His was a boyish face that defied his age but reflected the giddiness toward sports he never lost from his youth.
His handshakes revealed soft hands, but his keystrokes were even softer. They produced stories that started on the front page and jumped inside the beefy sports section and onto full inside pages during an era when print media dominated, and into an era when it didn’t.
When his byline – “William Gildea” – ran in The Washington Post, it was an event. His former editor, George Solomon, said his stories made the section better. His written words were elegant and styled, yet somehow didn’t contain any pomp. The throws of Johnny Unitas from an arm cocked high above the ear or the silky passes of Italian soccer sensation Roberto Baggio just came alive.
To him, ours was not a profession, but a way of life, a ritual of not only illustrating what was before us with the written word but showing up early at racetracks and staying late in locker rooms to fill out the details of narratives. Yes, the scores were essential, but the stories behind them were far more important.
Bill, as he was known to friends, died last week at 81 of complications from Parkinson’s disease, but his contributions will live on forever in digital archives and print and Kindle books. And they will live in the mind of this writer who was lucky enough to be mentored by him during the formative years of my career.
“Steve!” he would say when I’d call him at his desk at The Post after a hearty “Hello.” His deep voice was softened by the homey sounds of his Baltimore roots. The voice would have sounded natural drifting onto the field from the public-address booths at old Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards in his hometown.
While his written word transfixed fans in the D.C. region and across the country, that voice became a sound of affirmation and comfort to me.
Living a boy’s dream
I met Bill Gildea (pronounced gil-DAY) in early 1994 through a relative, Glen Elsasser, who covered the Supreme Court for the Chicago Tribune. I was a sophomore at Georgetown (Bill’s alma mater) and Glen had taken an interest in my desire to be a sportswriter. Bill and Glen had attended journalism school together at Columbia in the early 1960s and had kept up over the years.
Bill met me with a smile in his corner cubicle inside The Washington Post’s sports department at 15th and L Streets Northwest. He had just finished writing “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore: A Father and a Son, a Team and a Time.” It’s a poetic tribute to a childhood of football and fantasy watching his beloved team with “Pop.”
Bill told me that day it was a book “about Baltimore and the Colts.” This is how his newspaper described it: “It is a hymn, or perhaps an old fight song, for a city, a childhood, a whole simpler way of life that is gone from America as the Colts are gone from Baltimore.”
Gildea’s writing, which led to a decorated yet understated career, can be described in a similar way, the product of a bygone era when his paper’s circulation numbers would pass 1 million on Sundays. For 40-plus years, his heartfelt narratives described how a former Olympic champion was patiently yet firmly teaching blind children to swim during 1965 – his first year at The Post – and how an aging fighter took a beating for a $1,000 profit yet finished “on his feet, dignity intact” in 2005 – the year Bill retired.
As a boy, Bill lived in a modest apartment in the Forest Park section of Baltimore. When he grew up, he found himself in the back of Sugar Ray Leonard’s limo and high on a cliff overlooking the French Riviera, where the Dutch stayed during the 1998 World Cup. “There is nothing up here except the azure sky and a panorama no photograph could do justice – because you have to feel the soft breeze and the kiss of warmth of the sun to understand it,” he wrote from Roquebrune, France.
Back in his early days in Baltimore, where it would have been unimaginable to be in such a place, he covered the walls of the one bedroom in his childhood home with a Colts pennant and those of their opponents in the old All-American Conference. A friend brought Bill his homework one day when he was home sick and wanted to know what his parents thought of all of those pennants in their bedroom. “I’d thought of it as my bedroom,” he wrote in his book. “I’d say that’s how they wanted me to feel.”
I learned Bill was a lot like his parents when I called him one summer Friday night in 1994. He had gotten me an interview with Neil Greenberger, The Post’s high school sports editor, for a part-time position and given me his home telephone number in case I couldn’t reach him in the office. When his wife, Mary Fran, picked up the phone, I heard a lot of commotion in the background.
“Am I interrupting something?” I asked when he came to the phone.
“Oh, only a dinner party for 10, Steve,” he said with a laugh, which was echoed by laughter in the background.
He then talked to me for what seemed like 10 minutes. He assured me he had spoken with Neil and put in a good word for me. This time, it was Bill making me feel at home.
Learning from the master
“How do you know, Bill?” was one of the first things Greenberger asked me when I came in for my interview.
I got the job and found myself walking past the figureheads of a glorious era of Washington Post sports: Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, David Aldridge, Christine Brennan, John Feinstein. I was in awe of all of them. But not Bill. He wouldn’t allow it. He never much liked being on TV, where many of these figures would become fixtures. Kornheiser, probably the most famous of these talking heads, said Bill was the best writer on the staff.
I heartily agreed. I read everything he wrote in newsprint, including an excerpt of his latest book, “Where the Game Matters Most,” that appeared in the Sports section on Christmas morning 1997.
“Basketball in Indiana, particularly high school basketball, is as universal as the freight whistle there,” he wrote. “The game binds diverse people and places. They’re all Hoosiers, a term that defies derivation but may stem from a slang expression – “Who’s Here” is one of countless possible etymologies.”
The book journeys deep into the back roads and traditions of the state during the final season in which it held a single basketball tournament that included all classifications of high schools. The movie “Hoosiers” is inspired by tiny Milan high school, which improbably ran the table in 1954.
