John Steadman was one of Baltimore’s great rememberers. I think of him now because this week — Jan. 1, 2021 — marks precisely 20 years since he slipped away, and it’s nice to recall what he meant as a newspaper columnist and as a man.
He wrote sports for The News-American for about 30 years, and for the Sunpapers for another 15. In his prime, he wrote six columns a week, which no sane person should do, and broadcast radio commentaries five days a week as well.
He never lost sight of the joy of athletics, or of the human beings behind the box scores, and most of all the emotional ties between a community and its athletes. He was the conscience of Baltimore sports.
Nearly 30 years ago, in the weeks leading up to the grand opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the city’s daily newspapers trumpeted the ties between the new stadium and the narrow rowhouse a block away where the immortal Babe Ruth was born — and the spot that was now short centerfield, where the young Babe once lived just above his father’s saloon.
John took the connection a step further. He hired a small plane to fly across the heavens, high above the Opening Day crowd, trailing a banner that read, “The Babe Says Hi.”
He had the perspective of a historian, but he knew he was writing about games and not world wars. He could blast a creep like Robert Irsay for unconscionable theft, and come back the next day to write about the racetrack tout Mister Diz, or the dietary habits of Boog Powell, or the latest miracle run by Lenny Moore.
He was the humblest of men. When complimented on a nice column, he’d mutter a self-effacing “good days and bad.”
When he was elected to the Sportswriters Hall of Fame, he said, “It was an off-year. That’s why they picked me.” He mentioned this at a ceremony one evening at the statehouse in Annapolis, where the entire Maryland General Assembly honored him for half a century’s work.
He had a rather puckish sense of humor. He knew there was a rule about no cheering in the press box, and so he didn’t cheer. But in the glory days of his beloved Colts, he was known to bypass that rule by blowing a bugle whenever the Colts scored a touchdown.
The bugle became legendary. Some years later, it was laid ceremoniously to rest. Steadman and sportscaster Chuck Thompson took a rowboat out onto the Chesapeake Bay, and John blew “Taps” one last time, and then they buried it at sea.
Thompson told me that story one night, laughing as he remembered it. But then he said, “Look at this. The hair on my arms is standing up just remembering.”
The best sports columnists reach us with more than just stylish writing. They make the connections that bind a community. They offer lessons in humanity.
In 1968, when the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King led to days of heartache and rioting around the country, other sports columnists persisted in writing about pitching staffs and home runs, as though oblivious to the world outside the playing field.
John looked at the riots, and the history that preceded them, and wrote a column saying, “It’s an indictment upon us all that there was ever a division between the races. That we were born white was only a matter of heritage. … More than ever, we must be our brother’s keeper.”
Those were pretty brave words in a furious time, in a city on fire.
John was my professional godfather. He hired me as a sportswriter slightly more than half a century ago, and we stayed close until his death 20 years ago. When he was dying, they had him down at Johns Hopkins Hospital for a while, and I’d go down to visit him.
There were always others there to see him, such as Art Donovan and Lenny Moore and Jim Mutscheller. And one day the telephone rang and Steadman picked it up. He had tubes coming out of him everywhere, but his voice was strong, and I heard him holler into the phone, full of bluff, “I don’t want you coming down here.”
And on the other end, came a voice equally strong, hollering back, “I don’t have to listen to you.”
It was John Unitas. This was two old friends, in their oblique way, saying they loved each other.
By the way, on that first day of Oriole Park, the airplane saying “The Babe Says Hi” never got off the ground. President George Bush was in the ballpark, and they won’t allow aircraft to fly over any sitting president.
But it was John Steadman’s well-intended gift to his home town. He was connecting us with our own history. On days like today, 20 years after he left us, I can practically hear John now. He’s saying hi.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.