Remembering the man who personified Chicago: Bill Gleason

  • Legendary sportswriter and columnist Bill Gleason

    Legendary sportswriter and columnist Bill Gleason

 
 
Posted1/5/2010 12:01 AM

Many know Bill Gleason only from "The Sportswriters on TV," but that show was merely his encore.

First and foremost, Gleason was a newspaper columnist who died two days ago at age 87 after decades as a living legend.

 

Gleason personified the fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping, alcohol-appreciating glory days of print journalism. He was straight out of Broadway's "The Front Page" and Hollywood's "Deadline U.S.A."

We're talking about an old-school sports writer intimate with all the streets he walked and all the readers who walked those streets with him.

Every media outlet needs a someone like Gleason who knows all the cracks in every high-school gymnasium's floor and every professional athlete's armor.

As an Army veteran of World War II awarded the Silver Star, Gleason spoke American to Americans. As a South Side Irishman who didn't want to be anyone else from anywhere else, he spoke Chicago to Chicagoans.

An unabashed White Sox fan, Gleason insisted the old Comiskey Park could be renovated into modern times and he never forgave Jerry Reinsdorf for replacing it.

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If Gleason were around today, he would scorch the McCaskeys, Ted Phillips, Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith for what they're doing to the Bears.

After all, Gleason was the guy who early in 1982 asked George Halas to address "the senility issue" on the day Papa Bear introduced Mike Ditka as Bears head coach.

I grew up in Logan Square a half-century ago reading sports writers such as Bill Gleason, Jack Griffin, Warren Brown and Dave Condon.

But mostly I wanted to be like Gleason. He also grew up in the city, enjoyed life as a Chicago newspaperman and would rather watch a meaningless Cubs or Sox game in September than the Yankees or Dodgers in October.

Then came the 1971 Western Open at Olympia Fields, one of the first big events I covered. After finishing up that Sunday evening I stopped in the clubhouse for a beverage.

Gleason and Griffin already were at the bar and invited me to join them. My goodness, these giants of the industry invited this fledgling Rockford Morning Star stranger to join them as if I belonged.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Over time I have been fortunate to have one-on-one conversations with all-time great athletes - Walter Payton, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson and O.J. Simpson come to mind - but times spent with Mr. Gleason were like a baseball player getting to know Babe Ruth.

Gleason continued being nice to the kid, occasionally including me on "The Sports Writers" radio roundtable he created on WGN-AM radio.

Then there was the time I was a guest on Gleason's talk show on another outlet. He didn't take calls from listeners but instead called them from a list he compiled to ask their opinions on certain issues.

That was Bill Gleason, an unconventional character back when being a character in the newspaper business was charmingly conventional.

Like, Gleason would bring to a game a bottle of beer stuffed in a sock, along with a sandwich in a sack, and consume them at halftime.

Who was going to tell him he couldn't? He was Bill Gleason, Chicago sports and Chicago newspapers all in one fascinating package.

mimrem@dailyherald.com