Holtzman, a great friend and mentor

Holtzman, a great friend and mentor

Every fourth of July the phone would ring in Chuck Tanner's New Castle, Pa., home, a call from Jerome Holtzman wishing the former manager a happy birthday.

The call didn't come this year.

Tanner learned why on Monday. Like many of us, he was informed Holtzman, "The Dean" of baseball writers who'd been in failing health, died on Saturday in Evanston, Ill. He was 81.

"Every birthday he'd call me and say, 'Hey, Chuck, it's Jerry. Happy birthday!' I'd say, 'Thanks, you son of a gun.' " said Tanner. "He was one of the finest friends I ever had in baseball."

Like Tanner's, my heart is heavy because Jerome Holtzman was not only a mentor to me in the press box, he was one of my closest friends in the business.

I hadn't spoken with him for several weeks, reluctant to pick up the phone because I knew his health was failing. I missed those phone calls. No matter what the subject, I'd always come away learning something new about this great game.

I remember most his unexpected calls.

"What's going on?" he would ask. "What are you working on? What have you been covering?"

I got to know Holtzman well in the 1970s when I was covering the Philadelphia Phillies and he was splitting his time between the White Sox and Cubs for the Chicago Sun-Times and later, the Tribune.

I'd sit next to Holtzman during a game and realize how a reporter should approach his job. He was a friend and respected by players and baseball officials, yet never compromised his position as a reporter, a true journalist. That is difficult to pull off in this era.

He and Bud Selig became close friends when Selig was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

"I've known him for a long, long time and, yes, we're friends," Holtzman told me once. "But you know something, Bud Selig has never given me a story. Never."

To Holtzman, the professional, that was the ultimate compliment.

Jerome Holtzman, 1926-2008

Yes, Jerome Holtzman, a beloved presence in every press box he entered, was the consummate professional. He had little time for anyone who didn't take the craft seriously.

I think one of my greatest moments as a reporter was in 1981 when I broke the story that Phillies manager Dallas Green was being hired by the Cubs to run their baseball operation.

To beat Holtzman on his own turf was an achievement that can only be measured when you consider the level at which Jerome worked.

In later years we spent hundreds of hours traveling the country covering baseball's countless labor woes. I think it was during this period I realized why he was so loved and respected in the business.

Jerome had a way of sounding like he had no idea what he was talking about. At press briefings the aggressive reporters often would monopolize the session.

Holtzman would just sit there, take notes and then out of the blue, raise his hand and ask the most pointed question possible.

That's how he would disarm his subjects.

The next day I'd pick up the paper and be amazed at the details and depth of his report.

"Why couldn't I have gotten that information?" I'd ask myself.

Goose Gossage, who grew up in the White Sox organization and pitched for them five years (1972-76), told me when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in January, "Jerome Holtzman was one of the first people I called. He was always a friend and had such a great appreciation for relief pitchers and the bullpen. I just wanted to thank him."

Holtzman, of course, created the formula for saves, a rule that was officially adopted in 1969. Gossage will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Holtzman suffered from diabetes and because of this could not go long periods without eating. Often, he'd ask me to join him for lunch or a snack during the most tense moments of covering labor negotiations or owners meetings.

Those rituals of sitting across a table from each other will never be forgotten.

In 1997 I nominated Holtzman for the Red Smith Award, one of the highest honors in sports journalism given by the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. He was an easy winner.

Holtzman began covering baseball in 1957. We used to joke that he beat me by a year, I started in 1958.

In 1989, the Baseball Writers Association of America chose Holtzman for the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the annual honor which is presented at the Hall of Fame. And after he retired from the Tribune in 1999 he was appointed baseball's first official historian and wrote a column for MLB.com.

A lot of people didn't know how much he loved swimming. Often, until later years, he would take a swim in the hotel pool. "I need the exercise and it refreshes me," he would say.

He loved great sports writing, especially stories by those he considered old school. In fact, his most famous work, the best-selling 'No Cheering in the Press Box' was a collection of works by 24 writers.

Overall, he wrote six books and often talked to me about each one.

He had such a great passion for the best sports books ever written that he formed a company to publish a leather-bound, gold-leafed collection of what he considered the best ever.

The books were beautiful, but the project wasn't as financially rewarding as he thought it would be.

"I had to take a loan out on my house to pay for the printing of those books," he told me one day. "I still think it was a great idea."

All the phone calls, the constant baseball talk, the many Spring Training breakfasts with him and his wife Marilyn will be missed.

But most of all baseball has lost one of its best friends.

There will be no cheering in the press box, just a moment to remember Jerome Holtzman.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.