Jim O’Brien, Steelers Author and Sports Columnist (July 15, 2011):
You’ve covered Pittsburgh sports for over 40 years and won numerous accolades across your journalism career. What stands out as the greatest accomplishment for you, and why?
I am proud that I have had two publishing ventures in Pittsburgh and that I always paid my bills.
Beano Cook and I began publishing and editing Pittsburgh Weekly Sports in the fall of my senior year at Pitt in 1963. and we continued to publish this lively and sometimes controversial tabloid for another five and a half years.
We closed down when Beano went to New York to work as a publicist for ABC TV and I went to cover The Dolphins for The Miami News in 1969. We made good on all our subscription orders and we paid all our bills. That almost never happens in such ventures.
I started publishing and editing books on Pittsburgh sports scene, the first two with publisher and Graphics artist Marty Wolfson, and 18 more on my own in 1980. The books met the test of the market place and have been popular the past 30 years. I have not borrowed any money in either venture and do not owe anyone a dime.
I was the smallest kid in my neighborhood in Hazelwood yet I managed to make it to the major leagues in every sport you can name.
You’ve written a number of books on Pittsburgh sports –Lambert, the Man in the Middle and Other Outstanding Linebackers, The Chief, Fantasy Camp, Pittsburgh Proud and so many more. Which of your books are you most proud of, and why?
My favorite book out of the twenty-three I have written, twenty on Pittsburgh topics, would have to be MAZ and The ’60 Bucs.
That is a coming of age book for me. I entered Pitt as a freshman in September of 1960 and one month later the Pirates were playing the mighty New York Yankees in a World Series less than two blocks from the Pitt Student Union.
I thought I couldn’t have picked a better place to go to college. I would later (1966) meet my future wife Kathleen Churchman, who had an apartment on Oakland Avenue a block from Forbes Field when we were both in grad school at Pitt.
Any new books from you that fans should be waiting for?
I have outlined at least seven future books, but have the next one on hold because the book business has been in a state of flux for the past three years, with Borders declaring bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble being up for sale, and payments not being made on product sales.
I hope to write some more books when the retail market scene improves and the book store chains are paying their bills. Right now, I am concentrating on selling the seven books in my series that are still available. The rest are out of print.
Which of them surprised you most in terms of the learnings derived from the research you conducted to complete them – and what about that research surprised you?
Some of my favorites to interview through the years, who were good ballplayers and know how to tell a story, are J.T. Thomas, Dwight White and Mike Wagner of the Steelers, Bob Friend, Ron Necciai, Frank Gustine Sr. and Frank Thomas of the Pirates, Eddie Johnston , Jack Riley and Pierre Larouche of the Penguins, Joe Gordon who worked as a publicist for the Rens, Hornets, Penguins and Steelers, and I have always appreciated what down to earth guys Bill Mazeroski and Arnold Palmer have remained through the years.
On every successful team there are stars, and Pittsburgh has had numerous ones over the years. But there are also the unsung heroes. Who have been some of the more under-appreciated Pittsburgh athletes/coaches over the years, and what made them so, in your opinion?
Dwight White’s death was a real tragedy. He was doing so much good in our community. He called me “Bookman” and he was real passionate during our interviews. He came from humble beginnings and was a real success story. He often said, “I had to come up to hit bottom.”
What has been your favorite Pittsburgh sports teams to cover over the years, and what made them so?
I liked covering the Steelers because Art Rooney Sr. created a culture that still rings the right bell. I always knew Mr. Rooney was special and I welcomed opportunities to sit and talk with him.My grandfathers were dead before I was a year old, and Mr. Rooney was the grandfather I never had. I learned a lot from the man and I still respond to situations by first asking myself, “What would Mr. Rooney do?”
Highly-regarded Pittsburgh sports historian Robert Ruck in a recent interview (http://www.pittsburghsportsdailybulletin.com/page106.html) stated that Pittsburgh has come a long way in regards to improving racial attitudes in sports, but still has a way to go. What are your thoughts on this –what differences do you see between the attitudes of fans towards Pittsburgh athletes now versus 30-40 years ago?
I never had a problem as far as racial relations were concerned in my career in sports.
I started my own track team in Hazelwood when I was 12 years old and I recruited young blacks from another neighborhood to compete for my team. When I worked in Philadelphia, Miami, New York and Pittsburgh, I always thought I enjoyed an edge in interviewing black athletes because they trusted me with their stories. I always thought they had more interesting stories to share.
Wilt Chamberlain was one of my boyhood heroes, and I enjoyed great time in his company and got along well with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and other great boxers, and Dave Parker of the Pirates.
More than half the athletes profiled in my books are black, and it bothers me that so few blacks – Maybe one per thousand books – ever buys one of my books. If someone is going to have racist tendencies – and that works both ways – sports will not solve their problems in that respect.
You’ve encountered scores of memorable athletes over the years. What players have stood out to you most over the years, and why?
I’ve been fortunate in my lifetime to meet and spend time with some marvelous athletes, and I never took it for granted.
