Legendary John Steadman signs off at age 72

January 09, 2001 6:38 AM
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HOW LITTLE WE KNOW! Six weeks ago I wrote a piece about Beautiful Bowie. In turning back the clock — 40-plus years — the name John Steadman came up.

It was duly noted that Steadman, who frequently wrote about characters on the Maryland racetrack, was a legendary newspaperman of 50 years. And was still banging out columns for the Baltimore Sun.

When the piece went to press, a copy was mailed to John in Baltimore.

I hope he received it. And, equally important, I hope he enjoyed sharing the memories of Bowie.

A few days ago, word arrived that John Steadman signed off at 72. On New Year’s Day — when revelers were reveling — a giant with a typewriter stopped breathing. Cancer – "the Big C," as John often referred to it — claimed one of the last of a vanishing breed of newspapermen who seldom — if ever — relied on the wire services for material. Not John, no way. For years he banged out six columns a week, digging up fresh material single-O.

"He believed in underdogs and he wrote about them with passion!" So wrote fellow Sun columnist Michael Olesker in one of more than a score of stories that appeared in newspapers on his passing.

"John Steadman was a man of grace and humor. He told the stories of the greats and the little guys of Maryland sports for more than half a century," Olesker added.

Steadman had a melanoma on his lung. It was inoperable. It was just a question of time. He knew it. It didn’t slow him down one iota. As a matter of fact, John postponed chemotherapy treatments until after the football season. He should have started sooner, but he waited until the end of the season.

With death near, John told a bedside visitor that he would not be going to the Ravens game — two days away. In five decades of Baltimore NFL teams — the Colts, the Ravens and the Stallions — John Steadman never missed a day of regular season, post-season and even pre-season. In his final two years, as cancer broke through the line, John went to the games, sometimes in a wheelchair with his ever-loving wife, Mary Lee, as his chauffeur.

My admiration for Steadman developed in the early 1960s. He discovered Mr. Diz, a racetrack character of characters. Steadman loved Mr. Diz. So did his readers as they were kept in touch with all the up-to-date moves with Diz’s zany doings. In the early 1970s, I was beating the drums in Buffalo, N.Y., a harness track of all things. I needed some special ink. My thoughts of Mr. Diz, who made his daily double money selling balloons at parades, came to mind.

I called John Steadman.

"John, would you talk Mr. Diz into coming to Buffalo? We will buy the balloons, pay all his expenses and make sure that when he returns to his beloved Baltimore there will be jingle in his pockets."

Steadman laughed. He liked the idea and promised to call Diz on the telephone. A few days later John called. The news wasn’t good:

"I can’t get him to come," Steadman said. "He wants you to know that he thinks the world of you and really appreciates you trying to help keep him in action. ‘Just tell Chuck I’m Baltimore born and bred and I am not interested in going to Buffalo — especially a harness track.’"

The next week a clipping arrived. It was a column by Steadman in which he reported on Mr. Diz’s latest caper.

As I write this column, I am still in search of the piece. I know it wasn’t tossed away. How often does a newspaperman get written about in a John Steadman column?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, John Steadman was my hero. It’s OK for adults to have heroes. Especially ones who inspire.

In his final days John was in great pain. Even though he suffered greatly, he went out a winner.

A note from former Orioles General Manager Frank Cashen speaks volumes:

"He lived life on his own terms. He believed in his religion, his family and the newspaper business. And he never deviated from it."

Good-bye, John. In a world of reproductions, you were an original.