Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Remembering my friend and sportswriting pioneer, Jean Giambrone

                Jean Giambrone was many things to many people. She was a sportswriting pioneer who blazed a trail for female reporters, athletes, coaches and administrators. She was a humanitarian, who raised money and awareness for many worthy causes in the Rochester area. She was a doting wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. And she was a mentor and a friend to scores of people, including yours truly.
                Jean passed away yesterday at age 91. Her death saddens me, and I will miss her greatly because she was there for me in good times and in bad. But her legacy will live on in all of us whose lives she touched. She was a remarkable lady. It was a privilege to be able to call her my friend. The following is a column I wrote in 2008 for the Democrat and Chronicle and the Sportswomen of the Year Luncheon program. Jean founded the banquet to celebrate local female athletes, coaches and administrators. I hope it gives you a feel for her extraordinary life.


                When she boarded the bus that wintry evening nearly seven decades ago, Jean Giambrone had no intention of blazing a trail. No intention of becoming a sportswriting pioneer.
                She was an angry reader heading to the Democrat and Chronicle offices to voice a complaint. It was as simple as that.
                “To this day, I can’t believe I did what I did,’’ said the founder of the WHAM Sportswomen of the Year Luncheon. “It was done strictly on impulse. I was fed up because the papers seemed to write stories only about male athletes. There were a lot of women doing good things in sports, especially locally, and I thought it was high time the papers started telling their stories, too.”
                Giambrone argued her case with former D&C sports editor Elliot Cushing, then with former managing editor Joe Adams. Adams agreed with her, and asked the University of Rochester sophomore to submit a column about local women’s sports. She did, the paper ran it, and Giambrone eventually became what she never intended becoming: a pioneering sportswriter.
                “I never considered myself a women’s libber or anything like that,’’ Giambrone said. “I am happy, though, to see women and girls receive coverage and sports opportunities they never had before. I think that’s great.”
                Although this modest 87-year-young great grandmother downplays her role in this evolution, there’s no question Giambrone is a major reason many doors once closed to local female athletes are now open. Her coverage of women’s and men’s sports over four decades undoubtedly inspired young girls to pursue their sporting dreams.
                Giambrone also inspired by example; by going where women had not gone before. She was the first female sportswriter to be issued full press credentials to cover The Masters. She also was the first golf writer to recognize Lee Trevino’s greatness. So respected is Giambrone in the golf community that luminaries such as Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer call her by her first name whenever they run into her during their Rochester visits.
                It’s no longer unusual to see female reporters covering major golf tournaments. But it was unheard of until Giambrone headed for Augusta in 1967. Before Giambrone blazed the trail, women reporters weren’t even allowed in the press room. They had to conduct their interviews outside.
                It all changed 41 years ago when Giambrone, with a huge assist from veteran Associated Press sports columnist Will Grimsley, was given typewriter space alongside her male counterparts.
                “I’ll always be indebted for the way Will and some others intervened,’’ she says. “They told the tournament officials that wasn’t acceptable; they got their ear. I was fearful for awhile that I was going to have to type my stories in my car in the parking lot and sneak some money to a Western Union guy to send my copy back to Rochester for me.”
                Giambrone also credits the athletes she dealt with. She didn’t experience the threatening behavior by male athletes that current sportswriters Lisa Olsen and Christine Brennan endured.
                “The fellows were very good to me,’’ she said. “I don’t know if I could have succeeded without their cooperation. There were numerous times when players such as Palmer and Nicklaus and Ken Venturi knew I couldn’t go into the locker room, so they would wait outside so I could interview them. There were a few difficult athletes, but they didn’t discriminate. They were difficult to all reporters, regardless of gender.”
                Giambrone’s journalistic journeys often took her to assignments beyond sports. One of her favorite interviews was an exclusive she conducted with a young, bobby-socks crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. A storm had forced Sinatra’s plane to land in Rochester and Giambrone and a photographer were dispatched to the airport to track down the Chairman of the Board. They eventually found a limousine parked outside the terminal and Giambrone went up to a burly body guard and began pleading her case.
                “I told him, ‘You’ve got to let me interview Frank. If I don’t go back to the office with a story, I’ll be out of a job,’ ‘’ she recalled. “The guy couldn’t care less. He said Frank wasn’t doing any interviews. I’m thinking my career is over, and then all of a sudden, the window is rolled down, and there’s Sinatra motioning for me to come into the car. I got my story.”
                Thanks to Giambrone’s persistence, Rochester readers were treated to a compelling piece about America’s most popular singer.
                “No matter what she was covering, Jean always came back with a great story,’’ said retired Times-Union editor Frank Cardon, Giambrone’s former boss. “She always managed to give her readers something they didn’t know or hadn’t heard. To me, that’s what set her apart from many of her peers. Jean had a fascination for information, and a wonderful way of putting it into words.”
                Giambrone’s involvement in her community has gone well beyond her work as a newspaper chronicler. Following the lead of her late husband, Charlie, Giambrone has been active in numerous charitable and community causes. In 1978, she conceived the idea for a golf tournament to raise money for the Mary Cariola Children’s Center. That first tournament raised nearly $3,000. In recent years, that annual total has ballooned to $40,000.
                “She is passionate about everything she does, and that includes her work as a fund-raiser and volunteer,’’ said Elisa Root, a former community liason coordinator for Mary Cariola. “She cares so much for the kids here, and it shows in her work.”
                That passion also has been evident in her work with the WHAM Sportswomen’s luncheon, which she helped found 30 years ago in an effort to honor local female athletes, coaches and administrators. Guest speakers such as Bonnie Blair, Robin Roberts, Wilma Rudolph and Pat Summitt have called the banquet the finest of its kind.
                No story about Giambrone would be complete without mention of her family. Her husband Charlie, who died 13 years ago, often talked about how fortunate he was to have such a devoted wife. Her children and grandchildren express similar thoughts.
                “I’ve been blessed because I was able to do a job I loved and not have it interfere with my family,’’ she said. “My bosses were understanding and generous. They realized that my top priority was my family. They structured the job so I could be there with them whenever I needed to be.”
                In a way, she was ahead of her time in that respect, too.
                “She was able to juggle her family obligations and her career, and each aspect of her life flourished,’’ said Root. “She was a college graduate. She had a career. And she was devoted to her family. She really was what we would call a woman of the ‘90s back in the ‘40s.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Musial, Weaver, two men with Rochester baseball ties, will be sorely missed

