Ask Hal - the Hall of Famer Sports Writer
Born September 11, 1916 right here in Cleveland (Harold) Hal Lebovitz spent half of his childhood on the West Side and half on the East Side in Glenville.
He graduated from Glenville High School the summer of 1934 and went on to Western Reserve University where he received a degree in Chemistry. He had always wanted to be a journalist, so while attending WRU he became sports editor of his school paper, The Reserve Tribune and Feature Editor of the Red Cat.
Hal loved sports. As a youth he worked as a vendor at League Park to be near the sport and raise money needed for tuition.
Hal didn't just write about sports. He played basketball, baseball and football and went on to coach and officiate all three as well. After his last season at Reserve he was appointed as coach of the freshman basketball team. Among his outstanding players was a man by the name of Steve Belichik, whose son Bill would one day coach the Cleveland Browns.
This was at the deepest point in the Depression and money was very tight, so it was imperative that Hal find a good job to support his family. Hal had married his lovely wife, Marge, in February 1938 (and they have been happily married ever since).
He was offered a position at Euclid Central High School, back before the two Euclid schools combined to form the current Euclid High. From 1938-1946 he taught chemistry and coached football, basketball and baseball. In addition there was Homeroom, Guidance Counseling, Study Hall - all for $25.00 a week - and he was very glad to get it!
He was also pursuing his Master's Degree at Reserve during this time. But the most important thing going on in Hal's life was that he was finally able to realize an ambition he had always had - to become a journalist.
This came about almost by accident. The coaches of the high school teams all got together one day and shared their concerns that High School Sports, and especially baseball, was not getting the media attention it deserved. Hal agreed and offered to help. He asked all of the coaches to send him box scores after every game.
He received the scores from all twenty-five schools and determined Batting Averages and ERA's using a slide rule. He then offered to write this information for the Cleveland Press if they were willing to supply a trophy for the winning teams. Needless to say, they accepted and he continued to submit his reports to the Press for years.
The Plain Dealer already had all the sports writers they needed at the time, and so they weren't interested in Hal. But the Cleveland News felt differently. So, in 1942 he started writing a column on High School Sports for the Cleveland News. It ran three times a week and Hal's position as both a coach and an official gave him the inside track on a lot of good information.
The Cleveland News was so happy with his work that they offered him a summer job. By the third year he increased his $15.00 weekly pay to $25.00 and had his own by-line. Then the difficult decision came, when they offered him a full time job, at $75.00 per week as a Science Writer. He was torn about leaving teaching and coaching, but he knew writing was his real love.
So he gave up teaching and went to be the new Science writer at the Cleveland News. As luck would have it, they needed him "just to fill in" running the Sports Desk before he started as Science writer. It only took the paper 6 weeks to tell him he'd never be leaving the sports section - he was just too valuable there.
Hal Lebovitz working the phones
In 1948 Hal did a tremendous piece on Satchel Paige. The paper printed it in 18 chapters, running one every day. Circulation increased dramatically during the time it ran. They asked him for another serial piece and he wrote about Gene Bearden, with the same effect.
The paper asked him if he had any other ideas as good as the serial stories he had written. He said, "I only have one. People sit around with their family and friends at home, or in bars and discuss the games - baseball, football, basketball. And they argue about rules and calls and plays, but they never really know the answer. Let's give them the answers to their questions." And with that idea "Ask Hal the Referee" was created.
In 1949 he started covering the Browns. From 1950-1960 he covered baseball full time, and then in 1960 the Cleveland News folded. Hal was one of the last to hear and was devastated by the traumatic news. He didn't want to leave the great people he had come to know, nor did he know how he was going to support his family, which now included a son, Neil and a daughter, Lynn.
The very same day he received dozens of job offers - in different fields. But that night, the Editor of the Plain Dealer called him and offered him a job in the Sports Department. He continued to cover baseball for the Plain Dealer until 1964 when he became the paper's Sports Editor.
Some of Hal Lebovitz''s many awards and recognitions
One of the reasons the Plain Dealer was so interested in Hal was his now famous, "Ask Hal" column. He had continued to officiate all three sports the entire time he worked at the Cleveland News, so he was always on top of the information and regulations.
His column was also carried in the Sporting News (1947-1993) and he wrote, as a side job, for Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post and numerous other papers.
