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Volume 21 No. 26
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Sandomir looks back on 25 years of sports media memories

The sports media beat is losing one of its most influential voices in the next few weeks as Richard Sandomir moves from The New York Times’ sports section to obituaries.

The paper is not saying what it will do with the beat once Sandomir leaves, but if the Times is like most other U.S. newspapers, its sports media coverage will become a thing of the past. As newspapers have looked to cut costs, sports media reporters have been among the first to go. With Sandomir, the Times was a significant holdout.

Sandomir spent 25 years on the beat, chronicling everything from the launch of Fox Sports to the rise of ESPN. He broke news stories, of course, and proved to be the smartest reviewer of sports telecasts in the business.

But Sandomir also was known for columns that touched on historical and offbeat topics that had little to do with media.

Richard Sandomir (center) of The New York Times, with industry executives (left) Ken Hershman and Rick Bernstein, is moving from the sports media beat to write obituaries for the Times.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“Sometimes the most fun I had was on non-media things — covering the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions and covering the dog show, which was kind of a hybrid of media and dogs,” Sandomir said.

Last week, for example, he wrote about the World Series-winning 1948 Cleveland Indians. Just two weeks earlier, the follicly challenged Sandomir wrote a column giving advice to Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck, who recently admitted to having eight hair transplants. “As a pro-baldist, I am dismayed at almost any tale of ego-driven hair replacement,” he wrote.

I spoke to Sandomir last week about why he is leaving sports for obituaries. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why did you make this decision?

SANDOMIR: Twenty-five years is a long time. Even though I still enjoy what I’m doing, I think it was time to find a new challenge. I’ve written 35 or so obits over the past 25 years. Almost always, I’ve enjoyed doing them. Obits really appeals to someone who loves reading biographies. You’re doing a 900- to 1,000-word biography, often under deadline pressure.

How did you arrive at this decision?

SANDOMIR: I knew the obits editor because we had worked on a couple of obits recently, including ESPN’s Stuart Scott. I found the notion of doing this kind of work rather attractive. I spoke to a few higher-ups to see if this was a good move. Not only did I find out that a lot of people thought it was a good move, particularly for me, [but] they felt that obits are such an important part of the Times’ identity.

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What will you miss about sports media?

SANDOMIR: I spent my childhood in front of the TV watching at 3:30 the Pro Bowlers Tour and at 4:30 “Wide World of Sports” on Saturdays. When I first started, it was an absolute thrill to talk to Jim McKay and Keith Jackson. It was a real treat to get to know Roone Arledge through being one of five authors on his autobiography. I grew up watching Marv Albert. I will miss talking to them. I will miss knowing that if I see or hear something on television that they’ve done, I can call them up and get a better understanding of it.

What’s happened to our beat? There aren’t many of us left.

SANDOMIR: I wish there were more of us. It’s not as serious as the loss of reporters covering zoning board meetings or local government. But the more people you have on a beat, the broader a critical voice and better reporting you have. When there were 35 or 40 of us, you’d see a much more vigorous press corps.

What is the Times’ commitment to this beat?

SANDOMIR: I honestly don’t know. With the prospect of layoffs coming next year, I don’t think anybody can plan intelligently or predict exactly how the paper will replace what gets lost in layoffs. I don’t know if there will be a replacement for me or if their notion is that sports business is the way to go and they feel that sports business reporter Joe Nocera’s coverage is what they need.

What are some of the stories that have stuck with you over the past 25 years?

SANDOMIR: The top of the list has to be the three-part ESPN series that I did with Jim Miller and Steve Eder in 2013. I will remember reporting on Olympic bidding, especially when we were in Lausanne in 2003, with ESPN and Fox there, and NBC’s Dick Ebersol was lighting up his cigar like Red Auerbach.

A funny and poignant moment that I will remember was being with Bob Uecker in the Brewers booth when he had just come back from a series of serious surgeries in 2010. A Make-A-Wish group came in with a very, very shy 5-year-old boy who had a scar on his chest. He was too shy to show it. Bob had just gotten a scar on his chest, so he just pulled up his shirt, and the kid just pulled up his shirt. It was a very sweet moment, Uecker being Uecker. It was all great fun to do that.

I remember vividly former Olympics producer Terry O’Neil delivering the immortal phrase “plausibly live” during a pre-Olympic presser before the Barcelona Games in 1992. I’m sure he rues the day that he brought up plausibly live because it clearly was not plausible. And it was not live. I’ve used that phrase for the next 24 years.

Who were some of the bigger personalities you covered?

SANDOMIR: Bob Costas and I talked fairly frequently. It was often not about sports. Sometimes it was about the world at large and sometimes it was about “The Three Stooges.” We are really focused heavily on Shemp. Bob years ago named him the utility Stooge. Bob’s a few years older than I am, but we have the same cultural influences. It’s always fun talking to him.

Because of the business side of what I do, I got an interesting glimpse in the years when Roger Goodell was the chief operating officer under former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. When you look at him now as a public figure, he has not created a great public image. But he used to be almost fun when he wasn’t in the public spotlight. I remember covering some NFL meetings that had to do with returning to Los Angeles, and he was just so much fun to talk to. You saw a little bit of that in his early period as commissioner. That has kind of dissipated. You’d get Roger on the phone back then. I don’t think too many NFL writers are getting Roger on the phone anymore. It was fun to witness that.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.