Bob Dolgan was with the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 45 years, from 1957 to 1963 and from 1967 to 2006, when he retired. Forty of those years were in the Sports department. Dolgan has won sportswriting awards in five decades, from the 1960s to 2000s.
In 1985, the nation’s sports editors named Dolgan one of the top 10 sports columnists in the country. In 1987, he won the U.S. Football Writers Award for the best column in the nation for a piece on late Browns player Don Rogers. In 1997, U.S. sports editors named his series on black baseball pioneers one of the top 10 in the country. In 1998, he wrote a summer-long series on the World Series champion 1948 Indians, visiting the living players on that team, from New Jersey to California.
Dolgan’s sports columns and stories have been reprinted in Golf Digest, The Sporting News and Baseball Digest. He was inducted into the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame in 1999 by the Press Club of Cleveland. He's the author of three books, "America's Polka King: The Real Story of Frankie Yankovic and His Music," "Heroes, Scamps and Good Guys: 101 Colorful Characters from Cleveland Sports History" and "The Sportswriter Who Punched Sam McDowell and Other Sports Stories."
He now lives in Indian Head Park, Illinois, near his five grandchildren, with his wife, Cecilia. (He's also my dad.)
And now...just the facts!
Bob Jr: What made you think of getting into sportswriting?
Bob Sr: My best subject in college was English. And I was always involved in sports. I loved sports. So I decided to put the two together. I always thought sportswriting would be a good job. But I thought you needed a connection with somebody like a father-in-law or uncle to get a job on the paper. I made a decision about a month before I graduated that I would try to become a sportswriter since those were the two things I liked the most, sports and writing.
Bob Jr: Did you ever think about the fact that your dad was a laborer and your mom was a seamstress and you were doing something new for the family?
Bob Sr: My grandfather, who came from Slovenia and couldn’t speak a word of English, when I was about 10 years old gave me a mechanical pencil and said ‘You’re going to be the first person in the family to go to college.’ But when I was thinking of a job, I had no thoughts that I was going to be anything special. I was just trying to find a way to make a living. A couple of my friends said, ‘What are you going to do with that degree? You’re going to work in a factory with us.’ That filled me with dread.
Bob Jr: Who were your greatest writing influences?
Bob Sr: My favorite writer was Franklin Lewis, sports columnist with the Cleveland Press. Of course I knew all the guys with the bylines: Harry Jones, Frank Gibbons and Hal Lebovitz. They were the three major baseball writers (in Cleveland). But as I went along I developed some other favorite writers like Roger Kahn, I began reading him when he was at Sport magazine. He’s the guy who wrote “Boys of Summer.” I loved Red Smith, of the New York Herald Tribune. I liked Jimmy Cannon a lot, another New York columnist. And I got to know all those guys. Roger Kahn offered me a job later on with the Saturday Evening Post. And I met Red Smith at the World Series and at the Kentucky Derby. And Jimmy Cannon I knew from the baseball beat.
Bob Jr: What about outside of sports? I know there are some literary figures you admired.
Bob Sr: I liked the style of Somerset Maugham a lot. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald. I liked Hemingway’s first book, “The Sun Also Rises,” and his last book, “The Old Man and the Sea.” But you can name just about every major writer. I’ve read Tolstoy, Sinclair Lewis. Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson. I really liked that. His first book, “Path to Power,” is probably the greatest biography I’ve ever read.
Bob Jr: Jumping to when you were assigned the Indians beat, what was it like being a baseball writer in the early 1960s?
Bob Sr: The overriding thing was, you were on your own. Those days, you never called the editor and said, ‘What should I do?’ I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but that’s the way I operated. I never asked anybody for advice and learned as I went along. Today it’s easy. After every ballgame they hold a press conference. They bring everybody in to address the media. You don’t even have to know anybody.
The players didn’t care about the media as much in those days. They might talk to you because they were feeling good or because they knew you. It wasn’t important to them to talk to the media.
