D.C. sportswriter played part in landmark ruling

March 22

Dick Heller, who wrote about Washington’s sports teams for more than half a century and who, in the 1970s, was a key figure in a landmark court decision concerning the freedom of the press, died March 20 at a hospital in Silver Spring, Md. He was 76.

He had lung cancer, his son Patrick Heller said.

Mr. Heller was a native Washingtonian whose childhood was spent cheering for the city’s sports stars of the 1940s and ’50s, including Sammy Baugh of the Redskins and Mickey Vernon of the Senators. By then, both teams’ glory years were long past, and Mr. Heller learned to accept losing. But one loss he never got over came in 1971, when the Senators left Washington to become the Texas Rangers.

As a columnist for the Washington Star and later for the Washington Times, Mr. Heller often called for major league baseball to return to the capital. His wish finally came true in 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington and were renamed the Nationals.

“I saw a baseball team representing Washington take the field,” Mr. Heller wrote in the Washington Times, after the National’s first home game at RFK Stadium in April 2005. “I saw a throng of 45,000 gathered in a 44-year-old stadium to welcome the national pastime back to the nation’s capital after 34 years.


Sportswriter Dick Heller (Shia Levitt )

“I saw the president of the United States throw out the first ball, and I forgave him for being a former majority owner of the Rangers — the franchise Bob Short swiped from us and plunked down in the unlikely hamlet of Arlington, Texas, in the awful autumn of 1971.

“I saw all this, and I still don’t believe it.”

Baseball was always Mr. Heller’s first sporting love, but he covered many other athletic endeavors throughout his career, including high school sports, boxing, football, tennis, horse racing and college basketball.

In 1977, when the University of Maryland had one of the top men’s basketball teams in the country, The Washington Post published a story highlighting the players’ dismal academic records. Mr. Heller, then a columnist at the Star, went a step further, publishing the names of four players, with their photographs prominently displayed.

“The University of Maryland’s basketball program is in danger of collapse because of poor schoolwork,” Mr. Heller wrote. “The Star has learned that four of the eight returning players . . . are on academic probation and in danger of flunking.”

He named two others who had previously been on probation.

The university’s student newspaper, the Diamondback, published the players’ grade-point averages. Six members of the team sued Mr. Heller and the Star, as well as the Diamondback, for invasion of privacy, publishing confidential university records and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The players asked for $72 million in damages.

In 1979, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld a lower-court decision and ruled in the papers’ favor in the case, known as Bilney v. Evening Star.

The players “achieved the status of public figures solely by virtue of their membership on the University basketball team,” the court ruled. “Their possible exclusion from the team — whether for academic or any other reason — was therefore a matter of legitimate public interest.”

The decision continued: “Having sought and basked in the limelight, by virtue of their membership on the team, appellants [i.e., the players] will not be heard to complain when the light focuses on their potentially imminent withdrawal from the team.”

Bilney v. Evening Star remains an important case in First Amendment law and has been cited in legal proceedings, textbooks and courses in media law.

Richard Sidney Heller was born Jan. 10, 1938, in Washington. His father worked in marketing, and his mother was a nurse.

Mr. Heller began writing about sports while attending Woodward Prep, a now-defunct private school in the District, and he worked in his teens as an assistant to Senators announcer Bob Wolff. Mr. Heller studied briefly at American University before taking newspaper jobs at the Alexandria Gazette and the Star, where he worked until the paper folded in 1981.

“Dick was kind of a mentor to the younger guys,” said Tim Kurkjian, an ESPN baseball writer and broadcaster who began his career at the Star. “He really took time to help us learn to write. I cannot stress enough how helpful he was and how patient he was with us.”

Mr. Heller was a columnist for the Miami Herald for several years before returning to Washington in 1986 to work for the Times.

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Kathleen O’Reilly Heller of Silver Spring; three children, Chris Heller and Patrick Heller, both of Brooklyn, and Michael Heller of Somerville, Mass.; and two grandchildren.

In later years, Mr. Heller often wrote columns about sports history. On Sept. 21, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the final baseball game at Washington’s old Griffith Stadium, he noted that a paltry crowd of 1,498 came out to see the expansion Senators play the Minnesota Twins — the franchise that had been the original Senators before departing after the 1960 season.

The Senators lost, of course, 6-3.

“Griffith’s death knell tolled silently,” Mr. Heller wrote, recalling that last game. “It was a mournful day for those of us who practically grew up there. Sure, Griffith was a dump, but it was our dump.

“We remembered riding to the park and feeling the heart beat faster when the streetcar turned onto Florida Avenue and the stadium’s light towers loomed in the distance. We remembered the smell of bread baking in the Wonder Bread plant nearby. . . . We remembered the feel of 10-cent cardboard scorecards and the stubby pencils that came with them.

“Memories like those last a lifetime.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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