The Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the history of the organization, we will, over the next four months, publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s most important leaders—all Bert McGrane Award winners.
The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.
For a list of all the winners go to: http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.
The following is the third installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Murray Olderman was the 1991 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch
By Gene Duffey
Murray Olderman learned how one headline can spoil a long-time relationship. In the early 1960s he wrote a story for Sport Magazine on Johnny Unitas, the talented quarterback of the Baltimore Colts who had won two NFL championships.
Olderman had always gotten along well with Unitas. He wrote 14 books, including a coffee table book titled “The Pro Quarterback” that featured Unitas on the cover.
But the headline on the story in Sport Magazine read: “Is Unitas Washed Up?”
“He was 28 and played until he was 39,” said Olderman. “He didn’t talk to me much after that.”
Much like Unitas, Olderman was a cut above most people in his profession. In addition to being a fine writer, he drew cartoons as well. Cartoons were a staple of the sports pages in those days.
“There were 12 papers in New York City then and 10 had sports cartoonists,” Olderman said of his days growing up in Spring Valley, 30 miles northwest of New York City.
He never had any formal training as a cartoonist. He did take a couple of art classes while a student at the University of Missouri and began drawing for The Columbia Missourian, the paper in Columbia, Mo., that is manned by journalism students from the university.
“They’re both work,” Olderman said of his ability to write and draw. “It gave me a little bit of an edge because I could do both.”
In the past, Olderman’s drawing served as the masthead for the FWAA’s newsletter, “The Fifth Down.” It depicted a writer and a broadcaster, with a pin, pad and microphone in hand, respectively, appearing alongside a center hiking a football to a quarterback.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Murray first stepped into the business while a senior at Spring Valley High School, working for the weekly Rockland County Leader. He covered high school sports and wrote a column.
Olderman headed off to North Carolina, but stayed only a year. “Ran out of money,” he said. A year later, he enrolled at Missouri, one of the top journalism schools in the country.
He graduated from there in 1943 and went right into the Army. He served as an intelligence officer in Gmunden, Austria, in the Third Army during World War II. He also earned a degree in humanities from Stanford while stationed at the university in a language program.
After military service Olderman enrolled at Northwestern, his fourth college, on the G.I. Bill. He received a master’s in journalism in Evanston.
He began drawing sports cartoons for the Chicago Daily News while at Northwestern.
He returned to the West Coast for his first full-time job after college, writing features and doing cartoons for the Sacramento Bee. After four years there it was off to the Minneapolis Star in 1951.
NEA, a Scripps-Howard syndicate, offered Olderman a job.
“Their headquarters were in Cleveland and their home office was in New York,” he said. “Guess where I wanted to work?”
Olderman returned to the Big Apple. He became sports editor of NEA in 1964 and executive editor in 1968.
Living in New York City gave him access to the NFL and NBA offices. In 1955, at Olderman’s urging, the NFL named its most valuable player award after Jim Thorpe. A year later, the NBA began presenting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named after the league’s first commissioner, to its MVP, with Olderman again being the idea man behind the award.
He actually did road work with heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, who was training at Grossinger’s, once a lively resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
“I went up to do a story on him and ran with him in the morning,” said Olderman. “He was 5-11 and I was 6-feet. I had longer legs. I was able to keep up with him. He was a very down to earth, nice guy. Not very polished.”
Most people credit the 1958 NFL Championship, when Unitas led his Colts to an overtime victory against the Giants in New York, for popularizing pro football.
Olderman also believes the 1956 title game, when the Giants routed the Chicago Bears in New York, played a significant part. “Madison Avenue caught on to the Giants (after that),” he said. “The 1958 game solidified it. That’s when football passed baseball as the national sport.”
Olderman, president of the FWAA in 1960, talked NEA into allowing him to move to the San Francisco area, where he met his wife in 1971. He officially retired from that job in 1987 and moved to Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs.
He has continued to write for various magazines, illustrating his own articles. “I retired from my job, but I never retired,” he said.