December 22, 2001

Dick Schaap, Ubiquitous Sports Journalist, Dies at 67


Dick Schaap, the affable and ubiquitous journalist who introduced an 18-year-old Cassius Clay to Harlem, coined the term Fun City for New York and embodied the role of the "as told to" writer of autobiographies, including his own, died yesterday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.

Mr. Schaap, who was 67, had complications after hip replacement surgery that resulted in acute respiratory distress syndrome, according to his family.

Silver-haired and raspy-voiced, Mr. Schaap compiled a trove of work and memories that conveyed the impression he had attended every major sports event of the past century. He was a gleeful, unrepentant name- dropper, playing on his talent for usually being in the right, or fortuitous, place most of the time. That Zelig-like penchant for brushing with the famous may have come in his genes. His father had a law school professor named Judge Joseph Crater, who disappeared into the ether not long after the elder Schaap's last class; it became a famous missing person case.

For the past 12 years, Mr. Schaap was best known as the host of ESPN's Sunday morning talk show, "The Sports Reporters," where he presided over a panel of opinionated sportswriters. Each program concluded with "parting shots"; Mr. Schaap's remarks were often tart.

But in his last appearance, five days after the World Trade Center attacks, he said: "Firefighters, cops, steelworkers, citizens of all backgrounds working and hoping and joining together in crisis. That makes me proud to be a New Yorker, to be an American, to be a human being."

Outgoing, and with seemingly thousands of acquaintances, Mr. Schaap was an avuncular New York character. He was a Monday night regular at Rao's, the East Harlem restaurant which is nearly impossible to get into unless you are a regular; a fixture at the Broadway shows he reviewed for "ABC News Now"; and an habitué of Barney Greengrass, the West Side eatery.

Three years ago, Mr. Schaap said he used a slab of Greengrass's sturgeon to soothe a serious eye injury sustained during a doubles tennis match. Mr. Schaap, playing net, turned as his partner returned a shot, but the ball whacked him in the eye. Upset, the partner rushed the sturgeon to Mr. Schaap's apartment, said Ray Robinson, a longtime friend who was one of Mr. Schaap's opponents that day.

Mr. Schaap collaborated on the autobiographies of Hank Aaron, Joe Montana, Tom Seaver, Billy Crystal and Joe Namath, with whom he served as co-host of a local talk show in 1969 and 1970. Mr. Schaap booked the guests, specializing in odd couplings, like Truman Capote and Rocky Graziano.

Two of his books, "Instant Replay" with Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers, and "Bo Knows Bo" with the baseball and football player Bo Jackson, were the best- selling sports books of their eras.

He collected people the way the Collier brothers squirreled away decades-old newspapers, a vast assemblage that formed the foundation of his 2001 autobiography, "Flashing Before My Eyes."

Mr. Schaap, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport on Long Island, started his journalism career at age 15, writing sports articles for a dollar an hour at The Nassau Daily Review-Star. The night editor was a 20-year-old named Jimmy Breslin, with whom Mr. Schaap developed an enduring friendship.

After his graduation from Cornell — where as the goaltender for the lacrosse team he once faced Syracuse's Jim Brown, the future pro football superstar — he attended Columbia University's School of Journalism. His early adult career combined news, culture and sports, first as an editor at Newsweek, then as the city editor of The New York Herald Tribune, where his charges included Mr. Breslin and Tom Wolfe.

He asked off the job as city editor to become a columnist, planting himself in the fertile ground of new journalism, where his focus was more on municipal and national affairs than on sports.

Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay's first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor. "I still think it's a fun city," he said.

Mr. Schaap used the term as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city.

"I grabbed the words, capitalized them and ran with them," he wrote.

In the late 1960's, book writing became an entrepreneurial venture. Building on the success of "Instant Replay," which was based on a tape- recorded diary kept by Mr. Kramer, Mr. Schaap set up a small company to produce books with other writers that used the same formula. He distributed a manual that urged subjects to ignore few details, and most important, "Be sure your tape recorder is working properly."

Mr. Schaap's company did not last long, but other work kept beckoning. In the early 1970's, he simultaneously edited Sport magazine and delivered sports reports on WNBC-TV/ Channel 4.

One night at the station in 1974, he offended viewers and Cardinal Terence Cooke by calling the racehorses Secretariat and Riva Ridge "the most famous pair of stablemates since Joseph and Mary." He delivered an on-air apology soon afterward.

In 1977, Mr. Schaap disturbed the literary establishment and others who felt that he and Mr. Breslin capitalized on tragedy by writing ".44," a fictional retelling of the Son of Sam murders.

Mr. Schaap's work at Channel 4 led to work at NBC News, and then to ABC News, where his reporting on sports and culture stories for the evening news and "20/20" earned him three Emmys.

He continued writing books, including two more go-rounds with Mr. Kramer, a biography of George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner, and a collaboration with Tom Waddell, an Olympic decathlete who was gay and dying of AIDS. Mr. Schaap described the process of overcoming his fears about working with Mr. Waddell, saying: "I drank from the glasses. I ate from the dishes. I fell in love with Tom."

Mr. Schaap moved to ESPN in 1989 and later became a fixture on ESPN Classic, which employed his gift for remembering the past and navigating easily through the present. He was also host of a weekly ESPN radio show with his son Jeremy.

He is survived by his third wife, Trish; four daughters, Michelle, Joanna Rose and Kari Schaap, and Renée Levin; and two sons, Jeremy and David.

ESPN Classic turned Mr. Schaap's memoir into a two-hour documentary that he was the host for, enabling him to talk about himself and his vast collection of friends.

Yet, he admitted, tales of others were easier to write about than delving inward. "Maybe if you don't reflect," he said, "you don't hurt as much."

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