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A Baltimore legend, champion of underdogs


John Steadman, who chronicled the Maryland sports scene in his newspaper columns, books and commentaries in a career that spanned seven decades, died of cancer yesterday at a Towson hospice. He was 73.

A one-time minor-league baseball player, Mr. Steadman rose to the top of his craft and won election to the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame last year. With a bent for the offbeat and a passion for the past, he fleshed out the seminal figures in sports, both celebrated and obscure, enlightening readers of Baltimore newspapers for more than a half-century.

"It's the men and women in sports who interest me rather than the games they play," he once said.

Mr. Steadman's forte was re-creating historical flash points; some of his reminiscences read like Norman Rockwell paintings.

"I loved John's columns," said William K. Marimow, editor of The Sun. "I loved it when he wrote of Larry Kelley of the 1936 Yale football team or Jimmie Foxx, the great Maryland native," and baseball Hall of Famer. "He wrote history with such precision and complete recall that it really brought those people to life."

Mr. Steadman's prose -- he championed the underdog -- mirrored his own temperament, said Mr. Marimow: "As careful and meticulous as he was with his columns, John was the same way with relationships -- a very thoughtful, compassionate person."

A Baltimore native, Mr. Steadman grew up in Govans, the son of the city's deputy fire chief. He played football on vacant lots, swam in Guilford Reservoir and sneaked into baseball games through loose boards at old Oriole Park.

Those Tom Sawyeresque memories remained with him for life. Years later, he wrote of the tricks of boyhood sledding around Baltimore and "hopping on the rear extension of an automobile bumper and getting pulled up the 41st Street hill. Sometimes you'd go for miles -- until your arms got tired or you ran out of snow on the highway and then the runners of the sled made sparks and the grinding noise made the driver alert that he had trailers he didn't know about."

Mr. Steadman was 13 when his father was stricken by a heart attack at Fire Department headquarters. John Francis Steadman, 49, died en route to Mercy Hospital, leaving his wife, Mary, and three young children -- John, the eldest, Thomas and Betty.

Mr. Steadman graduated from City College, where he lettered in baseball, football and basketball and wrote for the school newspaper. Signed as a catcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he spent one season in the minors and hit .125 before swapping his bat for a pencil.

A trusted newsman

In 1945, the Baltimore News-Post hired Mr. Steadman as a $14-a-week reporter. For much of the next 55 years, he would attract a marble-step readership loyal to his straightforward style, the cavalcade of characters who paraded regularly through his columns and Mr. Steadman's unflagging obstinacy on issues close to his heart.

Like the selection of a name for a new ballpark.

"When John got on your case, he drove you to the wall and never let up," said Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, recalling the flap over the naming of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1991. Mr. Schaefer, who was governor at the time, said that Mr. Steadman relentlessly "bugged me about calling it Babe Ruth Stadium. He campaigned for it and got very mad when I said I couldn't do it."

Woe to anyone who crossed Mr. Steadman, said Mr. Schaefer: "His eyebrows could be piercing."

Mr. Steadman established his reputation early on. In 1952, he scooped the country with a story on Baltimore's return to the National Football League -- a piece that earned him a $25 bonus. The money went for a beer-and-shrimp bash for the News' sports department.

"John had a thousand sources. He could find out stuff that no one else knew," said Brooks Robinson, the Orioles' Hall of Fame third baseman. "He wouldn't ask you a thousand questions, either; people volunteered information to him."

His sources trusted Mr. Steadman no end.

"John is the one newsman I've never been concerned about talking to," said John Unitas, the Colts' Hall of Fame quarterback. "If you told him something off the record, he'd keep it to himself. There aren't too many [reporters] you can say that about."

Gino Marchetti, the Colts' Hall of Fame defensive end, called Mr. Steadman "the only Baltimore newsman that I really, really trusted. He was morally sound; he never crossed the line."

'Ripken before Ripken'

Mr. Steadman shadowed the Colts from their first scrimmage in 1947. That year his iron man streak began -- he attended every pro football game played by not only the Colts, but also the Ravens. Up until Dec. 10, he covered 719 games in a row. He was one of only eight reporters in the country to attend all 34 Super Bowls.

Toward the end of his streak, Mr. Steadman sometimes sat in the press box in a wheelchair.

After cancer was diagnosed in the fall of 1998, Mr. Steadman endured rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments during the next two years while continuing to write his weekly column. He died at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

"He was Ripken before Ripken," said Frank Deford, senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio.

Mr. Deford grew up in Baltimore during Mr. Steadman's ascent at the News-Post and American. Mr. Steadman left the business in 1954 to become the Colts' assistant general manager and publicity director, but returned to the paper three years later.

"Once you've worked on a newspaper, it's like a man who goes to sea and eternally loves the roll of a ship and where it's going," he explained at the time.

In 1958, Mr. Steadman was named sports editor -- the youngest at a big-city paper. He held that job until the demise of the News American in 1986.

Readers embraced Mr. Steadman's comfortable, conversational style. What he lacked in lyricism, colleagues said, he made up for in legwork.

