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Thank God I wrote about Bill Gleason while he was alive. Then it was easy — I turned on a tape recorder and he did all the talking.
This was back in 1982. He talked himself out of his sports columnist job at the Sun-Times — he was promptly cashiered for what he had to say — and if he had any regrets about that he never mentioned them to me. Gleason took his column to the Daily Southtown (not then a corporate sister of the Sun-Times), and wrote for it until he retired in 2001. Meanwhile, he was already one of The Sportswriters on the radio and would soon help launch the same show on TV.
On Sunday Gleason died at the age of 87, and the sports desks of Chicago are properly in mourning. I got out my old interview. The occasion for it, which I'd forgotten, was a suit Gleason had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing the Sun-Times of age discrimination and job harassment. He told me his bosses had wanted to be rid of him since at least 1978, when the Daily News folded, its staff was combined with the Sun-Times's, and a list that surfaced of the names of Sun-Times journalists who were about to be canned proved 100 percent accurate — except for the name of Gleason. He told me he saved his job by going to see the publisher, Marshall Field.
"The three donkeys running our place didn't have the guts to call me and tell me one way or the other," said Gleason. "I'm talking about Hoge, Otwell, and Loory, who were craven in this situation." By 1982, Jim Hoge was publisher of the Sun-Times and Ralph Otwell was the editor.
Gleason was sure Mike Royko was behind the move to get him tossed. I asked if there was bad blood between him and Royko. "No, there's no bad blood at all," Gleason said. "When he was a young guy, I thought he was interesting, and he's just become a terrible bore, personally....My judgment of Mike Royko — I gave you my judgment of him as a person. But my judgment of him as a writer is professional. I just think he's terribly overrated."
No tribute to Gleason is likely to capture the essential man as well my interview did, because Gleason himself did all the heavy lifting. "Gleason wears his rancor jauntily," I wrote, trying to sum him up. "Like the precipice of paper he cheerfully assembled over the years atop his desk, his hostilities spill over in all directions — and he admires them. They are a swirl of professional judgments and what seem to be tribal passions."
That precipice of paper was famous beyond the newsroom. "I was on the tour," Gleason told me on another occasion. "When they were taking kids around, they'd stop and say, 'That's Mount Gleason.'"
Here's a scan of the '82 interview. And here's a link to a 1990 column based on a conversation with the late Lew Grizzard, a Georgia-based humorist who for some unfathomable reason spent 17 months in the inhospitable north as sports editor of the Sun-Times in the mid-70s — though he admitted he didn't much like sports — and tried to clean house of the old-timers.
There's a lot of Gleason in the column. Of Gleason, Grizzard told me, ""He often wrote in parables. I read Gleason for three years, and I'm not certain I ever had any idea what he was trying to say." Of Grizzard, Gleason said, "He was terribly miscast as an editor... [one of the] insignificant snots" who ran Sun-Times sports back then.
When we wish ourselves in one of journalism’s golden eras—and the 70s and 80s BM (Before Murdoch) qualify in Chicago—we long for the amazing company its luminaries made for each other. But in any cluster of greatness, the grudges run at least as deep as the friendships.