Had the opportunity to interview both Stan Musial and Earl Weaver a few times through the years, and they both lived up to their reputations. Stan the Man was gracious and kind as advertised, a real salt-of-the-earth guy. And the Earl of Baltimore was a tad cantankerous, but still managed to spin some interesting tales. (Ones, I might add, that were peppered with expletives that were a colorful part of Earl’s vocabulary.)

Both Baseball Hall of Famers, who died over the weekend, once donned the Red Wings flannels, and remain two of the franchise’s most beloved alums.

While researching Silver Seasons, the history of the Wings that I co-wrote with Jim Mandelaro, I came across an interesting anecdote about Musial’s Rochester arrival. After stashing his paper bagful of clothes and personal belongings into his locker (he was too poor to afford a suitcase), Musial pulled on his uniform and headed for the batting cage.  The young hitter with the awkward-looking, corkscrew stance lashed line drives all over the field. But a big-league scout was unimpressed. He turned to Wings manager Tony Kaufmann, shook his head disapprovingly and said: “He’ll never make it up there. Not with that stance, he won’t.”

Kaufmann was incredulous. Sure, Musial’s stance was ugly. (“He looks like a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming” was the way one player described it.) But his swing was a thing of beauty, and was enough to convince Kauffman that the son of a Polish immigrant zinc miner from Western Pennsylvania would not only make it, but become a Man among boys.