"He was certainly not a poet," Mr. Deford said. "He was a good reporter. John could write a feisty and entertaining column. He could not have survived as a stylist, but he was very good at what he did."

Mr. Steadman had a newsman's savvy and sense of timing, his peers said.

"He knew what to write, and how and when to write it," said Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. "John was an outstanding journalist, a credit to the profession."

Empathy for underdogs

Mr. Steadman's unabashed empathy for the underdog was legendary. He gravitated toward sports personalities who had overcome hardships. Here, a story on a blind baseball announcer; there, one on an ice-skating coach who'd lost both legs. Upbeat articles, all -- and readers devoured them.

"There are positives in this world, but without John in Baltimore, we'd never have heard about them," said Vi Ripken, mother of the Orioles' third baseman.

Taking one-man stands appealed to Mr. Steadman. He berated Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom for charging full ticket prices for preseason games. Another time, when a Colts fan was admonished for blowing a bugle at Memorial Stadium, Mr. Steadman defended the yahoo in print -- and soon began tooting his own horn in the press box.

"He was always a savior for the little guy," Mr. Unitas said. "John wasn't a front-runner. He took on a lot of causes."

When he learned of an 8-year-old cancer patient's final wish, Mr. Steadman shepherded the youth's hero, Orioles outfielder Gene Woodling, to the boy's bedside at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Aboard a Colts charter plane at the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Mr. Steadman wrote a poignant piece on the players' reaction to hearing the news, while flying 30,000 feet above Texas.

Writing against the grain

He was also a magnet for lovable oddballs who popped up repeatedly in his columns. Favorites included Mr. Diz, a local horse racing tout, and Theodore "Balls" Maggio, a character who scavenged old balls of all shapes and sizes from the Jones Falls and from city sewers.

Mr. Steadman enjoyed writing against the grain. He covered a Colts game from a seat on the team bench. He talked Buddy Young, the club's star runner, into racing a real colt. (The colt won.) He wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about a horse named Mrs. Steadman entered in the fifth race at Liberty Downs.

"He wrote a couple of articles that got people a little whacked out, like when he 'talked' to Babe Ruth in heaven," Brooks Robinson said. "But I enjoyed the offbeat stuff. John could be serious, but he also had that self-deprecating wit."

Once, at spring training, Mr. Steadman cajoled the Orioles into letting him catch -- and got conked by a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckleball. "It might be feasible for baseball players to write stories for newspapers," he wrote ruefully, "but sportswriters should not try to 'switch hit.' "

The humble mentor

At the News American, he mentored aspiring young journalists, including Sun columnist Michael Olesker.

"John had me cover stories that transcended sports, like a champion weightlifter who'd grown up with polio," Mr. Olesker said. "He always stressed the human heart beyond the game.

"He held onto those eternal verities of life that we all learned as kids, but sloughed off as adults."

When the News American folded, Steadman joined the staff of The Evening Sun. Despite a fervid following, he greeted the public with characteristic humility:

"Our profound wish is The Baltimore Sun and you, the readership, have the tolerance to put up with the 'new kid' who has appeared in your midst."

When the Evening Sun folded in 1995, he moved to The Sun. Mr. Steadman's last column, a remembrance of the late Navy football coach and war veteran Emery "Swede" Larson, was published Dec. 3. Mr. Steadman's final entry in the pages of The Sun related a warm and thoughtful look at Larson, described in the column as a man who "came away a winner every time."

Steadman finished the column with this paragraph: "Larson is buried only 100 yards from John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. Let his epitaph be written: He never lost to Army."

"John was the epitome of Baltimore, a great human being," said Art Donovan, the Colts Hall of Fame lineman. "He's been a friend through thick and thin. He came to see me after my heart surgery and brought me salami sandwiches.

"To go through what he has gone through in the past two years took more guts than anyone I've ever met. I say a prayer for him every night, always will.

"I say, 'God bless John Steadman.' "

A consummate pro

A lifetime member of the Professional Baseball Players Association, Mr. Steadman belonged to the Baseball Writers, Football Writers and Pro Football Writers associations. He also served on the selection committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

He won three Freedom Foundation medals -- one for writing and two for radio commentaries -- and wrote seven books, notably "The Best (And Worst) of Steadman," an anthology of columns that in 1975 won the Dick McCann Memorial Award for Distinguished Writing. Others included "The Baltimore Colts Story" and "Miracle Men of Football," which celebrated the Colts' first championship in 1958; and "Days In The Sun," a compilation of columns from The Sun, published in 2000.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, the former Mary Lee Kreafle, of Stevensville in Queen Anne's County; a brother, Tom Steadman, of Ellicott City; and a sister, Betty Fones, of Greenwich, Conn.


Viewing services will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Mitchell-Wiedefeld at 6500 York Road in Rodgers Forge.

A funeral mass will be celebrated at St. Jude Shrine on North Paca Street in Baltimore at 10 a.m. Friday.

Memorial contributions may be made to the St. Jude Shrine or the American Cancer Society, 8219 Town Center Drive, Baltimore 21236.

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