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Remembering Bob Creamer, a legendary SI writer and editor

Reprinted with permission from Jack McCallum's blog. McCallum is the author of the new book, Dream Team. Purchase it here.

How many times over the past two years did I say to my wife, "I have to get up to Saratoga to see Bob Creamer?" Once we had it arranged and it wasn't convenient for me, and another time the reverse prevailed, and I never made it.

Creamer, 90, died Wednesday night, and I hadn't seen him in three decades, though we have talked. I'm in London until Aug. 13, and now I can't even go his funeral. That's how it works far too often.

Robert Creamer was one of those gentle giants in the world of journalism, not because of his size (though he was tall) but because he made a difference without ever calling attention to himself. Without Bob, chances are I would've remained toiling in obscurity, never getting the chance to work at one of the great magazines of the world. I'm not suggesting that would've been a loss for journalism, but it sure as hell would've been a loss for me.

Back in the 1970s Bob was the "outside text editor" for Sports Illustrated. That meant he handled copy from freelance schlubs like myself. SI was a different publication back then, thick, huge, diverse, as likely to do a long story on, say, Bengal tigers as the Cincinnati Bengals. The editors looked for long stories and treasured the idea that they could find a nobody and get him read by a few million people. And trust me -- as a guy covering high school football, soccer and wrestling at the Bethlehem (Pa.) Globe-Times -- I was a nobody.

After I submitted a few freelance ideas, having been encouraged by another giant, the late Jerry Tax (I did make it to Jerry's memorial), thus did I come under the care and attention of Creamer.

"Bob Creamer?" I said to Tax. "I'm supposed to write to Bob Creamer?" Had I been on more familiar terms with Jerry, I would've said, Bob [expletive] Creamer? Bob was an SI legend, having been there since the inception of the magazine in 1954. He was also the author of Babe, one of those books that every sportswriter who cared about being literate had to read. Today, 40 years after he wrote it, in graceful and eminently readable prose, Babe still appears on best sports books lists.

EXCERPT:

Bob prepared the freelance contracts in careful English -- using a typewriter of course, even after the world had gone computer -- acceptances and rejections always done with grace. Once in a while he'd stick in an encouraging note, and one day he called to invite me to New York to have lunch.

"Only come in if you're coming in anyway," he said. "Don't make a special trip."

Like I wouldn't have crawled on my knees all the way to Port Authority.

On the appointed date, we met at the Algonquin -- of course we did, for Bob was an Algonquin kind of guy -- and there was someone else at the table.

"I asked Bud Greenspan to come along," Bob said as he greeted me at the door. "Hope you don't mind."

I knew Greenspan as the Olympic filmmaking legend.

Had I been a religious man, it was like having lunch at the Heaven's Gate Luncheonette with Jesus Chris and, oh, yes, he also decided to bring along the apostle Paul.

Bob didn't have to do any of that. He didn't have to invite me to lunch and ask Bud Greenspan to come along, and treat me as somebody, and give me encouragement, and help me negotiate the halls of power at SI, an intimidating place then and now but especially then. And when I got a fulltime job at SI in 1981, I stopped in his office and thanked him.

"You did it yourself," he said. "Now go do a good job."

I'm not going to go into one of these screeds about how civility died when the likes of Bob Creamer retired, got old and died.

But civility sure as hell took a blow.

And damn ... I wish I would've made it to Saratoga.

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