Bob Jr: It seemed like they didn’t think about what they were going to say, or plan on it. And the writers had all access. You could talk to players at any time, on the field, off the field, at the bar or at the hotel.
Bob Sr: I think we got to know the players better because we traveled with them. It was all much more personal. The Indians’ traveling secretary treated me like I was a member of the ball club. Just have your suitcase outside your hotel door by 9:30 in the morning.
Bob Jr: You were alongside the players more than separate from them. You had to create some boundaries, though, because if you wrote something that made them mad they might not talk to you again. At the same time, you were fighting for scoops.
Bob Sr: That was the tricky part, dealing with the players and still not being a PR man. I didn’t want to be known as a PR man. I was among the first to really treat the job like a news thing. But at the same time you had to be friendly with the players. That was the tricky stuff.
Bob Jr: I remember the story where someone got mad at you and gave you the cold shoulder, and another where you were called names, like with Jim Piersall. Were there other examples?
Bob Sr: Well, John Romano, he was a catcher, a hard-hitting catcher. But he wasn’t very good behind the plate defensively, just average. The team was struggling and all of a sudden Romano wasn’t playing, he missed five games in a row. I thought they were giving him a rest. So one of the ballplayers I was drinking with said, ‘You know why he’s not playing. The other day when that winning run scored on the wild pitch he got hit right in the mask by the pitch.’ We couldn’t see it from the press box because we were up on top. But it hit him right in the mask, more like a passed ball, and the manager benched him. I wrote the story and we even had a cartoon of Romano being in the doghouse.
When I came to the dugout the next day—I always showed up. I didn’t hide out. You couldn’t hide out. If you hid out they’d really hate you. Bubba Phillips, who was Romano’s roommate, said ‘That was the worst story I ever read. You ruined his career, he won’t ever be able to play again.’ Romano came out waving a bat and said ‘You better never write anything about me again!’ He was threatening me with a bat in the dugout. Then we went on the road and he hit five home runs in six games.
Bob Jr: Whatever happened to Romano?
Bob Sr: Romano had a substantial career. I called him up years later and we had a very nice conversation. He probably forgot all about it. [laughing]
Another guy, Frank Funk, a relief pitcher, during a game it was announced they’d send him down to the minors. I went down and talked to him and Funk lashed into the manager, Mel McGaha, and I wrote all the quotes down and put it into the paper. That night the television station read my story and called Funk and asked him for an interview, and he said ‘I never said that, it’s all baloney and I don’t know where he got that.’ The next day Gordon Cobbledick (sports editor) called me up and said, ‘Bob, Funk said you never talked to him and the story is all baloney.’ I said, ‘Cobby, take my word for it, I swear to god, I talked to him and that’s what he said.’ And Cobbledick said, ‘OK, Bob, we’re standing by your story.”
Bob Jr: Do you think that today’s media climate results in less interesting coverage?
Bob Sr: Oh definitely. When’s the last time you saw anybody come up with a big story? I felt the writers should hang around with the ballplayers. There were always seven or eight guys who liked to go out at night and hit the bars and I’d go with them. And I picked up stories that way. For example, Johnny Antonelli was a starting pitcher and had been a big star in the National League. One of the guys told me, ‘He’s going to quit the team tomorrow night when we get back to Cleveland.’ Antonelli had been with the Indians for half a year. So I walked up to him and said, ‘John, can I ask a question? Is it true you’re quitting the team?’ He said, ‘How’d you find that out?’ I questioned him further and he said was going to go in and talk to the general manager as soon as we got home and tell him he was quitting. He was finished, retired.
Bob Jr: Did you break the story before it was announced?
Bob Sr: It wasn’t ever announced. My story was it. You would never get that today.
Here’s another one. Gabe Paul was the general manager of the Indians. He joined the Indians early in the 1961 season. He had left his previous team, the Reds, and I got word from a broadcaster who’d give me stories. He couldn’t put them on the air because he was working for the ball club. He said, ‘Bob, I have a good one for you. Gabe Paul still owns a piece of the Cincinnati Reds.’ [laughing] He was the general manager of the Indians, that’s a conflict of interest.
