Joey Goldstein's passing marks end of PR's best era

Feb 17, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Joe Goldstein was beloved sports PR man

There is no reason you would know him, but a legend died last week.

He died in a hospital in Boca Raton, Florida, but news of his passing brought five paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times and 21 in the International Herald Tribune, which used the entire Associated Press file.

Not bad for a sports publicity guy.

Come to think of it, calling Joe Goldstein "a sports publicity guy" is like calling Roger Federer "a Swiss tennis player." It leaves an awful lot unsaid.

Joe was a hugely talented and devilishly clever huckster, who knew how to open doors other PR men could not budge. Among his techniques, besides fast talking and unbounded persistence, was recognizing early on that receptionists and secretaries held the keys to entry, and he flattered them with flowers and candy. As people who too often go unnoticed, they responded with favors.

In addition to his abundance of skills, Joey carried an overflowing burden of neuroses. He lashed out at anyone he considered unappreciative of his skills, or imperiling his success. He attributed rejection to anti-Semitism, which in many cases had nothing to do with acceptance. One man who knew him well said, "He considered anyone younger than him a threat." Since he was 81 when he died last week, he had plenty of time to develop resentments.

Joey practiced publicity at the highest levels, not just in sports, but one of his first great national successes came 50 years ago, in 1959, when he engineered a remarkably creative coup.

The International Trot was having its debut at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. Joe was the track’s publicity director, and he learned that the trainer of a French entrant in the race, Jamin, was importing artichokes, a dietary delight to the horse. Joey ran small ads in the New York Times saying Roosevelt needed artichokes for Jamin. The item drew a story in the Times, and then exploded nationwide.

The 1959 Roosevelt International drew a traffic-stopping crowd of 51,000, the largest in the history of harness racing. Joey was on his way.

He did not need much help. Bob Hope sought him out to publicize his Desert Classic golf tournament (Joey once put Hope on hold while he concluded a call with some racing figures) and Joey continued his longtime duties as publicist for the New York City marathon and the Millrose Games indoor track and field events at Madison Square Garden.

His small office in New York – staffed by a secretary and a loyal aide named Dave Hirscher, and later by an assistant named Tim O’Leary who went on to form his own PR outfit – ground out prodigious amounts of copy, which Joe peddled to the press.

He pestered and persuaded, and was helped by a superb memory and knowledge of sports of all kinds. Editors may have been bothered by him at times, but they respected his expertise and creativity.

He flew messenger pigeons across the Hudson for a Hambletonian post position draw at the Meadowlands, and once, (only two made it), with a sparsely attended press conference at the Plaza Hotel, he pressed his driver into duty as a supposed reporter. It would have worked if the driver had remained quiet, but he asked the sport’s greatest driver, John Campbell, "How long have you been in racing?" and the hoax was exposed.

His successes overshadowed his failures 50 to 1, however, and his clients included ESPN and the New York Stock Exchange, Evil Kneivel’s motorcycle leap across Snake River Canyon in the West, and world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.

When Joey was handling publicity for Roosevelt Raceway, another legend – Joe’s mortal enemy Irving Rudd – was doing the same duties at Yonkers Raceway across town. The two detested one another, and Rudd, also one of the top sports publicists in New York, won his share of rounds on temperament, not being subject to the volcanic mood swings that racked Joey.

He maintained his New York office to the end, but spent most of his time in Florida. The AP reported that while "others might struggle to make a reservation at a choice restaurant during Super Bowl week, Goldstein could lock up an entire room." In fact, he did just that during Super Bowl week in Tampa just a few weeks before a stroke killed him.

He was, the Associated Press’s long story said, "the quintessential PR man."

They were right, and Joey would have been considered that assessment a fitting way to bow out, and one score he didn’t have to place.