Blackhawks reporter Mike Spellman mourned as life of the press box
Anyone who ever met him has a Mike Spellman story.
There are the Christmas cards with his face expertly Photoshopped onto an Irish dancer's body. There was the time he stood up for a fellow reporter who was being chastised for "interrupting" another reporter's conversation with Scottie Pippen. There's also the time he thought he was having a lengthy conversation with a stranger only to discover the stranger was talking on a Bluetooth device to someone else. And so on.
Using his affable, irreverent and gleefully self-deprecating wit, Spellman was able to disarm the biggest of the sports world's big cheeses as well as any irate reader who wanted to challenge one of Spellman's opinions.
Spellman died unexpectedly Tuesday. The cause of his death is unconfirmed, but he appeared to have suffered a heart attack at his home. Today would have been his 51st birthday.
The Blackhawks express their sincere condolences on the passing of Daily Herald sportswriter Mike Spellman. We'll miss him in the press box.— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 21, 2015
"He was the life of my press box, there's no question," said Dave Zenner, senior manager of communications at Arlington International Racecourse.
For 23 years, Spellman poured his distinctive personality onto the pages of the Daily Herald, making him a reader favorite for his expertise on an array of sports topics as well as his popular Spellman's Scorecard column. Starting as a freelance writer of youth sports in 1990 and joining the staff full time in 1991, Spellman worked his way up from chasing down scores of Little League Baseball games to covering PGA majors. Just last year, Spellman seamlessly assumed the Chicago Blackhawks beat after the death of longtime hockey writer Tim Sassone.
Two Crosbys, two Lemieuxs and one Kane walk into a bar... Mike Spellman would have had a great punchline. pic.twitter.com/1okVBIM1cg— Scott Powers (@ESPNChiPowers) January 21, 2015
"We are grief-stricken beyond words," said John Lampinen, senior vice president and editor. "This is such a shock and such a loss."
The team's Twitter feed sent out condolences Wednesday morning: "The Blackhawks express their sincere condolences on the passing of Daily Herald sportswriter Mike Spellman. We'll miss him in the press box."
An athlete at heart who played football and baseball at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, where he earned MVP honors as a standout catcher, Spellman was an avid, though admittedly average golfer.
"I would like to play the golf courses in Ireland," Spellman once wrote in his Daily Herald biography, in perhaps his driest prose on record, "and see my relatives there."
Spellman is survived by his mother, two older sisters, an older brother and a younger sister.
Spellman's older sister, Maura Eggert, said her brother was a sweetheart with a competitive soul.
"We would have croquet matches when we got together as a family," she said. "And one year, we had one in the snow with flashlights and of course he won. But I think he would let us win sometimes."
Spellman's brother Neal Spellman recalled his fun-loving brother's zeal for sports and sports writing.
"His first love was golf, and he still played all over with his group of high school friends," Neal Spellman said. "But writing about sports was his calling. He loved thinking about them in a way that perhaps would entertain other people. He loved his job."
However, his kryptonite was air travel.
"I don't know why that was," Neal Spellman said. "He was always hoping he'd get assigned to Blackhawks coverage in the region so he wouldn't have to fly. He just didn't like it. I don't know if it was claustrophobia or a fear the plane wouldn't stay in the air."
That didn't stop him from his dream assignment: covering the Masters Tournament.
"I had been under the impression that Mike did not like flying," Lampinen said. "But he was so tickled to go. He was like a kid about it. The coverage was fabulous."
Friends and colleagues were equally stunned by Spellman's death.
"I'm still in shock over this," said Len Ziehm, a longtime Chicago sports writer who in recent years teamed with Spellman on Daily Herald golf coverage and to speak about the area sports scene at subscriber events. "He's a throwback to an era when you had to cover everything. That rare versatility really set Mike apart. We've lost a real good solid pro."
Thoughts & prayers are w/ Mike Spellman's family & friends, his Daily Herald family & the Blackhawks beat writers that knew and loved him— Adam Rogowin (@AdamRogowin) January 21, 2015
His ability to tackle any sports subject made him invaluable, Daily Herald editors said. His mug shot accompanied stories and columns on three different topics on three different pages of one Daily Herald Sports section in August 2012.
"He was probably the paper's most versatile sports writer," said Managing Editor Jim Baumann. "He could write with ease and authority on a number of different sports -- and make you laugh at all of them -- but really could blow you away with his writing on the Hawks, the Bears and, of course, golf."
And he was beloved in the newsroom.
"While you were dazzled by his creativity as a writer and columnist, he was such a good and kindhearted person that you were even more impressed by his outgoing spirit and positive nature," Sports Editor Tom Quinlan said. "We lost a true friend and a colleague we greatly admired."
As glib and light as he would write about most sports, Neal Spellman remembers the reverence and almost lyrical way his brother wrote about horse racing.
"Maybe it's because we grew up so close, but the track was always calling him," Neal Spellman said. "There wasn't much money for vacations and the folks would take us to the racetrack for fun when we were all kids. He loved it there."
Tony Petrillo, general manager of Arlington Park, said Spellman made everyone he came in contact with feel comfortable.
"As soon as you met Mike, it was like a longtime friendship had already existed because he was such a warm person and welcoming," Petrillo said. "He was always someone you could yell to and get a smile from."
Former Daily Herald sports writer Lindsey Willhite said the best part of working with Spellman was all the laughter they shared together.
"He used to crack up all the writers with his willingness to try anything in print. One lede that sticks out from years ago is 'Pitch count, schmitch count,'" Willhite remembered. "You know how there are those rare people that you're always eager to see, that you know are going to improve your day by being around them? Mike was one of those rare people."
Funeral arrangements are pending.