So I walked up to Gabe and said, ‘Is it true that you still own a piece of the Cincinnati Reds?’ Even though we were friendly, he called me a ferret...muttered it. He said, ‘You know I’ve been trying to sell it.’ I wrote the story and he sold the piece the next day.
Bob Jr: Your goal must have been to tell the stories so that all the fans out there knew what was happening.
Bob Sr: I was writing for the fans, the readers, more than the editors or anybody else. Some guys only wrote stuff to make the players happy. There were players who were having good years and doing well, and I wrote that, too. I wasn’t just looking for the bad stuff.
Bob Jr: Tell me about Art Modell (longtime Cleveland Browns owner) because you wrote about him a lot.
Bob Sr: Here’s one for you. A season ticket holder called me and said that Modell for the first time is making me buy tickets to exhibition games, which are worthless. They never did require buying tickets to exhibitions because all the subs were playing. I called Modell and said why are you doing this. He said, ‘Well, other teams do it. I could have had three exhibition games to buy, but I’m doing it for only one.’
Bob Jr: But his job is to make money for the team. And he found a way.
Bob Sr: He was making tons of money already. He was drawing 80,000 people every game! He had the biggest stadium in the league!
Bob Jr: Did it surprise you that he then moved the team to Baltimore in 1995?
Bob Sr: Modell committed the two biggest sins in Cleveland sports history. First, he fired Paul Brown, the greatest coach in football history. But moving the team, that was a shocker. Again, he had the biggest stadium in the league, drawing 80,000 people. The Browns had some success, but overall his teams were below .500. At one point they didn’t win a playoff game for 20 years. But he always talked to me, that was the good thing. [laughing] One time he said, ‘Where’d you hear that? The bowling alley?’ He’d heard I was bowling.
Modell was mad because the Indians got a new ballpark and were getting all the attention at Jacobs Field. He even said at one point he was going to have the stadium remodeled. He wanted to be the top guy in Cleveland sports. It was like he wanted to drive the Indians out of town, he made life miserable for them. Gabe Paul said he was trying to drive him out of town.
Bob Jr: But the Ravens did win two Super Bowls with him.
Bob Sr: OK, but that has nothing to do with him taking the team out of Cleveland. And they didn’t win two, they won one.
Bob Jr: Well, I think the vestiges of his regime were in charge in 2012 when they won their second Super Bowl.
Bob Sr: There should be a law against moving. These teams are institutions. They are such a big part of the city. There should be a law that if a team is losing money, the owner should at least have to sell it to somebody that would keep the team there. Then if they can’t do that, let them move.
Bob Jr: I wanted to switch over to some of your non-sports writing, interviews with the likes of Cesar Chavez. Was that any more challenging than covering sports?
Bob Sr: The only challenge with him and the United Farm Workers, the only tough part was finding him. They told me he was near Bakersfield, California, that was his headquarters. But he wasn’t in an office in a city. He was up in the hill country, and I talked to him up in a retreat in the country. Very nice guy. I agreed with everything he wanted.
The job was tougher in the baseball world because I’m dealing with people close up and trying to tell the real story. As a result, you have conflicts with some of the players, managers. What I found, I wrote columns for most of a year, on politics and other things, and they all wanted to cooperate with the press. Talking to Chavez, he wanted to get his message out and so he was happy to talk to me.
I did a column on John Wayne, who was a big advocate for the Vietnam War. And I wrote what right does he have to talk about it, when he was young he didn’t go into the army.
Bob Hope was another advocate for the war. He was at a press conference in Cleveland, and I asked questions about Vietnam and he got mad at me. He yelled out, ‘Look are you in favor of the Viet Cong?’ I wrote a whole story and he came up and said, ‘I’m sorry I said that, people ask me questions, and it really bugged me.’ It was a front page story.
