Over dinner one evening this week with a couple of old newspaper pals, Fraser Smith and Fred Rasmussen, the talk got around to a familiar lament: Where have all our characters gone?
Once upon a time, Bawlmer was one of the great municipal repositories of those free spirits who went through life with their inhibitions on permanent shutdown.
Where have they gone? As it happens, some of the best were people working in local newspaper and broadcast newsrooms.
Byron Roberts was a great one. He was a rewrite man at the old News American who looked like the actor Gig Young and never took himself too seriously. One day he blithely declared he was going to run for mayor.
“You can’t possibly win,” several of us told him.
“I know,” Byron said. “But, when I die, the obituaries will have to say, ‘Byron Roberts, former candidate for mayor of Baltimore…’”
When he went up to the Municipal Building to register his mayoral candidacy, he was told there was a $50 filing fee.
“What have you got that’s cheaper?” Byron asked.
The paper’s executive editor was Tom White, who studied the horse racing forms between every edition and then strolled into the sports office, where he’d place his off-track wagers, tightly wrapped in copy paper, into the hands of a slight, stooped unassuming clerk named Walter Penkilo, who would then run the bets upstairs to the composing room, where a bunch of linotype operators ran a slightly illegal gambling operation.
The News American sports editor back then was the legendary John Steadman, who was always bringing in guys off the street like Mister Diz, the racetrack tout, and Balls Maggio, whose profession was rescuing balls from the Jones Falls basin and thereafter selling them.
One day, for reasons never explained, Steadman decided to wear his old U.S. Navy uniform to work. He wrote his sports column. Then he headed upstairs to the composing room to lay out the day’s sports pages.
While he was there, the city editor, Eddie Ballard, puckishly alerted a couple of friendly cops that there was a guy in the building impersonating a U.S. military officer, and they should stage a phony arrest.
When the cops arrived in the composing room, all hell broke loose. The guys up there thought it was a raid on their gambling operation. They all bolted for the exits.
One of the great characters in local radio was Eddie Fenton, from WCBM. For years, he covered state politics. As dean of the Annapolis press corps, it was Eddie’s job to signal the end of gubernatorial press conferences by saying, “Thank you, governor.”
Once, at a crowded session with cameras and microphones all over the place, another reporter, all the way on the other side of the big statehouse room, had the nerve to say the magic words. Eddie surged to his feet and bellowed, “You ever do that again, and I’ll break your (bleeping) neck.”
Then he gently turned to the governor of Maryland, Marvin Mandel, and said, “Thank you, governor.”
“Thank you, Eddie,” said Mandel.
Then there was Charley Eckman, who gave up a career as basketball coach and referee to become a radio sportscaster. One time the old boxing promoter, Eli Hanover, invited Charley to his grandson’s bris.
The next morning, on his radio show, Charley announced, “First time I’ve seen a clipping without a 15-yard penalty.”
Charley used to say, “Call me a cab.” Hell, call me a few characters. We’ve got a shortage of them around here.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).