He'll be sorely missed
By MAURY ALLEN
When old sportswriter pal Leonard Koppett checked out
last week of a heart attack at 79 on the way to a San Francisco
symphony, I could only think of him as the ultimate Renaissance
man. He knew more about music, art, theater, history, language,
geography, culture and sports than most pros in those fields.
As a teammate on the New York Post in the early 1960s, I was
overwhelmed by his expertise in almost everything.
Why the hell would you want to be a sportswriter?
I asked him one day.
Because it is the job with the most fun, he said.
As a backup basketball and baseball writer to Koppett, he carried
me along to the post-game social events, mostly at Toots Shors
or Mama Leones restaurant in Manhattan where we would argue
sports through the early hours at tables peopled by guys like
Joe DiMaggio, Red Auerbach, Joe Lapchick, Nat Holman, Clair Bee
or Casey Stengel.
Koppett was an expert on eating, especially Chinese food, and
he would often discuss special dishes endlessly with Paul Sann,
the Post editor, in some of the most animated conversations I
Koppett was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. with his parents
at the age of five. He often wore a wooly Russian hat on bitter
winter days in the finest Czarist tradition.
His father died when Koppett was quite young and he and his diminutive
mother were emotionally and intellectually bound for life.
We lived near Yankee Stadium, he once told me, and
my father took me to a Yankee game when I was about seven. It
was a great game and we had to stand for all nine innings. Then
we walked home. I was in the street and I heard the crowd roar.
I asked another kid why there was still noise from the Stadium.
He said that was the second game of the doubleheader. Who ever
heard of a doubleheader?
Koppett served in the Army in World War II and then entered Columbia
University where he majored in music. He also wrote for the school
paper and served as a stringer for the Tribune and the Times.
He soon obtained a job as a desk man on the Tribune. He was doing
that chore on October 3, 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot
Heard Round the World off Ralph Branca.
I was watching the game as a fan and then went back to
the office to handle the copy written by other writers. I knew
that is what I wanted to do, he said.
He was soon the beat reporter in basketball and baseball for
the Tribune and then became the lead writer on the Post. He always
carried a heavy attaché case with record books to the
press box for his research. He favored statistical explanations
of strange sports happenings.
The Post sports section in the early 1960s with Koppett, Cannon,
Leonard Shecter and some young chipmunks such as Paul Zimmerman,
Larry Merchant, Vic Ziegel and myself, was considered the best
sports section ever by many observers.
Koppett moved to the Times after a New York newspaper strike
and stayed there until 1978. He became a Times California correspondent
before leaving the paper, doing freelance work and working for
papers in Palo Alto. He later became the editor of the Peninsula
Times Tribune in Palo Alto.
He was at spring training one year in the early 1960s when my
wife, Janet, invited him for dinner. We talked and dined wonderfully.
Then he announced, I think Ill call Suzie, and tell
her Ill marry her.
She wasnt much interested in baseball but they connected
on everything else, especially their deep devotion to classical
Koppett wrote some of the best sports books ever, including A
Thinking Mans Guide to Baseball, an intellectual
look at the simple game. The book began with one word, Fear,
explaining how big leaguers are separated from minor leaguers
by their ability to conquer fear. Also, Koppett pointed out,
athletes must conquer fear of failure, fear of embarrassment
and fear of frustration.
He also served as the director of the NY Baseball Writers show,
an annual event that parodied the previous baseball season. He
got Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson to sing a scripted version
of Because of You after the famous homer in 1951.
Koppett came to New York in 2001 as the two aging ball players
repeated their performance.
We saw each other at occasional events in New York but spent
much time together at the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction
weekend in Cooperstown, New York.
The stories were endless about Stengel and Lapchick, DiMaggio
and Mickey Mantle, Red Holzman and Bill Bradley.
Koppett loved to sit in a rocking chair on the back porch of
the old Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown and talk about his experiences
with these names of the past. It was like seeing a history book
He was a marvelous companion, scholar, mentor, friend and pal.
Ill miss him like hell.
©2003 by Maury Allen. The Maury Allen caricature is ©2001
by Jim Hummel. The photo of Leonard Koppett is by Alex Sachare
and is courtesy the Columbia College website.
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