By Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun
10:54 AM EST, January 9, 2013
Richard Ben Cramer, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer and an acclaimed author chronicling the lives of politicians and legendary sports figures, died Monday of lung cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Mr. Cramer, who was 62, lived in Chestertown.
"Richard's work as a gifted writer and deeply principled journalist made our Republic a better place; made us a stronger, more compassionate, and more understanding people," Gov. Martin J. O'Malley, a friend, said in a statement released Tuesday. "We have lost one of the best political reporters of our time."
"He was an extraordinary journalist, and his reporting for The Inquirer from the Middle East was miles ahead of anyone else at the time," said Gene Roberts, who was executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1972 to 1990.
"On top of that, he was a delight to have on your staff. He was so ebullient and enthusiastic about the next story. He was just an amazing guy," recalled Mr. Roberts.
"He had raw talent for writing and reporting and was just so damn good," said Tom Horton, former Sun environmental columnist and longtime friend. "He was born to be a journalist and a writer."
The son of a pharmacist and a school teacher, Richard Ben Cramer was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., where he attended Brighton High School. After being cut from the baseball team, he decided to write for the school newspaper.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Cramer enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University, which he described in a 1984 Esquire magazine profile as being in an "insulated white enclave" in Baltimore.
"Right away I loved the town. A great city. Run-down. Crabs five dollars a dozen. Johnny Unitas. National Bohemian beer," Mr. Cramer, a lifelong Yankees fan, told Esquire. "And Earl Weaver's Orioles, congenitally bush."
At Hopkins, he wrote for and later edited The Hopkins News-Letter. After graduating in 1971 and being thwarted in landing a job at The Sun, he earned a master's degree the next year from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
"I graduated from Hopkins in 1972 and he was editor of the News-Letter when I joined," said Michael Hill, now retired from The Sun, where he was a foreign correspondent and later an editor.
"He had a tremendous influence on all of us and many of us pursued careers in journalism. He taught us to take chances, push the envelope," said Mr. Hill. "And just through the sheer force of his personality made us dedicated to spend most of our waking hours at the Gatehouse. You could see that combination of tremendous skill and magnetic charisma throughout the rest of his career."
Mr. Cramer joined the staff of The Sun in 1973, covering politics, City Hall and the Maryland General Assembly. He developed a reputation as a formidable competitor who saw stories where others did not in routine press releases or tips.
It was also said that Mr. Cramer, with his red beard, easygoing and friendly demeanor, learned early on the importance of making an entrance.
Mr. Cramer was quite the sartorial presence as he charged into the newsroom each day wearing finely cut suits, sports jackets and in summer, a seersucker suit that he accessorized with a broad Panama hat.
After sitting down at his desk and taking a deep sip from the first of multiple cups of coffee, he'd light up a fine cigar, whose smoke wreathed his head.
Robert Timberg, who was then his City Hall counterpart on The Evening Sun, remembered Mr. Cramer "as the fiercest journalistic competitor that I've ever had. Sometimes he would knock me out, and at other times, point me. You couldn't help but like him."
"Richard was very good at taking something we decided we wouldn't do and he'd make it into something magnificent. He had an incredible eye for detail," Mr. Timberg said. "He could make a person in a story really come alive."
After leaving The Sun in 1976, Mr. Cramer joined The Inquirer and won a Pulitzer in 1979 for his work from the Middle East.
John S. Carroll, then The Inquirer's metropolitan editor, hired Mr. Cramer.
"I had a slot for a transportation writer and I hired him. Not exactly typecasting, but I got him on board," said Mr. Carroll, who later became The Sun's editor. "It wasn't long before I realized he was truly an original and had a certain brilliance. Also, we had never had anyone like that before."
"He was one of the most gifted storytellers and writers who ever worked a typewriter," said William K. Marimow, who had been an Inquirer colleague and later managing editor of The Sun.
He recalled a vignette in Mr. Cramer's Esquire profile, "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" later published as a book, when a young Williams comes home after a road trip and spends hours practicing his swing in front of a mirror.
"That was the symmetry between Williams and Richard, who was always polishing his prose, always looking for new details, and always writing and rewriting," said Mr. Marimow, now The Inquirer's editor.
Mr. Cramer was assigned overseas from 1977 to 1984.
"That's where he got recognized for his work from the Middle East, which was a very different type of writing," said Mr. Carroll. "It was not your standard daily story. I called it immersion journalism because he was making the reader feel what it was like to be there. He was a wonderful storyteller."
Mr. Roberts said he made his mark avoiding the daily news conferences that other reporters covered.
"Richard was out there talking with the people and you could see that peace was going to come and that the Egyptian people were tired of war and they were pressing their leaders for peace," he said.
After leaving The Inquirer, Mr. Cramer wrote for Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Esquire, where his 1984 profile of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer — whom he dubbed "Mayor Annoyed" — brought both Mr. Schaefer and his profiler wide acclaim.
Mr. Cramer later turned to writing biographies. His 1992 book, "What It Takes," profiled George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Joseph R. Biden Jr. and their quest for the White House in 1988.
In addition to his biography of Ted Williams, Mr. Cramer wrote "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life" and "How Israel Lost: The Four Questions."
"Richard sort of took life deliciously. He was a very good writer," said Leo D. Coughlin, former Baltimore Sun foreign editor and columnist. "I found it hard to put his books down. He had the courage to write the way he wanted to, not by someone else's formula."
Largely ignored and panned when it was published in 1992, "What It Takes" has since been recognized as a seminal piece of political reportage.
Two years ago, Jill Abramson, The New York Times' executive editor, wrote that "What It Takes" was "by all odds the last truly great campaign book."
Mr. Cramer had written for PBS' "The American Experience" and "Frontline," working with Thomas Lennon and Mark Zwonitzer, an independent filmmaker, author and researcher.
He also narrated several productions in his distinctive gravelly voice.
"What he wrote and spoke came from a distinctive voice that arose from his gut and came from years of smoking non-filtered cigarettes," said Mr. Zwonitzer. "It was an untrained and unmistakable voice that came from upstate New York and settled in the Middle Atlantic."
He said that whenever Mr. Cramer called, the greeting was always the same: "What's cooking? How's it looking?"
"You always knew it was him. It was something he got from Bob Dole," he said.
"Richard was warm, gregarious, critical and ironic but never, ever mean-spirited," said Michael Pakenham, former Sun book editor and a longtime friend. "He was truly one of the great reporters of our generation and his political reporting is unmatched. He was profoundly probing and deeply literate."
At Mr. Cramer's request, there will be no funeral. Plans for a memorial gathering to be held in the future were incomplete.
Mr. Cramer is survived by his wife, Joan Cramer, whom he married last year; a daughter, Ruby Cramer of Chestertown; and two sisters, Judith Cramer Findelman of Evanston, Ill., and Lynne (Lina) Cramer of New York City. An earlier marriage, to Carolyn White, ended in divorce.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
An earlier version misattributed the source of the quote "What's cooking? How's it looking?" The Sun regrets the error.
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