The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Mary Fran Gildea.
Mr. Gildea (pronounced gil-DAY) spent 40 years at The Post, where he was hired in 1965 by the newspaper’s renowned sports columnist Shirley Povich. Mr. Gildea covered the Washington Redskins and had a column for a few years, but he found his niche as a roving feature writer, covering the world’s leading sports events — and other sports traditions fading into the past.
Scores and statistics found their way into his stories, but Mr. Gildea was known more for exploring the human dimensions of sports, from broken dreams to racial injustice. He labored over his stories, combining simple prose with complex thinking as he developed a reputation as one of The Post’s most elegant and sophisticated writers, in any section of the newspaper.
He covered soccer’s World Cup, baseball’s World Series, football’s Super Bowl and golf’s Masters tournament, and went to championship boxing matches in Las Vegas so many times that he was invited to ride along in Sugar Ray Leonard’s limousine.
“On the sidewalk, passersby recognize him immediately. Turning buoyant, Leonard signs several autographs and poses with a woman for a photograph — big grins, heads close together,” Mr. Gildea wrote in 1990. “Then he slides onto the plush back seat of his black Lincoln, so long it’s parked in front of two addresses and so big inside that your average guy could happily vacation in there for a month and never come out.”
Mr. Gildea wrote about a less glamorous side of boxing in a 2005 profile of 40-year-old Yul Witherspoon, a journeyman fighter who was called up from Louisiana to take a beating from a young boxer on the rise. The fight was stopped midway through the second round.
“One thing, though: Yul Witherspoon had finished on his feet, dignity intact,” Mr. Gildea wrote. “A few minutes later, he went to see the doctor on the second floor and learned that he would be taking home a perforated eardrum in addition to the modest sum of $1,500 — minus $500 for his trainer. ‘The thousand will come in handy,’ he said, without complaint.”
Other times, Mr. Gildea could be found riding all-night buses with small-time horse bettors or observing the early-morning life at a racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va.
“It is gray and uninviting, and black billows of clouds are settling onto the Blue Ridge peaks, which seem to be piercing them and causing the rain,” he wrote in 1967.
“The rain is filling up the hoof prints in the red clay around Barn M, on the backstretch at Shenandoah Downs. Underneath the roof, an old man named Mason is nudging a colt out of a stall and he is singing, though the singing is no more than a mumbling, wordless chant.
“Like the others there, the faithful who have groped through the darkness to their work, Mason is, he has to be, a man completely content. His stomach feels right. His legs are strong. His mind is free of worry. He is close to something he loves.”
It was clear that sports were something that Mr. Gildea loved — especially his hometown Colts and Orioles — but events often overtook the games, calling on him to place them in a deeper context. At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he covered the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli delegation from a terrorist attack.
“These Olympic Games, the most horrid in history, have left unanswered questions,” he wrote. “Can the deadly mix of nationalism and politics be contained? What force can oust the inept thinkers who rule amateur sports abroad and at home? Can the Games be returned to the athletes on the fields from behind closed doors where they are played by selfish men? Can the Games ever be fun again?”
When Mr. Gildea reexamined his boyhood love of the Baltimore Colts for his 1994 book “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore,” he discovered that his sunny memories did not always reflect reality. He had no idea, for instance, what the team’s black players went through.
“People say we were one family. Well, we weren’t,” Colts star Lenny Moore told him. “Because society would not allow that we be one, that we be together socially. . . . We knew each other as ballplayers. But we didn’t know each other as men.”
Mr. Gildea’s book blended football memories with a portrait of 1950s Baltimore and the affectionate story of a father and son bonding through sports.
“Gildea’s book,” New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey wrote, “does for football what Roger Kahn’s ‘The Boys of Summer’ did for baseball.”
William Joseph Gildea Jr. was born Feb. 2, 1939, in Baltimore. His father was a pharmacist, his mother a homemaker.
His early interest in sports led to another enduring interest: “While searching the sports columns, I fell in love with the newspapers themselves,” he wrote in “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore.” (The Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.)
“On his way home from work Pop would buy the fresh-off-the-press ten-star edition, with the latest sports news. Most evenings I’d be waiting at the door. I’d kiss him on the cheek, and he would affectionately sweep the paper into my midsection, like a quarterback handing off. I remember the winter nights best: Pop’s cold face, the cold paper.”
Mr. Gildea graduated from Georgetown University in 1960 and received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University a year later. He served in the Army and worked for two years at the Baltimore Sun before joining The Post.
He received a Nieman journalism fellowship to study at Harvard University in the late 1970s and worked in The Post’s Style section in the 1980s before returning to the sports department. He retired in 2005.
He wrote several books, including “Where the Game Matters Most” (1997), about high school basketball in Indiana, and “The Longest Fight” (2012), a biography of Joe Gans, the first African American world champion boxer.
“Gans, the lightweight champion from 1902 to 1908, perfected modern boxing; he was that significant a figure,” Mr. Gildea wrote.
“But his achievements in the ring are not foremost in this story. They frame the story. The heart of it is this: what it was like a century ago to be black in America, to be a black boxer, to be the first black athlete to successfully cross the nation’s gaping racial divide, to give early-twentieth-century African Americans hope, a word we hear so often today.”
Mr. Gildea’s work was often excerpted in anthologies of sports writing, and he won numerous awards. He was a longtime resident of Bethesda, Md., where he attended Church of the Little Flower, a Catholic parish.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Mary Frances Nicoteri; four children, William J. Gildea III of Ruxton, Md., David Gildea of Washington, Maria Selwood of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Ann Gallagher of Darien, Conn.; and eight grandchildren.
“When I think of the Colts I think mostly of Pop,” Mr. Gildea wrote in “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore.” “The Colts were the generational glue that bound us and fixed him in my memory.”
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