected they were among the best relief pitchers in baseball – certainly better than Pirates reliever Elroy Face – but he couldn’t quantify it.

Face, meanwhile, finished seventh in NL MVP voting, celebrated for his 18-1 record.

“Everybody thought he was great,” Holtzman told SI for a different article in 1992. “But when a relief pitcher gets a win, that’s not good, unless he came into a tie game. Face would come into the eighth inning and give up the tying run. Then Pittsburgh would come back to win in the ninth.”

In five of his wins, the magazine noted, Face entered with a lead and failed to hold it.

Major League Baseball adopted the “save” as an official statistic in 1969, making it the sport’s first new stat since RBIs in 1920.

“The reality is, he revolutionized baseball,” former Sun-Times columnist Bill Gleason told the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan in 2008. “He glamorized the relief pitcher, who was just another guy before (the save rule). Jerome said not long ago that he was sorry he’d come up with the concept, that it wasn’t necessary. But there was no need to apologize. If there were more people who thought like Jerome Holtzman, the newspaper business would be in better shape.”

Had Holtzman written this story, he might have described how he always tucked his thumbs under his suspenders, his feather duster eyebrows, the cigar forever clenched between his teeth.

He might have acknowledged his endless humming over the clacking keys of his typewriter.

But facts, not flourishes, were his bedrock.

“When we were Sun-Times teammates,” retired columnist Mike Downey wrote in 2008, “Holtzman was astounded to hear a boss half his age complain: ‘Your writing is filled with clichés.’

“But they’re my clichés,” Jerry argued. “I invented them.”

Former Sun-Times sportswriter John Schulian, in an interview with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, said Holtzman “was not a great writer, he was a great reporter.”

“He was in with the managers, owners and commissioner’s office,” Schulian said. “He could get the people the rest of us couldn’t.”

Former Tribune sports editor George Langford revealed the secret to Holtzman’s success in an interview with MEL Magazine, which in 2018 published a story commemorating the 10-year anniversary of his death.

“He would go where other reporters didn’t go,” Langford said. “His first stop was always the umpires’ room. The umpires were gossipy guys — they were full of information back then in the 1960s and 1970s, and they didn’t mind sharing. Nobody else went in there; he had them all to himself. Also, instead of sitting in the press box, a lot of times he would sit with the scouts behind home plate and learn all kinds of stuff.”

Holtzman’s collection of thousands of books, documents and articles was purchased for $300,000 by the Chicago Baseball Museum.

His legacy inspired an online project titled “Still No Cheering in the Press Box,” hosted by the Povich Center, which has published more than 50 first-person accounts of the lives and careers of esteemed, contemporary sports writers.

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