John Steadman, the late sports columnist who wrapped up a half-century of writing in this city at The Sun, was honored yesterday as the recipient of the prestigious Red Smith Award.
In the audience, Steadman's wife, Mary Lee, listened to his old friends and co-workers reminisce about her husband with tears falling down her cheeks.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "There have been a lot of honors for him, but this has been the hardest one. People say to me, 'You've done so well. You've done so well.' But there comes a point where you're overwhelmed by kindness. These are not sad tears.
"This feeling for him - I knew he was liked, but not this much. John was so unassuming. I know he'd be very pleased, because I know how much he respected Red Smith. But, he'd say, 'What's all the fuss about? I'm just an old, broken-down sportswriter.' "
That's not the way he was portrayed yesterday.
The Red Smith Award is given each year at the Associated Press Sports Editors Convention. Nominations are made and voted on by past presidents and past recipients of the award.
"I nominated John the last two years," said Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, who presided over the awards luncheon at the Wyndham Hotel. "In retrospect, I would have liked to have had John up there last year, speaking so all these young guys here could have heard him. This award is given for distinguished service to sports journalism, and there is no one more deserving than John. He was in it for 50 years."
Dwyre told of his longtime friendship with Steadman and related a story about how Steadman had helped him persuade Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and, at the time, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, to give up smoking a "big, old, ugly" cigar.
Steadman's advice was for Dwyre to write about the cigar every time he could. Finally, Selig got so fed up reading about his cigar he threw up his hands in surrender.
"He said he was giving up smoking, which he did," Dwyre said. "Which means John Steadman is responsible for Bud Selig being alive today."
It was the beginning of many funny and heartfelt stories.
Sun editor William K. Marimow reflected on how Steadman distinguished himself.
"He was a great newspaperman, who was a walking encyclopedia of the world's great athletes and of Maryland athletes," Marimow said. "He was a great raconteur, a mesmerizing storyteller ... and John was a great friend. John delighted in really helping young people. ... He'd help them to launch a career and offer a helping hand onto the path."
One of the young people Steadman helped was Sun metro columnist Michael Olesker, hired by Steadman 35 years ago at the old News American.
"Steadman never lost sight of the joys of sport," Olesker said. "He understood the emotional ties between a town and its sports heroes. He wrote a column six days a week for 30 years at the News-Post and the News American. And he remained the most humble man I ever met. Complimented on a good column, he'd lower his head and mumble, 'Good days and bad.' "
Steadman's brother, Tom, accepted the award and remembered John's first love was baseball.
"But when you hit .125 in the minors," Tom said, recalling his brother's batting average, "you'd better find another field of dreams. And success came to him as a columnist and a writer."
It wasn't really a surprise to Mary Lee. She said the first time she ever saw the man who would become her future husband, he was holding a newspaper.
"He had found it lying in the street," she said. "He picked it up and never put it down. ... No one loved his job more than John. He enjoyed it so much."