Al Silverman, a onetime editor of Sport magazine and chief executive of the Book-of-the-Month Club who also was the co-author of football star Gale Sayers’s autobiography, which became the basis for the sentimental TV movie “Brian’s Song,” died March 10 at his home in New York City. He was 92.
The death was confirmed by his son Brian Silverman, who did not cite a specific cause.
Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Silverman was the top editor at Sport, a monthly magazine known for bold photography and stylish writing. During an era when journalists did not probe too deeply into athletes’ personal lives, Mr. Silverman became friendly with many sports stars and published several biographies and as-told-to memoirs.
His most notable collaboration was with Sayers, a star running back for the Chicago Bears who had electrified the National Football League as a rookie in 1965 and in his next two seasons. After a serious knee injury in 1968, Sayers was encouraged and prodded throughout his recovery by a teammate and fellow running back, Brian Piccolo.
In 1969, Sayers returned to his earlier form and led the NFL in rushing. Piccolo started several games alongside him in the same backfield. Sayers, who wore No. 40, was black; Piccolo, who wore No. 41, was white. Their wives were friends, and the two players were roommates on the Bears’ road trips.
Late in the 1969 season, Piccolo visited a doctor for a bad cough and shortness of breath. He received a diagnosis of cancer and left the team for treatment. The nature of his illness was not widely disclosed.
After the season ended, Sayers was presented an award for his courageous performance while bouncing back from his injury. In his acceptance speech, Sayers said the honor should go to Piccolo, who had “that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent, cancer.”
It was the first time many people learned of Piccolo’s diagnosis.
“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo,” Sayers said. “I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him, too.”
In June 1970, weeks after Sayers’s speech, Piccolo died at age 26.
The bond between the interracial teammates — competitive, sometimes combative and ultimately tragic — was described in a chapter of Sayers’s memoir, “I Am Third,” co-written with Mr. Silverman. (The title came from a motto Sayers borrowed from his college track coach: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”)
The book was published in late 1970 and became a national best seller. In a New York Times review, sportswriter Rex Lardner called it a “stirring, painfully honest account of [Sayers’s] struggle to become the greatest running back in history.”
The chapter about Piccolo was adapted for an ABC made-for-TV movie, with actor Billy Dee Williams playing Sayers, and James Caan in the role of Piccolo. “Brian’s Song,” which also featured lush theme music by Michel Legrand, aired on Nov. 30, 1971, and became an immediate sensation.
Hardened football fans were reduced to tears by the emotional movie, and no less a critic than President Richard M. Nixon declared, “Believe me, it was one of the great motion pictures I have seen.”
“Brian’s Song” received an Emmy Award as the year’s best program, and it became a touchstone among sports films, televised repeatedly for years afterward. In 2001, it was remade as a TV movie, with Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher in the principal roles. “I Am Third” was republished the same year.
Elwyn Harmon Silverman was born April 12, 1926, in Lynn, Mass. His father was a tailor, his mother a homemaker.
Mr. Silverman served in the Navy near the end of World War II and graduated in 1949 from Boston University. He moved to New York a year later and became a freelance writer, contributing to Sport and to various men’s magazines. He worked as an editor at True, a men’s magazine, before joining the staff of Sport in 1960. He became the magazine’s editor a year later — and, for four years, was simultaneously the editor of Saga, a men’s adventure magazine.
Mr. Silverman worked with many well-known writers at Sport, including Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Dave Anderson, George Vecsey, Howard Cosell and Dick Schaap. At Saga, he published excerpts from Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and Pierre Boulle’s “Planet of the Apes.”
In addition to editing the magazines, Mr. Silverman presented the keys to a new Corvette each year to Sport’s athlete of the year. He published numerous volumes on sports, including books about baseball superstars Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and collaborated with others, such as baseball’s Frank Robinson, on autobiographies.
In 1974, he published “Foster and Laurie,” about two police officers killed in the line of duty, which was adapted year later as a TV movie.
Mr. Silverman joined the Book-of-the-Month Club as editorial director in 1972 and eventually became the company’s president, chairman and chief executive. At the time, the Book-of-the-Month Club — a subscription service with almost 1 million members — was a powerful force in publishing.
“We try to aim just above the middle of the brow,” Mr. Silverman said in 1982. “There’s good trash and bad trash. We try to avoid bad trash.”
In 1988, Mr. Silverman moved to the Viking Penguin publishing house as an editor and became publisher and editor in chief before his retirement in 1998. Among the authors he edited were T.C. Boyle, William Kennedy and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Rosa Magaro of New York; three sons, Thomas Silverman and Brian Silverman, both of New York, and Matthew Silverman of Montclair, N.J.; and seven grandchildren.
In his later years, Mr. Silverman returned to writing, with books on the New York Yankees and “sports miracles” of the 20th century. He also published “The Time of Their Lives” (2008), a gossipy account of the publishing world he worked in for more than half a century.
Mr. Silverman wrote about famous best sellers — Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” — that had been rejected by publishers and about the foibles of famous authors and editors. One publisher with chronic flatulence refused to allow any reference to passing wind in his books.
Another, Mr. Silverman wrote, predicted that “Gravity’s Rainbow” author, Thomas Pynchon, “will be selling used Chevrolets within a year.”
Then there was Harper & Row’s Cass Canfield, who was so optimistic about discovering new literary talent that he carried a blank contract with him at all times, saying, “You never could tell.”