It must be the contrarian in me that reacts so strongly to people being deified upon their deaths. Jerome Holtzman was a very good, very intrepid baseball beat writer for a very long time, but from reading the tributes in the Tribune and the Sun-Times — both of which rightfully laid claim to his legacy — you’d have thought we’d lost baseball’s patron saint. I enjoyed Paul Sullivan’s formal obit in the Trib, and like Steve Rhodes at The Beachwood Reporter, I admired how it stuck it to the Sun-Times for basically chasing Holtzman to the competition in 1981. My colleague Bruce Miles’s tip of the cap in the Daily Herald was likewise eloquent about how charitable Holtzman could be with young sportswriters.
True, Holtzman deserves credit for coming up with the “save,” an important addition to baseball statistics, but the game was changing, and he was simply the first to recognize those changes in a statistical manner–if he hadn’t invented it, someone else would have. While not siding with the Sun-Times in thinking Holtzman had nothing to offer in his later years — the testimony of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr in Dave van Dyck’s story, citing how he was ahead of most of his peers in treating the Players Association fairly and not siding blindly with owners in strike negotiations, is convincing — I have to insist that Holtzman was not “the consummate writer,” as George Vass said in the Trib, but a bit of a plodding stylist. I also feel compelled to point out the severe criticism Holtzman comes under in Gene Carney’s Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded. As baseball’s official historian, Holtzman refused to acknowledge any ameliorating evidence about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the Black Sox scandal. “On the whole,” Carney writes, “Holtzman’s work is bleak and black journalism, which begs for a fact-checker.” It’s the same sort of hard-headedness Joe Mooshil talks about in the Trib obit. Look, I’m not arguing for Jackson’s induction into the Hall of Fame — far from it — but I admit Carney makes some convincing arguments, and it casts significant doubts on Holtzman’s role as baseball’s official historian that he didn’t.
So the world is a diminished place with the death of Jerome Holtzman, but the press box not so much. And if you think I’m being unnecessarily hard on the journalistic dead, just be glad I didn’t have access to a blog when Steve Neal died.