Famed New York saloon owner Joe Healey dead at 77
NEW YORK -- Joe Healey turned Runyon's: A New York Saloon into the sports world's crossroads where players, umpires, writers, television executives, police and fans ritually congregated for nightly discourse that could last until nearly dawn.
Healey died Tuesday at age 77, more than two decades after his bar shuttered, leaving his former patrons to reminisce about golden memories of a more innocent time where pens were put away and athletes and media mixed with ease.
"It was a frat house for sports people," former New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica recalled Wednesday.
Healey died at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, of prostate cancer, according to his wife, Leeanne Healey. She said he had been diagnosed with it about 20 years ago, and the cancer became more aggressive about 16 months ago.
Born Aug. 15, 1941, Healey was a son of James Christopher Healey, a congressman from the Bronx from 1956-65. A graduate of Villanova, he dreamed of opening a successor to Toots Shor's Restaurant, "the joint" off Rockefeller Center where the sports world gathered from 1940-59, and then again when it reopened a block away from 1961-71.
While working as a bartender at Mr. Laffs, opened in the 1960s by New York Yankees infielder Phil Linz, Healey decided he wanted to create a Shor's for his era.
Together with Jimmy Costello, whose father, Tim, owned a bar that was a New Yorker and Daily News hangout, Healey opened Runyon's in April 1, 1977, on East 50th St. off Second Avenue and named after sportswriter Damon Runyon.
The Yankees were on the rise, and Runyon's became a hangout in an age where games ended earlier, and players and media arrived before midnight to dissect events they had just participated in and chronicled, many while eating sizzler steaks.
"That was our place for a cold one after a ballgame," retired umpire Bruce Froemming said, especially remembering a night when he was doing card tricks there for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "One of his henchmen there, he couldn't believe the trick. He said, 'I'll give you $10,000 for those cards.' Of course we didn't do it."
Costello was the business person and Healey attracted the crowd. Former Met Rusty Staub, broadcaster Bob Costas, singer Terry Cashman, basketball coaches Tom Penders and Bill Raftery, and CBS Sports executive producer Kevin O'Malley were among Healey's regulars. Competitors during the day became friends at night.
"He was an unabashed self-promoter. He was perfectly happy to be the front man," said O'Malley, whose poem "Bucky at the Bat" was on the original bar's wall. "There was kind of a romance to the whole thing. There was a magic there."
Costas, who like Lupica spoke with Healey for the final time last Saturday, hosted his "Coast to Coast" radio show from Runyon's and recalled interviewing Ted Williams there for two hours as people in the packed bar looked on.
"It was a bit like 'Cheers.' You just showed up and there were at least a handful of people you knew or you were friendly with," Costas said. "You could just walk in the door by yourself and you'd have companionship there and like-minded people."
And in an era before the internet, a thick, well-worn edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia was behind a corner table to refresh recollections and - occasionally - determine debates.
"It was like a Holy Writ," Costas remembered.
Healey often moderated along with bartenders Little John Henderson, John (Shirts) Hughes, Doc Mannion and Richie O'Rourke. Fans and media would join Healey for bagels and Bloody Marys on autumn Sundays, travel to New Jersey to watch the NFL's New York Giants, then return to Runyon's to continue the party. But baseball was the No. 1 sport, and Lupica repeatedly wrote of Healey as "the world's greatest living Yankees fan."
Healey told of leaving Fort Dix in New Jersey during his Army service to keep alive his streak of Yankees openers.
"A Lt. Maybe - I don't know why I remember this but I do - said to him: 'Joe, you strike me as the kind of man who would leave his troops in battle,'" Lupica said. "Joe said: 'With all due respect sir, only if the Yanks were in the World Series.'"
Raftery, then Seton Hall's coach, said he owed his career as a television analyst to getting to know O'Malley at Runyon's.
"Everybody was anonymous there. No matter the stature, you were embraced by Joe. It was almost like a crazy little family," Raftery said. "You didn't think of it then as a who's who. You knew you'd have a few laughs, be entertained."
When umpire John McSherry died in 1996, Healey sent McSherry's chair from Runyon's to the umpire's room at Shea Stadium to keep his memory alive.
At some point in the 1980s, Healey opened another bar a few blocks away, Runyon's On 2nd. The original Runyon's shuttered - four people died when a crane collapsed on the town house in 2008 - and Runyon's On 2nd closed in 1996.
An era was over, and Healey moved to Florida. He married Leeanne True in 1997 - she said it was his second marriage and he referred to his first as a brief "scrimmage."
A funeral Mass is planned for June 1 at St. Clare Catholic Church in North Palm Beach.
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