Remembering Hal

Bernie's Insiders' Rich Passan remembers legendary sports journalist Hal Lebovitz, who passed away earlier this week. Hal was Rich's first sports editor at the Plain Dealer and a life-long inspiration...

He was to sports writing what Hank Aaron and Ted Williams and Bob Feller and Willie Mays were to baseball. He was a superstar, a Hall of Famer, a Cleveland legend.

Hal Lebovitz was all this and more. He was a high school teacher and coach, an official, a devoted husband to "my bride" Margie, for 67 years, a loving father to Neil and Lynn.

The world of sports and journalism lost a special man this week with his passing at the age of 89.

Hal was tall at 6-foot-3. He was easy to pick out in a crowd with his shock of snow white hair. He had a smile for everyone. He cared about people.

This gentle, soft-spoken man was so popular, all you had to do was mention his first name and everyone knew who you were talking about. He was Cleveland sports.

Anybody who knew even a scintilla about Cleveland sports knew – or knew about – Hal.

"Did you read what Hal wrote today? Wonder how Hal feels about that? If Hal wrote it, it must be true. Ask Hal, The Referee."

Hal loved his Cleveland teams with unquestioned passion: The Indians, whom he covered as a beat writer early in his long and distinguished career; the Browns, with whom he had a love affair since their birth in 1946; the Cavaliers, whom he obliquely helped bring to Cleveland in 1970.

He was an amazingly vital man. His boundless energy, almost up until the time he passed, was incredible. His workload – and the zeal with which he attacked it – belied his years.

Integrity and knowledge were badges of honor during his 60 years in the business. When Hal wrote something, you knew it was dead on. Or else he would not write it.

Hal was a people person. The event was one thing. But it was the people who made it a story and made the story work. He wanted to know about people and wanted the readers to know as well.

He was a mover and shaker when the situation called for it. In 1964, shortly after succeeding Gordon Cobbledick as The Plain Dealer's sports editor, word leaked that the Indians were about to bolt for Seattle.

Hal exposed the club's board of directors to public scrutiny, placing them in an extremely uncomfortable spotlight. Soon after, plans to move the team were scrapped.

He enjoyed going out into the community and meeting those people. He related to them and they related to him. That made him the perfect choice to replace Cobbledick in 1964. He served 18 rewarding years in the position. The Plain Dealer's sports section under his leadership quickly became one of the first reads in the paper.

One of his pet projects each baseball season was the Grandstand Managers contest, where he encouraged people to let the Indians' front office know how they felt about certain situations by responding to a variety of questions. Each entrant received two tickets to the Tribe's "Grandstand Managers Night" game at the old Stadium. Invariably, that game drew at least 60,000 fans during a time when the club barely averaged 9,000.

His "Never Cut a Boy" column, which chastised high school coaches for cutting kids from their teams, became legendary.

His Ask Hal, The Referee column, where he would answer sports questions and solve knotty rules problems, was extremely popular even before he arrived at The Plain Dealer. As the Indians beat writer for the old Cleveland News, Hal gained a national reputation as one of the nation's best.

When he became sports editor at the PD, he often would turn around his Ask Hal column and craft a piece called Hal Asks. On Sundays, his popular notes column would take up an entire page.

Too much, said some. Not enough, said others. The latter, of course, were correct. You could never get enough of Hal.

When he moved on to the Lake County News Herald, his Sunday notes columns became one of that paper's most popular features.

His many meritorious years culminated with his induction into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2000. So much modesty fittingly and richly rewarded.

I had a personal relationship with Hal. I was his first hire when he was named sports editor. He was my first supervisor in the business. I shut up and listened to him. I was a sponge. He was my mentor. It was like learning at the throne of the master.

But I never referred to him as my boss. I had too much fun working with him – not for him – to think of him as my boss. He was one of those rare people you enjoyed working with so much, you couldn't wait for the work day to begin.

The relationship he had with his staff was incredible. Everyone loved him for the leader he was. He went to bat for his guys, his boys. And we appreciated that. It made us work that much harder for him.

With few exceptions, he never held any of his boys back. He brought out the best in each of them. His words of encouragement live with me to this day. "Always write with the reader in mind," he would say.

Hal has left his footprints in the sand with his elegance and style. They will never be replaced.

The OBR Top Stories