I had one of the four best seats in the house at Madison Square Garden for the first Ali-Frazier fight, billed as “The Fight of the Century.” I have met and interviewed Ali and Frazier, Joe Louis, Joe Greene, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka, Danny Marino, Joe Montana, O.J. Simpson, Billie Jean King, Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, Chris Evert, Donna de Verona, Bruno Sammartino and I once met and shook hands with former President Harry S. Truman in Kansas City.
How have you passed along your experiences outside of your various books and columns?
I am proud that I mentored and helped develop and get jobs for a dozen interns who have become really outstanding public relations executives, sports information people, and writers during my time as the public relations director for the athletic department at Pitt from 1984 to 1988.
I always thought of myself as a teacher disguised as a sports writer.
What are some of your greatest Pittsburgh sports memories –encounters with athletes, interviews, observances…..can you name a few that have stood out to you most, and why you think they have done so?
I attended the 21st birthday party for Muhammad Ali when he was in Pittsburgh prior to his fight with Charley Powell at the Civic Arena in January of 1963.
Myron Cope was there and he had written a story for a national magazine on Ali, who was then Called Cassius Clay. Clay kept calling Cope “Mickey Rooney” during the press conference at the old Sherwyn Hotel, now the main building for Point Park University.
By the way, I met Myron Cope for the first time when I was fourteen and serving as the sports editor of The Hazelwood Envoy. We were both covering the Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament at the Pitt Field House.
I asked him, “Mr. Cope, what do I have to do to become a writer?” He replied, in that wonderfully unique voice of his, “Kid, you gotta sit down and start writing!” It’s still the best advice I ever received.
I came back to Pittsburgh in 1979 after a year in Miami and nine more years in New York in time to see the Pirates win the World Series and the Steelers win their fourth Super Bowl in six years. Talk about good timing!
The Steelers were beating the Houston Oilers in the AFC championship game at Three Rivers Stadium, and Rocky Bleier had just scored a touchdown to clinch the contest.
I was standing with the other members of the media in the end zone, so we could get a headstart on getting to the dressing rooms after the game. I think I had a tear in my eye and Joe Gordon,the team publicist, spotted it and recognized my quiet mood. “You OK?” he asked me, and I nodded in return.
But I was emotionally moved because I was thinking, “I’ve come home to Pittsburgh and now I’m going to the Super Bowl with the Steelers? Can it get any better?”
What are your thoughts on sports journalism today with blogging, tweeting and other forms of social media creating a rush to get stories out so quickly, and often creating friction between journalists (as we’ve seen between some in the Pittsburgh sports media industry)?
There’s too much media today for sports, world news, business news, entertainment news and modern technology permits too many people without credentials to write about these things and some unreliable and unreal stuff gets out there.
There are too many tape recorders and cameras everywhere and a lot of irresponsible reporting.
Journalistic judgment is lacking. Sportswriters and sports media don’t care about their personal appearance. Check out the contrast between the media and the athletes. I was told once that if you dress like the equipment manager the ballplayers will treat you in kind. I was told a long time ago to save the tough question for last so you don’t end up with an empty notebook.
Pittsburgh sports journalist Jim Wexell and others have lamented the fact that sports journalism (and to an extent fans as well) has lost the appreciation for getting to know the athletes as people, instead of just their contributions to the team. What are your thoughts on this? Is there truth to this in your opinion? If so why do you think this?
I used to love to spend a few weeks with the Steelers at St. Vincent College during summer training camp. You really got to know the players, coaches and other members of the media, and some great fans as well.
You had great access to the players. You could schedule interviews with them one-on-one and visit them in their rooms.
Now there are too many ropes, too many restrictions, too many rules regarding inter-action with coaches and players, and too many sound-bites gotten on sidewalks outside cafeterias and the like.
I loved to write stories about the players more so than reports on the games. I was able to introduce a lot of great athletes to the readers. There are no true sports publicists anymore. No one offers story ideas. Most of those p.r. people from my early days in the business were former newspapermen and recognized a story when they saw one. There are a lot of good guys in the business, but their roles have changed dramatically.
Any advice for young, aspiring sports journalists?
I would advise anyone interested in being a sports journalist to keep their options open and to be versatile.
The business is going out of business in too many ways. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business. People tell me they don’t have time to read anymore. I feel a little smarter every time I read a book, magazine or newspaper.
If you can write well and speak well you can always get a job. I was a Journalism major for one year at Pitt and then switched majors to become an English major. It was a wise decision. I have worked in every possible form of sports media. Using proper English will still set you apart from the pack.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Some Pittsburgh sports media knock New York, but it was a great place to work when I was in my late 20s. There were twice as many teams in every sport, and I covered some great champions in my day.
But I am glad I am now in Pittsburgh, a great sports town. I enjoyed going to PNC Park and being with good friends and baseball fans in a beautiful ballpark before the Pirates were winning more often than losing.
I always thought going to any kind of game was a good way to spend one’s time. My daughters tell me I never had a real job, and for that I remain grateful. My family is my favorite team.
That’s it. Jim O’Brien
You can get a information on Jim and his books on his website at www.jimobriensportsauthor.com