Mike Downey remembers Jerome Holtzman

Tribune staff reporter

A small envelope would come once in a while, familiar Evanston return address on the outside, familiar insight on the inside. Any word from Jerome Holtzman was welcome.

He was a gruff man but a gentleman, a newspaper bulldog but an old softie, a U.S. Marine to his core but a kind, considerate, cultured soul who always looked to me as if he should have been on his way to meet Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice and Ring Lardner for lunch.

"You know what Jerry Holtzman looked like?" baseball broadcaster Charley Steiner blurted out Monday when I was a guest on his satellite radio show. "One of those characters from 'Inherit the Wind.' "

Yes. Perfect. Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, take your pick. A tight, white, starched collar. A set of suspenders, thumbs inserted, poised to snap. A cigar as large as a clarinet.

Chicago's kind of guy. And certainly baseball's kind, back in the day and for all time. A student of the game and a teacher as well.

"Jerome Holtzman, just like Jack Brickhouse, Bob Elson, Vince Lloyd, Lou Boudreau and Harry Caray, taught generations of Chicago fans baseball," said one of them, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, when I broke the news to him that Jerome had left us at a much-too-young 81.

"He did it differently. He did it with the written word, which can last a lifetime."

Amen to that, as those inheriting the wind would say.

Some of our most esteemed baseball men of summer have recently fallen by the wayside: Bobby Murcer, a classy Yankee and Cub; Johnny Buzhardt, a durable right-hander; Neil Hohlfeld, a noted chronicler from Chicago to Houston, and even Eliot Asinof, the storyteller of "Eight Men Out."

That one was Holtzman's kind of book. He included it in a collection he personally bound in red leather, along with venerable works by Ed Linn, Jim Brosnan and others. Beautiful tales of the ballyard, gathered together like encyclopedias. Jerome blessed me with a set.

His own "No Cheering in the Press Box" was required reading, as necessary to some of us as a how-to-read instructional book to a child. It was the who-what-when-where-why of baseball literature. I can tell you the names of many who need to reread it.

When we were Sun-Times teammates, Holtzman was astounded to hear a boss half his age complain: "Your writing is filled with cliches."

"But they're my cliches," Jerry argued. "I invented them."

Baseball was his game. He gave it everything he had, and very few gave it more.

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