My old pal and golf book co-author, Leonard Shapiro, asked if he could have this space to share some memories on Ben Bradlee. Shapiro had a long and distinguished career at the Washington Post as a sportswriter and editor. How good was he? Well, his name is on a plaque at the NFL Hall of Fame.
Looking back, Shapiro recalls he likely wouldn’t have gotten to Canton if not for Bradlee. Here’s Len.
That would be Benjamin C. Bradlee, the long-time executive editor of The Washington Post who died last week at the age of 93. Countless tributes have poured in from around the planet, each one so well-deserved for a man myself and many of my colleagues at the paper considered the greatest editor of his or any other generation.
Most of the focus has been on Bradlee’s commandeering leadership role in the Post’s publishing of the Pentagon papers, followed by his overseeing the paper’s relentless pursuit of Richard Nixon that ultimately led to his resignation, the only American president ever to leave the White House in utter disgrace.
Still, very little has been written about Bradlee’s great affection for sports, and yes, even some sportswriters. After all, when he joined the newspaper in 1965, he inherited one of the giants in our end of the industry, the Post’s late, great sports columnist, Shirley Povich. Bradlee, and virtually anyone who ever lived in the Nation’s Capital (including Nixon, by the way) adored Povich’s erudite writing style and always spot on daily columns for more than sixty years.
And of course, Bradlee was a huge fan of the Washington Redskins. At the time he joined The Post, the team was being operated by Bradlee’s great friend, renowned trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, a part-owner and the team preident. In fact, Bradlee was a regular in Williams owner’s box at RFK Stadium, along with Art Buchwald.
The three would meet before every Sunday home game at the Georgetown drugstore owned by another pal, Doc Dalinsky, and then all of them would commute to the game, watching the action from the best seats in the house.
I was assigned to cover the Redskins as the principal beat reporter in 1973 at the ripe old age of 26. Needless to say, it was a daunting assignment, considering the massive readership, including a very interested executive editor closely following the daily coverage.
Not long after the team began practicing back in Washington following the close of training camp in ’73, I quickly learned what it meant to have your editors on your side. I had written a story about some finagling on the team’s roster by the devious head coach, George Allen (reporters used to call him “Nixon with a whistle”), who once had even been caught trading draft choices he didn’t own. Allen was furious at the story and said if that’s how I was going to operate, he didn’t want me covering his team. I told him if he had a problem, call my editor.
So he called Bradlee, who told him in no uncertain terms that I was The Post’s man at Redskins Park, and if I wasn’t allowed in the front door, we’d simply stop covering the team during the week and only report on the games. I went back the next day, and the next day, and stayed on the beat for seven years, even outlasting Allen, and never hearing that threat again.
Early in the 1977 season—Allen’s last—the Redskins were badly underachieving at a time when they also had the highest payroll in the league, about $4 million. Total. One of Bradlee’s deputy editors thought it would be a grand idea to see how much the players were being paid. Over the next few weeks, I went about gathering information from various sources and eventually published a story that included a chart with every player’s salary, information that was not readily available the way it is these days.
The piece appeared on the front page of the newspaper—not the sports section—and the reaction at Redskins Park was predictable. The players were not happy. Neither was Allen. When I walked into the locker room after practice, wads of tape were being thrown my way, and at least one jockstrap, as well. The verbal abuse also was not particularly pleasant, and while interviewing Allen outside along with several other reporters, one player stuck his head out the locker room door and yelled “don’t worry George, we didn’t talk to him.”
At that point, the coach and I had a somewhat heated “discussion” before I went back up to the press room to write for the next day’s paper. When I left the building that evening, I’m sure my blood pressure was still off the charts, even after several calming chats with my editors in the sports department.
Two days later, a letter on Washington Post stationary arrived at my home.
“Dear Len,” it read. “I’m an admirer of your guts and have been for some time. Hang in there and don’t let those animals worry you.”
It was signed “Ben.” I framed that note, and it remains one of my most cherished possessions, hung in a place of honor at my home.
The career save came in 1986, when I accepted a job to become sports editor of United Press International. It was the chance to run a worldwide news gathering operation then under new ownership. The salary was spectacular and they were even going to move the entire operation from New York to Washington.
After much thought, many sleepless nights and clearly not enough due diligence on my part, I decided to leave The Post, where I had been serving as deputy sports editor, No. 2 in the department. My last assignment for the paper was to be the on-site editor at the Super Bowl, clearly a nice way to go out. It also afforded me a chance to meet with a large contingent of UPI staffers who had been assigned to cover the game, as well.
It did not go well. Several of their long-time stringers asked me when they could be expected to be paid money that had been overdue for months. Several friends covering the NFL beat for UPI told me point blank I was making a mistake, that things had deteriorated badly since I had first interviewed for the job several months before and that the new ownership was already breaking promises.
For the next few days, it was more sleepless nights and jittery days. Finally on the Friday before the Super Bowl, I picked up the phone and called Ben Bradlee. I told him I thought I’d made a serious mistake and asked if he’d consider allowing me to come back to the paper in my old job.
Just recalling his response still gives me goosebumps.
“That’s great news,” he said in that famously raspy voice. “I’ll see you Monday kid.”
Thank you Ben.