Dave Anderson: Pulitzer Prize winner, and his best lead which wasn’t

Dave Anderson was one of three sports writers to win the Pulitzer Prize, which is a little like being in the first class inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. There’s no higher group to aspire to.

Anderson, who died earlier this month at age 89, won the Pulitzer for Commentary in 1981; the only other sports writers to do so were Red Smith and Jim Murray.

Like Smith, Anderson won while working for the New York Times, whose exposure and gravitas surely helped, and one of the columns he won for was on Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose machinations and callousness provided everyone with potential award-winning entries.

But only Anderson wrote, with a Tony La Russa-like eye for detail, on Steinbrenner greeting the press on the occasion of Dick Hoswer’s firing/not firing with trays of sandwiches for the media which went uneaten.

If you know any sports writers, you know how rare that is.

From Anderson’s November, 1980 column, which helped win him the Pulitzer, headlined The Food On a Table At the Execution (hat tip to the headline writer):

“‘What advice,’ Dick Howser was being asked now, ‘would you give Gene Michael?’ ‘To have a strong stomach,’ Dick Howser replied, smiling thinly, ‘and a nice contract.’ Minutes later, the execution was over. Dick Howser got up quickly and walked out of the room without a smile. Behind his round desk, George Steinbrenner looked around.

“‘Nobody ate any sandwiches,’ the Yankee owner said.”

There was power in Anderson’s subtlety, even if it might have been lost on Steinbrenner (my own favorite line on Steinbrenner came from the Philadelphia Daily News’ Stan Hochman, and paraphrasing, it went something to the effect of: Steinbrenner was born on the Fourth of July and thinks he represents the virtues of the holiday. We can all be glad he wasn’t born on Christmas.)

Howser managed the Yankees for one season in 1980, won the division and got swept by the Royals as Steinbrenner fumed in Game 2 when Willie Randolph, waved home by third-base coach Mike Ferraro, was thrown out at the plate with the tying run in the eighth.

In Steinbrenner’s simplistic view there were good guys who succeeded in October and bad guys who failed, and Howser was the latter, even after a 103-win season. Never mind that Randolph was nearly safe (Reggie Jackson was up next, but he surely would have been walked intentionally, and Dan Quisenberry was lurking). Or that the Yankees were outscored in the series 14-6, and Goose Gossage tossed up a series-losing, third-deck-only-because-the-old-Yankee-Stadium-only-had-three-decks, three-run homer to George Brett in Game 3.

Steinbrenner invited the media to Howser’s firing with the bogus cover story of a too-good-to-pass-up-opportunity to sell real estate.  Anderson exposed it, deftly, as the con it was.

From Anderson’s 1980 column:

“‘Dick has decided,’ George Steinbrenner began, ‘that he will not be returning to the Yankees next year. I should say, not returning to the Yankees as manager.’

“Dick has decided. That would be the premise of George Steinbrenner’s explanation. Dick has decided. Ostensibly he suddenly decided to go into real estate development in Tallahassee, Fla., and be the supervisor of Yankee scouts in the Southeast after having been the manager for the Yankee team that won 103 games last season, after having been in baseball virtually all his life as a major league infielder, major league coach, college coach and major league manager of baseball’s most famous franchise.

“But baseball’s most famous franchise also has baseball’s most demanding owner. When the Yankees were swept in three games by the Kansas City Royals in the American League championship series, George Steinbrenner steamed. And now Dick Howser is in real estate and is a Yankee scouting supervisor.”

The allure of real estate didn’t last long. Howser was managing again the next summer after the Royals fired Jim Frey in the strike-interrupted 1981 season, and in 1985, given time by a less-impetuous ownership, Howser managed the Royals to their first World Series title. Two years later, he was dead from a brain tumor.

Anderson wrote extensively on football and boxing and golf, but got his start covering a baseball team which no longer exists (the Brooklyn Dodgers) for a paper which no longer exists (the Brooklyn Eagle). The Dodgers had a press corps covering them (Anderson, Dick Young, Roger Kahn, Roscoe McGowan, Bill Roeder) as talented at their jobs as the players were in theirs.

When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, Anderson — then working for the Journal-American after the Eagle folded in 1955 — made sure he was the last writer to leave the press box in Ebbets Field after the final game.

From Anderson’s Associated Press obit:

“’In the upstairs press box after the game, Bill Roeder (of the World-Telegram & Sun) and I, as usual, were the last to finish our afternoon-paper stories,’ Anderson wrote. ‘After handing them to the Western Union teletype operator, we took the small elevator down to the field level and walked behind the marble rotunda to the small door at the night watchman’s entrance.

“’As we approached the door, I stopped and let Bill Roeder go through it. As I did, I realized that I would be the last baseball writer to leave Ebbets Field after the last Dodger game there. Put it on my tombstone.'”

Almost every tribute to Anderson — and the Yankees honored him with a moment of silence and scoreboard picture before Game 3 of the ALDS — cited his decency, kindness and humility. As a young beat writer with the Eagle, it was tested.

From Kahn’s book Boys of Summer on the 1953 pennant race:

“Through the hot months, the Dodgers played phenomenal .800 baseball. They clinched the pennant in Milwaukee on Saturday, September 13, when (Carl) Erskine defeated the Braves, 5 to 3, in a game punctuated by three Milwaukee errors. Dave Anderson, a young reporter, who had succeeded Harold Burr on the Brooklyn Eagle, wrote the best lead. ‘The Milwaukee Braves,’ he began, ‘died with their boots.’

“‘Two-to-one they change it on you,’ Young said.

“‘If not the deskman, then the printer,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried to get cerebration into the Tribune four times this season and it’s always come up ‘celebration.’

“Anderson grinned, but turned less cheerful when he saw a copy of the Eagle. Someone indeed murdered his pleasant pun. His published story read, ‘The Milwaukee Braves died with their boots on.’ On. Not even Dante conceived an inferno for sodden copyreaders.'” 

Presumably, copy readers soon after started reading closer and respecting Anderson’s work, and stopped changing it, which was a good thing for all who read him. His “pleasant puns” were saved, even if the Eagle and the Dodgers in Brooklyn were not.


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