Musial spent just 54 games with the Wings before being promoted to the St. Louis Cardinals. His Rochester stint included 10 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 21 runs batted in and a .326 average. His torrid hitting continued in the big leagues as he batted .426 in 12 games with the Cardinals. Musial told me in a 1987 appearance in Rochester that he fully expected to be reassigned to Rochester the following spring. Instead, he stuck with the big club, and you know the rest of the story: Seven National League batting titles, 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, a .331 career batting average and a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.

I wonder whatever became of that not-so sage scout who doubted Musial’s unorthodox stance. I also wonder what might have happened if Musial – who originally was signed as a pitcher and who went 18-5 in the Florida State League – had not injured his shoulder while diving for a ball in 1940. Would he have become a Hall-of-Fame pitcher? Or would he have faded into oblivion like thousands of other ballplayers?

Lastly, I wonder how much more appreciated Musial would have been had he played for the Yankees or Dodgers or Red Sox. He remains one of the most underappreciated superstars in sports history, overshadowed by contemporaries such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

It's cliché and risky to say that Musial was an even better person than he was a ballplayer. But, in this case, I believe it’s true. I’ve never read or heard a disparaging word about him. He was beloved by his peers and fans. He clearly wasn’t just the Man on the diamond.

Weaver’s ties to Rochester were much stronger than Musial’s. Earl spent two seasons managing the Wings, guiding them to a pennant in 1966 and a second-place finish the following summer. That led to his promotion to the Baltimore Orioles, where he began a Hall-of-Fame managing career that saw him win four American League pennants and one World Series title.

Earl was known for being a master tactician and a pugnacious competitor. At 5-feet, 6-inches tall, he was shorter than all of the players he managed and most of the umpires he verbally sparred with. Spurred on, in part, by a Napoleonic complex, Weaver took guff from no one.

There’s a great story about a 1963 ejection from a game in Charleston, W.V. when Weaver pulled the third base bag from the ground and carried it into the clubhouse and locked the door. Apparently, the grounds crew couldn’t find another base, so the umpire sent the clubhouse boy to retrieve the bag from Earl. Weaver gave the clubbie the bag after he was told that the umpire was about to forfeit the game in the other team’s favor.

Weaver wound up being ejected 21 times during his two seasons skippering the Wings and 91 times with the Orioles. He was known to turn his cap backwards, so he could get face to chin with the umpire. He loved kicking dirt on homeplate after he had been given the thumb. Umpires hated his histrionics, but fans loved it; they thought it was great entertainment.

The infamous feud between Weaver and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Palmer has its roots with the Red Wings. A year after beating Sandy Koufax during Baltimore’s World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Palmer developed arm problems and was sent to Rochester on a rehab assignment. In his first start for the Wings, the Orioles ace was cruising along with a 6-0 lead against the Bisons at old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo before running into control problems in the fourth inning. He wound up walking the bases loaded and after throwing two balls to the next hitter, Weaver stormed out of the dugout to have a conference with his pitcher. “Throw the (bleeping) ball over the (bleeping) plate,’’ Weaver barked. “This guy is (bleeping) nothing.”

Palmer didn’t appreciate Weaver’s tirade, but he grudgingly followed orders. He threw the next pitch down the pike and the “(bleeping) nothing” – who went by the name of Johnny Bench – hit the ball over the fence for a grand slam. It would be the only grand slam Palmer would allow in his professional baseball career. “Earl Weaver lost all credibility with me at that point,’’ Palmer told me years later. “I told Earl that the only thing he knew about pitching is that he couldn’t hit it. I never listened to him again.”

The two strong-willed men would lock horns on numerous occasions after Weaver became the Orioles manager, but eventually buried the hatchet.

“Earl and I actually were similar in many ways,’’ Palmer told me. “He wanted to be the best manager in baseball and I wanted to be the best pitcher in baseball. Sometimes we got in each other’s way, but, I’ll say this, when Earl managed, I can never think of a time when we went into the season and we weren’t one of the favorites to win.”

Stan the Man and the Earl of Baltimore certainly were two indelible baseball personalities. Musial’s line-drive hits, fun-filled renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica and his common decency will be missed. As will Weaver’s managing skills and entertaining theatrics.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

Plugging my new baseball radio show

This is a shameless plug. I admit it. But what the hay, it's my blog and I have bills to pay.

I'm pleased to announce the debut of a new baseball radio show I'm co-hosting with former presidential speechwriter and fellow baseball author, Curt Smith, called A Talk in the Park. The weekly, hour-long interview show will air Saturdays at noon on WYSL AM-1040 and 92.1 FM. The show also will be streamed live and available on podcast at www.wysl1040.com.

I think we have a pretty strong lineup for our first show, with Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson discussing the recent Hall voting; New York and San Francisco Giants pitching legend Johnny Antonelli reminiscing about his 1954 World Series championship team; Red Wings general manager Dan Mason talking about what it was like running three teams (Wings, Scranton/Wilkes Barre and Batavia) last summer, and St. Louis writer Rob Rains giving his take on no modern-era players being elected this year for Cooperstown.

The show will air weekly and we're going to have a nice mix of national and local baseball personalities. Plus, we've got some great baseball music through the years that we're using as lead-ins to the show's various segments.

So, please check it out, either live or via podcast. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Marrone a good choice to rebuild the Buffalo Bills

I expect many Bills fans will be underwhelmed by the hiring of former Syracuse University coach Doug Marrone as Buffalo’s new head coach. I realize many will look at his 25-25 record in four seasons with the Orange and say, ‘Jeesh! Couldn’t we have found someone better than this?”

But I think it’s a good hire. And here are some reasons why:

·         Marrone knows how to rebuild a program from the ashes. Yes, he had just a .500 record at SU, but consider the mess he inherited. Under his predecessor, Greg Robinson, Syracuse had become the dregs of college football, with a 10-37 record, including two 10-loss seasons, the first and only double-digit loss seasons in the program’s storied history. Marrone had to change a losing culture, and he did. After a 4-8 rookie season, his teams went 21-17 with two Pinstripe Bowl victories over the next three campaigns. Believe me, the challenge he faced at SU was far more daunting than what he’ll encounter with the Bills. SU’s cupboard was bare. There is talent on the Bills roster.

·         Marrone knows how to develop quarterbacks. The job the Bronx native did with Ryan Nassib has been remarkable. The graduating quarterback has gone from being an unknown to a guy who is shooting up the NFL draft boards, with some mock drafts even projecting him as a late first-round pick. Under Marrone’s tutelage, Nassib finished his senior season with 3,749 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He supplanted Donovan McNabb as the school’s all-time passing yardage leader (9,190). Drafting and developing a young quarterback is one of the Bills top priorities. Marrone will be the ideal coach to help that new QB blossom.

·         Marrone, 48, has plenty of NFL experience. Prior to coming to Syracuse, he spent seven seasons as an assistant in the pros, including three seasons as the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints (2006-08). Both Saints coach Sean Payton and former Giants two-time, Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells had predicted that Marrone would become an NFL head coach some day. During an appearance at the Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities Dinner following the Saints Super Bowl victory a few years ago, quarterback Drew Brees told me that he “loved working with Marrone because Doug knew offenses inside and out, was meticulous in his preparation and was a great leader.” A former offensive lineman at Syracuse and for two seasons in the NFL, Marrone clearly has paid his dues. His coaching career began as an assistant in 1992 at Cortland State, and included college jobs at the Coast Guard Academy, Northeastern, Georgia Tech, Georgia and Tennessee, and pro jobs with the Jets (offensive line from 2002-2005) and Saints. So many hot college coaches have made the jump to the NFL only to discover that the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah! stuff doesn’t work with highly paid professional athletes. Marrone understands this. Plus, the work he did with the Saints will give him instant cred with his players.

I understand that many Bills fans were hoping for a big splash – Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Chip Kelly. But the reality is that none of those guys was coming to Buffalo regardless of how much money and power was thrown their way. As team president Russ Brandon said at last week’s news conference the Bills brand has been tarnished. And the only thing that’s going to return the shine to the franchise is consistent winning and the stability and prestige that comes with it.

I’m happy the Bills didn’t go the retread route once more with a Ken Whisenhunt or a Lovie Smith. We’ve been that route the past two hires with Chan Gailey and Dick Jauron. It is time for some new, young, blood and new ideas.

I understand how Marrone’s 25-25 record looks uninspiring. But you need to dig deeper into his resume. Only then will you begin to comprehend that the job he did resuscitating a moribund SU program was one of the great reclamation jobs in all of football over the past decade.

Of course, only time will tell, but I think he’s ready to do the same at One Bills Drive.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Praise for Chan Gailey and remembrances of Syracuse's not-so-sweet Sugar Bowl

One of the things I don’t like about my job is when you have to call for someone to be benched or fired. I realize that sports, particularly at the professional level, is a highly competitive, results-oriented business, and that athletes and coaches are handsomely compensated, making more money – sometimes in a game or two – than most of us will see in a lifetime.

But they are human beings, too.
And there are times, like during Chan Gailey’s emotional, two-minute press conference at One Bills Drive yesterday, when you can’t help but feel a person’s pain.

The man who had just been fired as Bills coach choked back the tears while delivering a statement in which he thanked ownership and the front office for giving him an opportunity and Buffalo fans for being so loyal. 
“I understand this is a business,’’ said Gailey, who had a 16-32 record in his second go-around as an NFL head coach. “We didn’t get the job done.”

He concluded by saying, “I think (this) will be the first place that’s ever fired me that I’ll pull for. Thank you.”

There’s no question that Gailey poured heart and soul into trying to turn things around in Buffalo. He did some positive things, but not enough of them to right the ship. It was time for a change. He understood that. Through it all, Chan handled himself with class and dignity. The reality is that he probably won’t get another shot to be a head coach in the NFL, but he’s a bright offensive mind and should land some place as a coordinator. I’ll be rooting for him to succeed.

Twenty-five years ago today, I was at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, watching a brilliant Syracuse football team cap an undefeated season with a disappointing 16-16 tie against Auburn. It was a great time to be covering the Orangemen, with their colorful, quotable coach – Dick MacPherson – and a bevy of talented players, including quarterback Don McPherson, a classy, entertaining performer who got jobbed out of the Heisman Trophy.

It was a hard-hitting, defense-dominated game, and I still can’t believe that Auburn coach Pat Dye opted to go for the tying field goal instead of going for the win. If memory serves me, the tying field goal was booted by a young man whose name was Win Lyle. Talk about a headline writer’s dream: Win Gives Auburn a Tie.

I remember Coach Mac, a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, being furious with Dye. I couldn’t blame him. The Auburn coach became known as “Tie Dye” in Syracuse and an enterprising Central New York radio station collected 2,000 ugly neck ties that were delivered to the Auburn coach’s office.

SU finished 11-0-1 and ranked fourth in the AP polls, tying the 1959 national championship Orangemen for most wins in a single season. And to think, just a year or two earlier, SU fans had tried to get Coach Mac fired. Fortunately, he survived, kicking off a 15-year stretch of winning football at the Carrier Dome.
There were many wondrous moments for my family and me in 2012 – my daughter’s wedding, Beth’s return to the airwaves at WXXI and my fun-filled book tour with the great Johnny Antonelli. But there also were moments of tragedy and unrelenting stress.

My heart goes out to the West Webster firefighters and their families as well as to the people whose lives were shattered in Newtown, Conn., and so many other places ravaged by man’s inhumanity to man.

Here’s wishing you a healthy, happy and prosperous 2013 in which peace and the goodness of people prevail.