He continued to run the Sports Department at the Plain Dealer for twenty years. At that time "mandatory" retirement age was 65, but they extended it for three years for Hal, and probably would have extended it even longer had he been willing to stay.
But things were changing at the paper and Hal wanted out. So, in 1984 he left the Plain Dealer and the next day went to work for the News Herald, where he is to this day.
Hal was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in the category of sportswriters. He has also been inducted into eleven other Halls of Fame including Western Reserve University, The Press Club, Glenville High School and Euclid High School, to name a few.
Hal Lebovitz makes the Hall of Fame
He described his induction into Cooperstown as "an out of body experience. It's hard to believe it was happening to me".
On top of everything else, Hal is also on television with Les Levine every Thursday night. The More Sports and Les Levine Show can be seen on Adelphia Cable Channel 15 from 6-7 pm every weekday. He has tremendous respect for Les Levine and his knowledge of sports and his ability to talk to callers "Les makes it easy and I don't even realize I'm working".
Hal has met almost everyone in baseball and has great memories of his wonderful experiences. He did ghost writing for both Bob Feller and Early Wynn. He remembers Spring Training in 1956. He received a letter from the Saturday Evening Post asking him to do a feature story on Herb Score. The hitch was - they had given the story to two other writers and weren't happy with the results.
Hal had never written "on consignment" before, and he knew this would be a large project. He was concerned about investing a lot of time and possibly receiving no compensation, but he was challenged by the task. He went to Herb Score who said, "Take the offer - I'll help you".
Hal took 100 pages of notes, which he condensed to a fifty-page article, which he submitted to the Post. They loved it, but needed it trimmed to 18. He was only able to cut it to 20 and feared this would be his downfall.
But when he came home one snowy December day he was met by his jubilant wife waiving a telegram. The Saturday Evening Post accepted his story and it was the cover story on May 7, 1957.
The day the magazine came out, Hal saw Herb Score at the Stadium and Herb told him it was a good story. Not twenty minutes later Herb got hit in the eye in a game against the Yankees, a hit that ultimately ended his career.
Hal is still very close to Herb and Bob Feller. "You know, Ted Williams is an icon in Boston. Here in Cleveland we've got Bob Feller, and people don't even know what a treasure he is."
In 1966 as President of the Baseball Writers Association, it was Hal's job, and honor, to introduce the inductees into the Hall of Fame. His introduction included both Ted Williams and Casey Stengel.
He remembers Ted Williams stealing the show, much to the surprise of the audience. Casey Stengel was noted as the funny man and the good speaker, but Ted Williams made an impassioned plea for the Hall of Fame to include black players such as Willie Mays.
"Baseball today is as good a game as ever. The problem is the owners let the players get away with everything, including exceptional salaries, and the players are not willing to give up anything"
"And" he continues "the Leagues have been watered down to thirty teams, where it used to be 16. In the old days there were 7 farm teams and it took 7 years to get to the majors. Now it only takes 3-4 and there's pitchers who wouldn't or shouldn't be in the Majors"
He's concerned with the players not being fundamentally sound because of the rush to get them through the farm system. "Money is running the game if baseball, not passion, like it used to be"
Hal's frank and to-the-point style of writing has caused him some problems, too. For example, he commented in an article once that Ted Williams was not very gracious after hitting a home run (he never shook anyone's hand or acknowledged their congratulations).
The next day, Williams hit another home run, shook everyone's hand including the bat boy and the umpire, looked up at the press box and yelled "Take that you S.O.B." and didn't speak to Hal again for years.
Woody Hayes considered Hal a good friend until Hal referred to him, in print, as a horse's ass when Hayes punched a player. Stories like this are not rare, but in the end the friendships survive and Hal can boast that his articles are factual and non-biased.
It is safe to say that Hal Lebovitz knows sports. He played all three major sports. He coached all three major sports and he officiated all three major sports.
He has done all three on all levels (high school, college and pro), with the exception of pro football and pro basketball. Although the opportunity was there, he passed up these opportunities because of a conflict of interest with his writing career.
It is also safe to say that Hal Lebovitz has leaned a lot about life from sports. His one-time good friend, Art Modell, had always promised him he would never take the team out of Cleveland. When Hal heard the news he called him and Art responded "There are no longer any options".
"Life always gives you options," says Hal "you just need to know what you're looking for and what's important to you." Hal has not spoken to Art Modell since that day.
Update: Hal Lebovitz passed away on October 18, 2005 at the age of 89
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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