Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Loss of a legend

Hal Lebovitz was one of the stewards of Cleveland sports.
Other people held the money. Other people held the spotlight. But Lebovitz, who died Tuesday at 89, held a lot of the sway.
He, along with Gordon Cobbledick, Bob August and Russ Schneider, was one of the pillars of Cleveland sportswriting during what might be considered its golden era. Lebovitz's career started in the 1940s, spanning the last World Series the Indians won, every NFL title the Browns won, the birth of the Cavaliers, the Tribe's 40-year slide into oblivion and the franchise's magnificent renaissance in the 1990s.
Close friends with Art Modell, he watched as the Browns were moved to Baltimore in 1995 and reincarnated as an expansion team four years later.
Lebovitz worked for the long-defunct Cleveland News, was the sports editor of The Plain Dealer, and continued his work with a weekly column for the Lake County News Herald. He wrote his last column two weeks ago, meaning his career stretched nearly 60 years.
Lebovitz wasn't the flashiest or most verbose writer in the sports pages. Most of the time, he strived for simplicity to reach the largest possible audience. But the work of Lebovitz was a testament to how influential a good writer with a soapbox can be.
Lebovitz made a lasting impact on sports in this area, whether it was Little League baseball, the big boys in pro sports, or anything in between.
In his obituary story today, The Plain Dealer's Bob Dolgan relates a time when Lebovitz might have saved the Indians from moving. It was September 1964, and the Indians were coming off yet another dismal season. Rumors were simmering that the team's ownership group was mulling over the possibility of moving the team to Seattle.
Angered that the team's owners, many of whom resided in the area, would consider robbing Cleveland of its baseball team, he published photos of the team's board of directors -- all 18 of them -- across the top of Page 1 of The Plain Dealer's sports page.
"Pictured here are the 18 deep-rooted Clevelanders who will hold in their hands the baseball future of their city," said the accompanying article.
The lynch-mob publicity worked. The Tribe's board of directors backed off the moving issue.
When the NBA's Cincinnati Royals began playing a portion of their home schedule in Cleveland each year during the 1960s, Lebovitz began calling them the "Ohio Royals," Dolgan wrote. Nick Mileti gave Cleveland its own NBA franchise in 1969, after considerable resistance from the NBA, but Lebovitz's refereneces probably added wind to Mileti's sails.
Lebovitz also offered his influence to neighborhood sporting disputes and youth-league rules inquiries in his "Ask Hal, the Referee" column. Whether he settled a barroom bet on the Indians' all-time leader in sacrifice bunts, or helped clarify football rules for a Pop Warner dad, he brought the same diligence to his Ask Hal column that he brought to covering the big stories.
And that was the crux of who Hal Lebovitz was as sportswriter. He earned the nickname "scoop" from his tenacious pursuit of the news, for his tremendous ability to find answers. He was the first person to learn that Jim Brown had decided to retire from football in 1965.
Many sportswiters compartmentalize, concentrating on their loves or their beats. Some know all there is to know about the Browns or Ohio State football, but only have a cursory background on the Indians or Cavaliers. That wasn't Hal Lebovitz. He followed the Browns, Indians, Cavs and all of Cleveland sports with the same passion.
There are few writers left like Lebovitz. Few writers who not only covered the news of sports in a town, but also advocated for the insitution of sports in a town.
He was a steward, not just a spectator.

No comments: