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Bert Sugar, baseball and Cal Ripken Jr.

The Orioles don’t play until tonight, but I figured I’d give you something baseball-related to read today.

Bert Sugar, best known as a boxing historian, died Sunday from cardiac arrest. He was 75.

Sugar is remembered for wearing his fedora, chomping on his cigar and churning out story after wonderful story about boxing.

But Sugar was a baseball historian as well. He had a great perspective on the game.

In 2005, I was charged with writing a piece about the 10th anniversary of Cal Ripken Jr. setting baseball’s Iron Man record. My fantastic and ambitious sports editor at the time, Randy Harvey, challenged me to write a wide-sweeping article with historical perspective, something I’m not sure I had done before. Harvey gave me time to write the piece – a rarity in the newspaper world – and support throughout the project.

I decided to analyze the place Ripken and the streak held in American sporting lore, especially in the light of the 2005 steroid scandal. Was it really a history-book moment, one that transcended sports? Or did Baltimore make a big deal of it because it happened here? Had the rest of the world moved on?

I cast a wide net for iconic experts and several bit, including David Halberstam, Bob Costas, Bud Selig, George Will and Sugar. (In fact, the only “big” name that never responded was Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’m still bitter about that one – especially since I consider her “Wait Till Next Year” book about being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan to be one of baseball’s best memoirs.)

All those interviewed stood out for one reason or another, but Sugar (a Maryland grad) may have been the best quote – and that is saying something. The author of more than a dozen baseball books, Sugar said Ripken’s record and subsequent, 22-minute lap was “one of the nicest things I have ever seen.” It was a sweet, unforgettable moment, but not a transcending one, Sugar said.

I respected him for his honesty – which Sugar was known for, even if his opinions often fell into the “brutally honest” category.

What I remember most about that interview is at the end, Sugar asked me if I could send him a copy of the story. I told him it would be online, but that didn’t matter to him. He said he wanted to have a copy, to keep it for posterity. He really liked the idea of a newspaper speculating on history. He was a curious, intriguing personality.

Two years later I met Sugar for the first and only time. We both were at the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s reception the night before Ripken was inducted. It is one of the coolest events I have ever attended – I’ve been invited twice; also when Eddie Murray was inducted. All of the living Hall of Famers and a bunch of dignitaries and celebrities congregate in the Hall’s plaque room for finger food and cocktails. Select media members are invited, so long as their tape recorders and notebooks are left behind.

The Ripken/Tony Gwynn event was packed with big names. Sugar was there and I introduced myself and we spoke for several minutes, including discussion on my piece from two years ago. He was very complimentary and remembered sections from it, so it wasn’t just lip service.

A few minutes after Sugar had walked away from me, a well-heeled fan noticed that Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and actor Richard Gere were talking at a nearby table. The fan couldn’t help himself. Loudly and excitedly, he grabbed a digital camera out of his pocket and dashed over to take a picture of the Americana moment.

Just as the guy hit the button, Sugar walked into the shot. A friend and I were watching the whole thing unfold and we doubled over in laughter when we saw the guy’s digital screen held out before him: Sugar’s big mug, fedora and cigar took up 90 percent of the picture, with just a wisp of Gere’s hair visible.

Sugar apologized and by the time the fan collected himself, Gere had walked away from Bench. Moment over. The fan was crestfallen.

When I heard of Sugar’s passing, I thought about that moment and the interview I conducted. And I thought about Sugar’s insistence of receiving my story in the mail.
  Sugar was a unique character. He’ll be missed.

I can only hope that eager fan had the foresight to keep the shot of Sugar in his digital camera. Accidentally, he captured a true slice of Americana that night.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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