I thought you were dead

Reading a delightful mea culpa in Sports Illustrated by Jane Leavy, the author of the best-seller about Yankee great Mickey Mantle, brought back similar memories.

In her research Jane found a quote about the Mick by the old Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan, which was too good to pass up. When she was unable to locate him, she assumed he was dead and she attributed the quote to the “late” Frank Sullivan. Soon afterward Jane received an e-mail from the “late” Frank Sullivan’s wife, who pointed out that at age 82 he was still kicking around Hawaii.

That stuff happens in this business, so a good policy is to return your phone calls promptly, especially those from reporters. Otherwise, they’ll think you are dead. Mark Twain wasn’t the first to be buried alive, but he was the most famous.

In my first book, “Crazy, with the Papers to Prove It,” I wrote about my old Plain Dealer friend, Dennis Lustig, who wrote a story in which he made a passing reference to “the late Roger Peckinpaugh,” a former Indians manager. The next day I answered the phone in the sports department.

“May I speak to Mr. Lustig?” said the polite voice.

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “Who can I say is calling?”

“This is the late Roger Peckinpaugh,” the voice said calmly, very much alive.

Now, let me tell you about Edward DeBartolo and me, a heretofore untold story which I will recount in painstaking detail in my third book, if I ever get around to writing it. In case I never write the book, forward this to your friends and save everybody fifteen bucks.

Late in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, 1974, I was at my desk at The Plain Dealer when Junior O’Malley called. Junior, a horse racing degenerate, said he had just received a call from a horse trainer at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“He heard a rumor there that Edward DeBartolo died. He asked me to check it out,” said Junior.

DeBartolo, one of the richest men in North America, owned Thistledown Racetrack in Cleveland and lived in Youngstown, where his business was located. He owned dozens of shopping malls from coast to coast. If he died, The Plain Dealer had to carry a Page One story.

It’s reasonable to think that if a man such as Mr. DeBartolo died, an announcement would come from the racetrack or his corporate headquarters. But the racetrack was closed for the winter. The only one who answered the phone was the night watchman. Furthermore, this was a holiday. There would be no announcements from the corporate office until the next day. We couldn’t wait.

My problem was that I did not have his home phone number. I should have had his number just for this situation. I would have called his home and if he answered, I would ask, “Is this Mr. DeBartolo?”

“Yes, it is,” he would say.

“Prove it,” I would say.

If someone else answered, I would ask if Mr. DeBartolo were available, or is he not alive?

So, lacking his phone number, I did the next best thing. When someone dies, the funeral director is always the first to know. So I took the Youngstown yellow pages and looked up “Funeral Homes.” There were two with Italian names. I called each one. I identified myself and asked, “Do you have Mr. DeBartolo?”

They both said, “No, we don’t.”

That was all the proof I needed. He was still alive. I reported back to Junior with the news and a little while later adjourned to a bar. I felt sort of good about my detective work.

That was not, however, the end of the story. Each funeral home thought the other one had Mr. DeBartolo and they lit up the phone lines like the White House on D-Day. Within hours the word spread from Youngtown to Boston on the East and to San Francisco on the West.

The next day my phone line lit up, as well.

“This is Edward DeBartolo,” he said. “What is going on?”

He explained that his office had been on the phone all day with banks, who were in a panic from coast to coast.

“My business depends entirely on me,” he said.

I recounted for him the events of the previous night, my calls to the funeral homes, my conclusions that there was no story.

“I was sitting right here at home watching the Orange Bowl. I had a big bet on it,” he said, as though he had to verify his whereabouts.

Of course, I apologized profusely. He seemed to understand.

“By the way,” I said. “Can I have your home phone number?”

A couple of years later he was in negotiations to buy Tampa Bay Downs, a racetrack in Florida. He returned my call from his private jet at 30,000 feet.

Many years later when Mr. DeBartolo died, I was among the last to know.

That’s all for now. Stay in touch.

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One Response to I thought you were dead

  1. Bric says:

    Great story.
    Reporters (bloggers) have tough decisions to make at times.
    Interrupt, or don’t.
    Cops, teachers have to grapple with, “Intervene or don’t.”
    Sometimes, best intentions don’t yield expected results.

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