Bob Jr: How did the autobiography of Frankie Yankovic, “America’s Polka King,” come together?
Bob Sr: I had met Yankovic a couple times in my younger days. My father was a boarder in his house. So I began interviewing him. He was a great interview. I’d talk to him and I’d come over to his house. He was telling the story, and I wrote it. Then about 20 years later, I updated it.
Bob Jr: Turning back to sports, you were able to get interviews with a lot of athletes who didn’t want to talk to the media. How did you do that? Ted Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Dave Kingman, Jim Rice, Kirk Gibson, Steve Carlton and Albert Belle to name a few.
Bob Sr: I’ll give you an example. I was talking to the Detroit Tigers' manager, Sparky Anderson, in the dugout and a couple writers were there. I said, ‘Where’s Kirk Gibson? I want to do a column on Gibson.’ And the writers said, ‘He won’t talk to you. He hasn’t talked to us all year. He doesn’t talk to anybody.’ So I thought I’ll give it a try. So I walked in and said, ‘Hello Kirk, I’m with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, mind if I ask a few questions?’ He said, ‘No, sit down.’ [laughing] Then when we were finished I said, ‘You know, the guys said you didn’t give an interview all year, why did you talk to me?’ He said, ‘Some people know how to approach a person and some don’t.’
Ted Williams was another one. Both times I talked to Ted Williams, we had a real long conversation.
Bob Jr: I was going to ask you about the column on the death of Browns safety Don Rogers.
Bob Sr: It’s the biggest response I ever got. It may have been the biggest response in the history of the Plain Dealer. Of any piece. Of anybody. He died of an overdose. I was astounded when I was starting to get letters and people calling me. I got close to a thousand letters, they were bringing in boxes full of letters from the mailroom. And an equal number of phone calls. The response was favorable. Everybody loved it. This went on for two weeks. It kind of scared me because I never had that reaction before or since.
Bob Jr: What's the best team you ever saw?
Bob Sr: The most impressive team I ever saw was the 1961 Green Bay Packers. They came into Cleveland to play the Browns. They got the ball on the 20-yard line four times in the first half and they drove down and scored each time. Jim Taylor was the running back and Bart Starr the quarterback. It didn’t seem (Hall of Fame running back) Paul Hornung had done much in the game. I went down to talk to Coach Vince Lombardi, who was very shy by the way. Not at all the tough guy. I said, ‘Who was the guy blocking all those ends, taking the ends out.’ And he said, ‘Hornung. Yeah, he’s a great blocker.’ So I talked to Hornung and wrote a story about him as a blocker. Everybody else wrote that he was a decoy.
Bob Jr: You also covered The Drive (1986 AFC Championship game).
Bob Sr: They used to say, ‘No cheering in the press box,’ but I ignored that. Because I used to see the old guys do that (cheering). I did it when it was deserved. I didn’t always do it. But in the fourth quarter against Denver, I was saying ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl!’ I was cheering. That team deserved it.
Bob Jr: Who else did you enjoy interviewing?
Bob Sr: I was one of a group of writers traveling with Pete Rose in the final week as he pursued Ty Cobb's hit record of 4,192. I saw him tie the record in Wrigley Field, and two days later he broke the mark in Cincinnati. Rose held a press conference before and after each game. He was always a great interview. I also interviewed him one-on-one several times before and after he broke the record.
Bob Jr: We’ll close with this. Could you tell me the story about World B. Free, who joined the Cleveland Cavaliers late in his NBA career, in 1983?
Bob Sr: He was a great character, always talkative. The Cavs had a rookie coach, George Karl. They started the season winning two and losing 19 right off the bat. I was thinking they’d break the NBA record for fewest victories, which was nine. So I was pursuing a story on that angle, about setting the record for losing. I asked World, ‘Do you think the team can win nine games?’ He said, ‘You kidding? I’ll win nine games by myself.’ [laughing] After that, they went on a hot streak, played over .500 basketball the rest of the year and almost beat Boston in the first round of the playoffs. He was a great guy.