Sports Collectors Digest: Jerome Holtzman

By Marty Appel

Growing up with The Sporting News as a bible (it was, after all, the “Bible of Baseball”), those of us of the right age were exposed on a weekly basis to the baseball columns of Dick Young, Joe Falls, Jim Murray, Bob Addie, Shirley Povich, Melvin Durslag, Leonard Koppett, Jerome Holtzman, Furman Bisher and others.

With the passing of Jerry Holtzman, 82, on July 19, it may be noted that he not only invented the “save rule,” (without which, no Wilhelm, Fingers, Sutter, Eckersley or Gossage in the Hall of Fame), but he gave us two of the most important books of our times – “No Cheering in the Press Box,” and “Fielder’s Choice.”

His obituary noted that his column ran in 1,000 consecutive issues of The Sporting News.

Holtzman, who also served Major League Baseball as its official historian, and he was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Hall of Fame in 1989. But his big moment was when he came up with the save rule idea after Roy Face’s 18-1 season as a reliever for the Pirates in 1959.

As a we better know today, if a relief pitcher has so many victories, it usually means a lot of lucky outings – entering a game, blowing a save, and then having your team go on to win one for you. Holtzman saw the 18-1 season as somewhat of a fraud in terms of all the plaudits Face was receiving, (he received no Cy Young votes), and came up with a save rule which was immediately adopted by The Sporting News, anointing Mike Fornieles and Lindy McDaniel as the first “firemen of the year” in 1960.

Holtzman died in the week that marked the 34th anniversary of the publication of “No Cheering in the Press Box,” a phrase still used to remind new writers that they have to leave their boyhood cheering at home and work professionally when in the press box. It was a wonderful title for a wonderful book, which glorified some of Holtzman’s own heroes in sports journalism. He interviewed 18 legends between 1971-1973 and let them tell their own life stories in this very important oral history project. By Holtzman’s own recounting of his adventure, he used only about 10% of the material he gathered in order to make it into a manageable book.

And so we have the first person stories of Dan Daniel, Marshall Hunt, John Kiernan, Fred Lieb, Paul Gallico, Al Laney, Richards Vidmar, Shirley Povich, Ed Press, George Strickler, Abe Kemp, Al Horwits, Ford Frick, John Drebinger, Harold Parrott, Red Smith, John R. Tunis and Jimmy Cannon.

Tunis was not so much as journalist as he was the writer of children’s novels, so good for Jerry to acknowledge and include him in this.

Among the gems in the book was this from Dan Daniel of the New York World-Telegram and Sun: “I was known as a digger for scoops… writers in my heyday had something to tell. {They} had opinions; they were critics as well as historians. Now you go into the clubhouse after a game and you find baseball writers wandering around, at times, even putting words into the mouths of some of the boys. That’s one of the big beefs of the players –that they are made to say a lot of things either they didn’t want quoted or that they didn’t say in the first place. I think today’s baseball writers could improve their job vastly and should offer more of their opinion, and not simply stand and quote the manager. In my time, I went out myself, on my own.”

Or this from Red Smith: “I don’t enjoy the actual labor of writing. I love my job, but I find one of the disadvantages is the several hours at the typewriter each day. That’s how I pay for this nice job. And I pay pretty dearly. I sweat. I bleed. I’m a slow writer.”

Holtzman was deeply proud of his profession and his predecessors. He was a figure who could not be missed at a ballpark – a big cigar in the middle of his mouth, a big beer belly flanked by suspenders, notepad ever at the ready. He carried on a high brand of journalism long before his decided to interview his forbearers.

One day, approaching a player for a chat, Holtzman was told, “I’m not talking to the press today.” Lighting his cigar for dramatic effect, Holtzman said, “That’s fine, I’ll catch you next year. Or the next.”

A second book of important by Holtzman, “Fielder’s Choice,” was, in his view, a collection of the best of baseball fiction. It was published in 1979. For those whose libraries had little room for this genre, “Fielder’s Choice” was a wonderful anthology of great baseball fiction, including excerpts from the works of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Mordecai Richler and others.

How many sportswriters have put an imprint on baseball statistics or on a box score? Or delivered not one, but two books that will forever be valued by baseball fans?

Holtzman was an impact player.