Sports Collectors Digest: Rosenthal

By Marty Appel

It’s been ten years since Harold Rosenthal passed away at 85, and those of us who attended his memorial service (quite a literary affair), still miss the rascal and still grouse about the New York Times not deeming him worthy of an obituary. He was a giant on the New York sports scene for decades, and was even an impact player in retirement, with his letters and occasional columns always stirring up good conversation.

(His life, in fact, ran 1914-1999, spanning the same years as Joe DiMaggio).

He was in fact, one of the last great letter writers (although he did wind up doing email and probably would have written a BLOG once he figured that out). So good was he at correspondence that his friend William Wallace, a Times football writer and friend (whose influence couldn’t coax the obit), asked Harold’s friend to send him their letters from Harold. He compiled them into a spiral bound, 358-page book, which is treasured by the limited number of people who received it. I sent in my collection (you seldom tossed a Harold letter), but today I still find new ones that I tucked into appropriate books on his subject of the day, and regret not finding them in time for the Wallace collection.

Harold’s letters would arrive carrying postage from uncancelled stamps of the ‘40s or ‘50s – or earlier. Yes, Harold was a stamp collector, and also a man who decided to get his affairs in order about 25 years before he actually died, and using up the stamps must have been part of the process. A letter would arrive, and I’d learn from the postage that 1958 was International Geophysical Year. Who know?

Harold liked to say that he took personal credit for putting “three Tribunes” out of business. His greatest fame as a daily newspaper guy came with the celebrated Herald-Tribune. When that died in 1966, he found himself at the hybrid World Journal Tribune. Later, after a happy career as the PR man for the AFL and then after the merger, with the NFL, he took one last shot as a columnist, this time with a startup called the New York City Tribune. That died too. But he loved writing columns for that paper because he felt total freedom to say whatever he felt like saying, thinking no editors were actually reading it. After all, the paper was owned by the church of the Reverand Sun Myung Moon.

In between, he tucked in tours of duty with the forgotten Continental Football League (as PR Director), New American Library (as editor), and PR Director of the AFL at the time they merged into the NFL, where he retained a PR position at league headquarters.

He was a prolific author. In 1952 he turned out a little baseball gem called Baseball is Their Business, in which he profiled a scout (Fresco Thompson), a broadcaster (Ernie Harwell), a front office power (George Weiss), the Yankees PR man (Red Patterson), a player (Gil Hodges), an umpire (Charlie Berry), a statistician (Allan Roth), a manager (Eddie Sawyer), a TV producer (Jim Beach), and a sportswriter (Dick Young), all told in first person. It’s a pretty fascinating look at the game during perhaps its greatest decade, and would not be a bad format for an updated version today.

Harold was on top of the game in the ‘50s, and would later write a book called “The Ten Best Years of Baseball,” and would be one of four writers doing a Yankee history book – “The Yankees: Four Fabulous Eras”, in which he had the Casey Stengel years. (He also, with Bill Mead, did a book called “The Ten Worst Years of Baseball” which covered the ‘40s).

His football writing was no less prolific, and “50 Faces of Football” was an especially good one, and he collaborated with Johnny Unitas on a 1968 volume called “Playing Pro Football to Win.” And there were few magazines that didn’t enjoy his byline.

New York born, Harold was the Morris High sports correspondent to many of New York City’s dailies, before joining the Herald Tribune in 1941 at 27. (He continued to be a pay-by-the-inch stringer for the Trib, covering such things as Gaelic hurling and canoe racing, while earning more money than his fulltime salary would be). After World War II service he resumed writing and covered the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time Jackie Robinson arrived on the scene. He gave up that beat to spend more time with his family, turning over the assignment to Roger Kahn, who produced “The Boys of Summer” years later. Oh well.

Harold could be colorfully profane in his letters and it was easy to see who his favorites and less favored were. He also had reverence and respect where you’d want to see it. In a 1996 letter to Wallace, written from his retirement home in Boca Raton, he said “The piece I did for the Vero Beach Press Journal had a by-line and a ‘Special to the Press Journal’ and I was reminded of the last time I saw Grantland Rice. It was in the Yankee Stadium press box, the last World Series the fall (1953) before he went. The seating plan had him sitting alongside me and I fed him stuff through the game since I was right on top of the story as a beat man.

“When the game was over he hauled one of those big boxy portables onto the typing shelf, slipped a sheet in, and typed, ‘By Grantland Rice, Special to the Winnipeg Star,’ the last outpost of his once far flung empire.”

Then there was this entry, referencing the New York Times’ John Drebinger: “{He} was friendly with Grover Cleveland Alexander, who pitched 90 or so shutouts during his combined drinking and baseball career, only a hint of which came through in the movie in which Ronald Reagan played the role of Alex.

“Drebby recalled the depths of affliction for this comfirmed drunkard. ‘He couldn’t seem to get enough of an effect from drinking gin, so he’d take the staff and rub it on his arms.’”

Maybe the best baseball stories are the press box ones, later found in letters. But not many wrote ‘em as well as Harold did.

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A few readers corrected my in my recent column about Jimmy Piersall. Turns out I still have plenty of mistakes in me, and he did in fact run all the bases backwards for his 100th home run, not just third to home. Apologies to Jimmy, and good work to the readers who caught this.