Being from Baltimore, a town he wrote had a reputation during his childhood “as little more than a traffic jam between Washington and New York,” Bill loved the underdog. That category included a college student who wielded an enthusiasm for a profession Bill so admired.
He read over my clippings from a summer internship at the Pensacola News Journal in Florida, delicately marking “these are hard to do,” when I buried a lead about a superfan of George Foreman’s driving all night to get to the boxer’s book signing.
I made sure to keep in touch with Bill as my career advanced, especially after I wound up back in the Washington area at USA TODAY in 1999. When my dad suggested I write a biography about famed sportscaster Mel Allen, I called Bill, who said he would read my proposal. He not only loved the idea; he championed it.
We discussed books I should read as models: David Remnick’s “King of the World” about Muhammad Ali, David Maraniss’ “When Pride Still Mattered” about Vince Lombardi, Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” about the magical racing horse. Bill never mentioned anything he had written.
“Great stuff,” he would say as I periodically updated him on what I had learned.
When my proposal was ready, I printed it out and showed up at his front door. When Bill, usually dignified in a blazer in the office, appeared in a T-shirt and sweats, it was the first time I had seen him without a collared shirt.
A few days later, my phone rang.
“You knew it was good, didn’t you?” he said, sensing my growing confidence.
He was one of the first to arrive at my first book signing.
‘The Longest Fight’
Nobody turns a head as Len Elmore walks past. Six feet 9, an ex-pro basketball player, black and bearded, he is a commonly distinctive figure in the human potpourri of Harvard Square: a 60ish white-suited gentleman rolling along on skates, a woman zipping through traffic on a hilariously tiny motor scooter, a huge woman running against the light (will she beat the only slightly larger truck?), a balloon man, a magician, a bevy of undergraduates sweeping past, discussing Proust?
Almost everyone is deciding something. There are down-and-outers of the square deciding where to spend the night. Others are deciding between lunch-time lectures: Will it be “Kinetics and Spectroscopy of High Altitude Infrared Emissions” or “Contour Evolution, Neighborhood Deformation and Image Flow?” Elmore’s decision: Keep slogging through the day-to-day assignments, or step up exam preparation? In law school, there’s no coach named Lefty or Slick who’s going to yell, “Hey, Lenny, get the lead out and get over to ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution.’ “
– The Washington Post, Nov. 16, 1984
That was Bill’s lead about Elmore, the Maryland basketball star-turned-NBA center turned Harvard scholar who is now a lawyer and noted sportscaster.
“He was refreshingly honest,” Elmore tweeted last week along with the story. “To one of the REAL journalists of our day; a writer’s writer, #RIP sir.”
A renowned boxing writer, Bill could artfully land a jab with his prose. The Post used to cover the Orioles as a home team before the Nationals arrived, and in 2000 Bill wrote a column about Baltimore’s fire sale at the trade deadline. One of the players the team dealt away was Will Clark, once a feared hitter who had become much more pedestrian when he wasn’t playing in a pennant race.
“The Thrill is gone,” Bill wrote, playing off Clark’s nickname. “But then, The Thrill was gone before today.”
He covered more than 50 fights, bringing a lyrical quality to what the untrained eye was watching. He captured what was behind each blow: how Ray Leonard was jabbing and moving – but somehow not running – from Marvin Hagler’s vicious blows in 1987.
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Yet Bill always preferred the story behind the story, and in 2012, he wrote his final masterpiece about lightweight boxer Joe Gans. “The Longest Fight” centers around Gans’ 42-round bout in 1906 with Oscar “Battling” Nelson.
“Gans,” Bill wrote in the book, “was the first African American boxing champion. … 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.“
The Gans-Nelson fight took place outdoors in the baking Nevada sun. Bill met Paul Elie, who edited the book’s manuscript, for lunch on a similarly sweltering day in New York. Bill kept his blazer on.
“He really lit up at my suggestion that ‘The Longest Fight’ should be organized in short chapters — the same number of chapters as rounds of the fight,” Elie recalls. “And he then carried out that structure brilliantly.”
A few days before Bill died, Andrew Blauner, his literary agent, had written to publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux (FSG) asking them to consider again reissuing the book in a new paperback “so that it might help get (Bill) more of the attention, admiration, and affection he deserved.”
I heard of Bill’s death last Monday around dinnertime. I was shaken, but Monday is deadline day for Sports Weekly. I put it in the back of my mind while we put the issue to bed. But then I started reading appreciations about Bill. I was up until after 2 a.m.
When I last spoke with Bill 14 or 15 years ago, I had just gotten my dream job as the baseball editor at Sports Weekly and was about to get married at a chapel on Georgetown’s campus where Bill’s daughter was to be married in a couple of weeks. He delighted in the coincidence and wished me well.
My wife was in medical school and, a little over a year later, our first child was born. The years passed rapidly, as they do in life. My son is now almost 13, and we have another boy who is 10. I am active in their lives, and in my work. I’m sure Bill wasn’t waiting around for a call from me. He and Mary Fran have four children and eight grandchildren.
I don’t regret anything that has happened since then, as people come in and out of your life. But Bill’s death has driven home a theme that has become clearer and clearer to me after nearly 21 years at USA TODAY, more than 14 years of marriage and almost 13 of fatherhood.
Yes, life is about accomplishing your goals. But it’s much more about those you meet along the way.
Stephen Borelli is the editor of USA TODAY Sports Weekly and USA TODAY’s sports-related special editions.
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