"I left my autograph book in the car," howled 10-year-old Adam Rabinovitch. Like scores of other sports-struck kids at the annual sports dinner of the American Friends of the Hebrew University tonight, Adam was forced to improvise with cocktail napkins.
Upstairs at the New York Hilton, superlawyer and Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams was having a few pre-award drinks with friends like baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, sportscaster Howard Cosell, the New York Jets' Wesley Walker and the Mets' Rusty Staub. Downstairs in the Grand Ballroom, the sports celebrities who had come to sit on the dais while Williams received the Sports Torch of Learning Award were being mobbed by autograph hounds.
"I'm just trying to get to the food," said Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris, wading through a group of youngsters waving scraps of paper. Cosell's signature on a letter had brought Harris in for the event.
It had also brought Sonny Jurgensen, cigar in mouth, solicitously leading his wife, Margo, to a seat (she'd sprained an ankle on the tennis court), and Jurgenson's old Redskin teammate Bobby Mitchell with his wife, Gwen. They went up to congratulate Williams before the book-waving small fry could attack.
Spotted early on, though, were the impossibly clean-cut Bruce Jenner and "Mean" Joe Green. "Hey, can I have your jersey, Joe?" one kid yelled. Parents were whispering, "There's Walt Frazier. There's Willie Mays."
Williams and entourage finally descended, all in tuxedos. He doesn't have that much to do with Hebrew University, really, though he once lectured at an international legal conference there. But by agreeing to accept a bronze statuette (a memorial to the 11 slain Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics), Williams ensured the presence of all the fighters, jockeys, centers and quarterbacks. About 1,000 people attended, and organizers hoped to raise $350,000 for scholarships to the university in Jerusalem.
Politics was underrepresented, unless one counts sports commissioners. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D.-N.Y.) showed, along with Washington's Jack Valenti, who was insisting, "When I sweat on the shuttle to beatify Edward Bennett Williams, you know I care."
But Williams was at ease. "It's really nice to have so many friends here," he said, taking his place in the dais formation. "Sports gatherings are political gatherings."
"There's a lot of kindred spirit," agreed Valenti. "Politics and sports people, all of them are anxiety ridden."
It took half an hour for the long line of dais guests to be introduced and cheered. Weeb Ewbank, Sparky Lyle, Jose Torres, Edwin Moses. Jorge Velasquez. Marvin Hagler. Autograph seekers were shooed from the dais.
"Who thought of this? We'll be here all night," toastmaster Cosell grumbled between harangues about sports writers ("the lowest element of the human spectrum").
"Howard says this is the greatest assemblage of sports talent in one place since he lunched alone this afternoon," interjected Williams.
At last the intros were over. A cantor sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem. Autograph seekers were asked not to disturb guests during dinner, and everyone sat down to roast beef and baby potatoes.
Then the speech-making cranked up again. Cosell praised Williams' legal acumen and sports leadership--"that takes little intellect, that takes money, but that's all right."
"The way Howard Cosell believes in himself is an inspiration to us," Williams returned, "in these atheistic times when so many believe in no god at all."