As you might have guessed, a journalist and editor like Ben Bradlee had plenty of intersections with the sports world during his legendary career. Here are a few of them. And yes, I’ve told my colleagues they should feel free to mine my corpse for potential page views after I knock off.
Jimmy the Greek
The famous oddsmaker’s syndicated sports odds column ran in The Post for years, which I knew. What I didn’t know was that his writing career was pushed along by a meeting in Bradlee’s office. Via a 1996 Shirley Povich column:
It was in 1970 that the late Howard Simons, the managing editor of The Washington Post, walked into the office of the sports editor (me) and said, “There’s a syndicate salesman in my office trying to peddle [Ben] Bradlee and me a feature on the football point spreads. What’s your idea about this?”
“My idea is that it’s a lot of bunkeroo,” I said. “They got some wise guy somewhere trying to sell us a lot of predictions that our own staff can do better. It’s the kind of boilerplate stuff we don’t need in this newspaper.”
“Good,” said Simons, “we’ll brush him off, him and his Jimmy the Greek stuff.”
“Hold it,” I said. “Did you say Jimmy the Greek? That’s different. I know the guy. He’s a pro, who’s been making the odds for those casinos in Vegas. Besides, if we pass on the Greek, The Evening Star would probably snap him up. They’re making a big pitch for their sports pages. We could use Jimmy the Greek.”
About 50 times since then, or maybe only 40, Jimmy the Greek said to me, “The Washington Post launched me. You’re my friend forever.” He said The Post’s endorsement had meant so much. Two hundred other newspapers would sign on for the Greek’s point-spread column.
In fairness, Povich noted that the Greek had already been a high-profile figure before this incident, and indeed, he had been cited for years in Post stories about Vegas odds. But after that meeting, his syndicated columns began appearing in The Post the fall of 1971, and would continue — at least sporadically — for nearly a decade.
“Johnny Unitas will be available for the Colts, but he and Earl Morrall are each a 3-point quarterback,” the Greek wrote in his first column that appeared in The Post. “Unitas once was football’s best but there’s no difference anymore. Morrall proved that when he won the Super Bowl game last season after Unitas was hurt.
“The Redskins have been affected like the Jets. Sonny Jurgensen is a 5-point quarterback. But with him out, it’s a big drop to Bill Kilmer, who is a 1-point quarterback with me, if that. So the Cardinals are a solid 7-point favorite over the Redskins at St. Louis.”
In January of 1990, the National — a daily sports tabloid featuring scads of well-known sportswriters — debuted amid much fanfare. Howard Kurtz covered the event for The Post, and his dispatch included this passage:
The Washington Post fought off [Frank] Deford’s attempts to hire columnist Tony Kornheiser, Post Magazine writer Juan Williams, and a half-dozen sportswriters. But the National succeeded in luring Norman Chad, who will cover sports television, and Redskins writer Tom Friend, who will be a Los Angeles columnist….
At one point, Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee fired off a tart note to Deford, saying “Kornheiser? Justice? Aldridge? Bailey? Williams? Wilbon? And now Chad? Why don’t you take Solomon and be done with it? You won’t even owe me a high draft choice.”
Bradlee was tight with one-time Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams (see below), and perhaps because of that, his son served as a Redskins ballboy under Vince Lombardi. Via a David Maraniss story, adapted from his Lombardi biography:
When training camp opened at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., at high noon on July 9, Lombardi was surrounded by old friends and familiar faces. Sam Huff, who had played for him in New York and now came out of retirement for one last year, and his traditional army of priests, this time led by Father Guy McPartland, who had played fullback for him at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J., and Father Tim Moore, the jovial Carmelite who had been the athletic director there.
Ed Williams came up from Washington along with his pals Art Buchwald and Ben Bradlee, whose young son Dino was a ball boy. Lombardi took one look at the shaggy-haired adolescent and compulsively barked out, “Get a haircut!” as though he were talking to his own son or one of the ballplayers.
Dino showed up the next day with a crew cut. It was the same for Sam Huff as it was for the ball boy, Lombardi ruled as the voice of authority.
Maraniss also wrote that one of Ethel Kennedy’s first social appearances after the death of Robert Kennedy came at a party at Bradlee’s home, where she sat next to Lombardi, who talked “about his friendships with Jack Kennedy and her husband and how they both had the qualities of great athletes.”
Edward Bennett Williams
Suffice it to say that Bradlee was a pallbearer for the one-time owner of the Redskins and Orioles. Robert Kaiser describes Williams as one of Bradlee’s two lifelong friends, along with Art Buchwald, another Williams pallbearer.
A 1979 Post story described some of the regulars in the RFK Stadium owner’s’ box, including Buchwald, Bradlee, Jack Valenti, Joe DiMaggio, Philip Geyelin, Joseph Califano and Nancy Dickerson.
“A baby-faced Hamlet,” Bradlee called Williams in a 1980 Post profile. “A manic depressive like the rest of us,” Buchwald added.
The three of them are bound together by deep affection and mutual insult. It is their sport to spread slanderous rumors about each other and to maintain a ‘club’ whose sole purpose is to have lunch and keep other people out. They allege that the frustrated club applicants include Joseph Califano, a former member of the Carter Cabinet; Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, and Kay Graham, board chairman of The Washington Post, all of them close friends of the charter three but not quite on the inside.
Decades before he was a famous editor, Bradlee was a Post reporter. He wrote endless stories about D.C. bookies, pyramid schemes, and gambling on the ponies. Via Kaiser:
In his first days at the paper, he impressed The Post’s managing editor, J. Russell Wiggins, by producing a list of the city’s 10 leading bookies. He didn’t tell Wiggins that he got the names from Morris Siegel, his new pal, who was a Post sportswriter.
But he also wrote a dispatch about a celebrity golf tournament in 1950. Here’s his file:
The Mutt and Jeff of the Celebrities were the 6-foot-10-1/2 basketball star, George Mikan, and Congressman C.W. ‘Runt’ Bishop, some 20 inches shorter.
Mikan just about bends in half, stands only a few inches from the ball, and unwinds himself in time to powder the undersized basketball. Big George shot a 37.
In the same foursome with these two were playing Pro Jimmy Thompson, the game’s longest hitter, and Singer Gordon MacRae, who shot himself a one under par 34.
On the second hold MacRae crooned ‘When the Moon Shines Over You tonight…I’s going to get a birdie.’ Next thing the gallery knew he had dropped a 50-yard nine iron for his birdie two.
Autograph hounds divided their time between Mikan and MacRae, until lovely Mrs. MacRae appeared at the third hole. From that point on, the male bobby soxers flocked for her John Hancock.
On the sixth hole, Mrs. MacRae pulled off her sandals and swatted the ball a mere 175 yards herself. She bears watching as a golfer.