LOSS OF SCHAAP LEAVES HOLES IN THE HEARTS OF MANY

Sundays in New York with Dick.

I get to the studio a little before 7 a.m. Dick is there already, sitting by a dimly lit countertop, the newspaper open before him, his reading glasses down on the edge of his nose.

“Helloooo,” he crows, in that foggy voice.

The bagel is smeared with cream cheese. He shoves it in his mouth, then tells a joke while chewing. Something about a priest and a hooker. Maybe yeast and a booker.

“So the . . . mmphooker . . . says . . . “

One thick lock of white hair flops over his forehead, the bangs of a Little Leaguer. He is 67, but his tie is still loose, the way a boy would pull it down when his parents weren’t looking. We trade news. He keeps chewing.

Then someone appears with a guest from Pittsburgh who wants to meet him and Dick quickly wipes his mouth, pops up, takes the guest’s hand, muses
“Pittsburgh . . . ” then launches into a perfectly charming story about taking Lenny Bruce to his first baseball game in Pittsburgh, the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, and how “they sprayed us with champagne and beer in the locker room.”

“Lenny,” he adds, “never went back.”

I used to worry about getting older in this business. It’s a young man’s game, and aging gracefully seemed impossible in a world of cramped press boxes with cold hot dogs.

Then I met Dick Schaap. He was the answer to that dilemma. He was what you wanted to grow into, graceful yet giddy, impish yet elegant, a quick mind, a fast tongue and an open heart that had been everywhere, met everybody, and was always, always so alive.

Until now.

Collector of stories

We lost our heart a few hours ago. It stopped beating in a New York City hospital on the Upper East Side. Dick liked the neighborhood but hated the room. Beds with handles were not for him.

He should have been traveling to some game, flying to host some charity banquet, having dinner with somebody famous, somebody colorful, a night the subject might forget but Dick would remember a month from now, a year from now, maybe forever.

Dick was like that. Some people collect cards. Some collect hats. Dick collected stories. He didn’t meet people; he absorbed them. He was put on this earth to remind us of the sheer joy of company.

And I cannot believe he is gone.

Who hosts the party now? Who pulls us together? His varied worlds — newspapers, books, TV — were full of the worst kind of jealousies, people who won’t stand across the room from one another. But everyone would gather around Dick. Saying Dick was your friend was like saying, “I drink water.” Dick was everybody’s friend. Hank Aaron. Bo Jackson. Joe Namath. Billy Crystal. And those are just people he wrote books with.

He knew the most famous Olympians and he knew your second-grade teacher. He knew Ali and DiMaggio and he knew the chef at the Italian joint down the street.

And he knew something too many people in this business forget: He was not the story, he was the storyteller.

Sundays will never be the same

For the record, Dick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1934. His mother was a teacher, his father a salesman. Dick grew up dreaming about sports, and he lived a life that fulfilled his dream, putting in 50 years of journalism from the New York Herald Tribune to ESPN. He died from complications following hip surgery, and left behind six children and a beautiful wife.

That’s all I can do like that, because I don’t want to write an obituary. I’m not very good at it and right now, it hurts. I only know Sunday mornings will never be the same. No bagels. No loose tie. No foggy-voiced “Helloooo. . . . “

The TV show we did together, “ESPN Magazine’s Sports Reporters,” features high-profile columnists spouting their opinions. Dick was the host, and none of us was as smart as he, nor as pithy. But every now and then, he would lean over after I said something and whisper, “That was terrific.”

I never felt as big.

One of his best books was the story of Tom Waddell, an Olympian dying of AIDS. Dick wrote of their last meeting:

“He grew drowsier. His eyes flickered. And then he folded his hands on his lap and said, ‘Well, this should be interesting.’ “

Yes, it should. By the time you read this, Dick Schaap, the heart of this business, will have been in heaven for nearly a day. He is, no doubt, still shaking hands.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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