Calling the Pen: A Christmas story - BaltimoreBaseball.com

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Calling the Pen: A Christmas story

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

It’s difficult when you’re a kid to grasp the concept that it’s better to give than to receive. To be honest, it’s difficult to grasp that concept when you’re an adult. There are people who not only seem to get it but live it every day. And while I enjoy giving more as I get older, there’s still a kid in me who likes to receive.

In 1986, I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story asking for a Red Ryder BB gun when I went to Baltimore Evening Sun Managing Editor Jack Lemmon to ask for another baseball writer. Lemmon was a real-life Lou Grant, bearing a physical resemblance and the same kind of heart beneath a gruff exterior. He was an editor with the Washington Star and The Washington Post who commanded respect and could be intimidating when his temper would turn his face red.

Red was also his favorite color when it came to baseball. He grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and loved talking about the Gashouse Gang, Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson. I didn’t realize how much he enjoyed talking about the Cardinals until one night in Little Italy.

Before that evening, I presented my case for why we needed a new baseball beat writer. We already had a superb baseball analyst in Jim Henneman, who knew and could explain the game as well as any writer. But we needed someone to break news, develop sources and keep pace with Tim Kurkjian, the beat writer for The (Morning) Sun, and Richard Justice, the beat writer for The Post. The Colts had left Baltimore on a snowy March night in 1984, making the Orioles an even more important beat — one we should be covering with more than one person. It also was a highly competitive time. The (Morning) Sun and The Evening Sun competed against each other, and each had its own staff. The Post covered the Orioles as aggressively as we did because there wasn’t a baseball team in D.C. at that time.

Lemmon saw my point of view and gave me permission to pursue someone for the position. When I brought him the candidate I wanted, he agreed to a dinner at Vellegias in Little Italy. The three of us had a good meal and a pleasant conversation. Jack talked a lot about the Cardinals. What he didn’t do was ask the candidate questions.

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After Lemmon left, the candidate was confused. I was, too. Jack hadn’t given us any indication of what he was thinking.

He told me the next day at work, and it sounded a lot like, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

This is how I remember the conversation.

“He’s too young,” Lemmon said about 24-year-old Ken Rosenthal.

“I know he’s young, Jack. But he’s smart, he’s good, and he’s going to get better.”

“He doesn’t have enough experience,” Lemmon said.

Rosenthal had worked at the York Daily Record and the Courier-Post in Camden, N.J., where he impressed me with the depth of his reporting and his desire to tell a story.

“He’s hungry, Jack. He loves to report and write, and he has wonderful energy.”

“He hasn’t covered baseball,” Jack said.

“You’re right, he hasn’t covered it as a beat. But he’s a quick study, and he’ll soon be keeping up with Tim and Richard. We need him.”

Lemmon said he would think about it. As I look back on it, he was right to ask every question, express every doubt.

He thought I might shoot my eye out.

In retrospect, Rosenthal understood Lemmon’s reluctance, although it wasn’t easy at the time. “How can he decide he doesn’t want me?” Rosenthal recalled saying. “I barely got to talk! But I do know I looked very, very young then. And man, I was green. His concern was completely understandable.”

I didn’t write an essay to Jack or put a huge basket of fruit on his desk, but I wasn’t feeling optimistic as time went by. Just when I thought he would ask me to look for someone who might be a safer pick, he surprised me, almost the way Ralphie was surprised that Christmas morning when his dad asked him to check out that package behind the desk.

Lemmon said I could offer the position to Rosenthal, but that I had better be right. I didn’t shoot my eye out.

Editor’s Note: Ken became a sports columnist before leaving The Sun to work with The Sporting News. His broadcasting career took off with his move to Fox Sports. When Fox decided to go strictly with video on its website, Ken became the senior baseball writer for The Athletic. He has earned numerous writing awards and also won Emmy Awards in 2015 and 2016 for his TV reporting. On the Fox broadcasts, he is known for his bow ties, which are designed to represent different charities as part of the BowTie Cause. Ken’s biggest gift to me is his friendship. 

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. cedar

    December 22, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Great piece! I always look forward to the free form writing and personal stories that give a glimpse into others. I enjoyed this one into Ken Rosenthal’s Baltimore beginnings.

  2. Jack Gibbons

    December 22, 2018 at 10:36 am

    Thank you, cedar. After working a couple of summers as an intern at Newsday, Ken asked then-sports editor Dick Sandler for career advice. Sandler told him to go to law school. That fueled his fire.

    • cedar

      December 22, 2018 at 11:21 am

      Hahahaha! Good for sports he didn’t follow that advice!

      • Jack Gibbons

        December 22, 2018 at 11:57 am

        I agree, cedar. But he did use it as motivation.

  3. Pete

    December 22, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Great story, thanks Jack

    • Jack Gibbons

      December 22, 2018 at 11:00 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Pete. Thanks!

  4. PA Bird Lover

    December 22, 2018 at 10:53 am

    My soft spot for Ken began when he was with the Sun. BTW, that paper had one great sport section over the years because of many great columnists like Ken. I met Jimmy Henneman several times on visits to the city to see Memorial Stadium friends made back in the 70 & 80’s. Anyway, every time I see Ken on TV I remind everyone around me that Kenny is a Baltimore kid.

    • Jack Gibbons

      December 22, 2018 at 11:53 am

      PA Bird Lover, Jim always had such keen insight, pointing out game-changing plays or decisions that weren’t obvious. He still does. Ken was outstanding on the radio here, doing a show on Saturday mornings. The transition to TV wasn’t as easy as he has made it look, but he’s a natural and keeps getting better. I can relate to the pride you take in his work.

  5. Hallbe62

    December 23, 2018 at 12:22 am

    Nice story. Rosenthal certainly has held his own through the years.

    • Jack Gibbons

      December 23, 2018 at 8:55 am

      Thanks, Hallbe62, and, yes, he has.

  6. Birdman

    December 25, 2018 at 10:00 am

    Remarkable run of outstanding baseball writers at The Sun and Evening Sun during the 1980s and 1990s, including Tim Kurkjian, Richard Justice, Buster Olney, and Ken Rosenthal.

    • Jack Gibbons

      December 26, 2018 at 10:35 am

      Couldn’t agree more, Birdman. Exceptional at what they do, and outstanding people.

  7. jkneps63

    December 27, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    So is baltimorebaseball dot com closing down or just on a holiday hiatus?

    • Jack Gibbons

      December 28, 2018 at 10:51 am

      Just taking a holiday break, jkneps63. We’re eager to start a new year and to cover a new season. Happy New Year!

  8. Quote27

    January 3, 2019 at 10:06 am

    Nice article
    We used to have great writers in Baltimore
    The current crop are lazy puppets that all repeat the same garbage and don’t seem to be interested in digging out stories

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