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 stories of the members of the organization, we will 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 13th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Pat Harmon was the 2004 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.
By Gene Duffey
Bill Koch covered the Cincinnati Reds for only half a season for the Cincinnati Post. Wherever he traveled around the National League, a similar scene would unfold. Other writers would ask Koch about Pat Harmon, the columnist/sports editor at the Post.
“He knew everybody,” said Koch. “When they found out I was from the Cincinnati Post, they wanted to know how Pat was. Jim Murray (the legendary columnist from the Los Angeles Times) even asked how Pat was. I found out what a big deal he was.”
Most sports columnists become well known in their own market. It seemed that Harmon was well known in every market.
“I was always amazed how many sports personalities he knew around the country,” said Barry Cobb, who worked for the Post for 38 years. “He knew everybody. He knew all the big athletes, owners, coaches.”
Harmon built his reputation as a gregarious guy with wavy red hair who enjoyed a beer or two, occasionally with his old baseball announcing buddy, Harry Caray.
“He was a really funny guy,” said Koch. “He had kind of a gruff personality, but lovable at the same time.
“I grew up reading him. He and Earl Lawson (the longtime baseball writer at the Post) were like icons. Pat was the voice of Cincinnati. He was a very good writer. He wasn’t flowery. He had an easy style, not really opinionated. But he made observations.”
Harmon helped Cincinnati develop into a major sporting market. The Reds had been there almost since baseball was invented, but the NBA Royals had left town for Kansas City-Omaha in 1972. Ohio became known as a football crazy state because of the Cleveland Browns and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Cincinnati was missing something.
“He was instrumental in getting Riverfront Stadium built,” Koch said of the combination football stadium-baseball park that was approved in 1966 by the Cincinnati City Council and finally opened in 1970. “That’s why the Bengals came here. He had a lot to do with that.”
The Bengals, an expansion team in the old American Football League, began play in 1968 at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus until Riverfront was completed.
Harmon did much more than write five or six columns a week. He was the sports editor of the Post and ran the department in every way.
“He did a little of everything,” said Cobb, who Harmon brought over from the state desk to join the sports department. “I don’t know how he did it. Things were a lot different in those days.”
The Post competed intensely with the other newspaper in town, the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Post ran Jim Murray’s column three days a week as well as Harmon’s daily offerings.
“We had an editor who said as long as we have Pat Harmon and Jim Murray, I’m not worried about the Enquirer,” said Cobb.
Harmon grew up in Illinois and began working for the Freeport Journal Standard at 17, sometimes hitchhiking to games. While a student at the University of Illinois, he joined the Champaign News-Gazette. He inaugurated the selection of all-state high school teams in football and basketball in Illinois.
“He was an orphan,” said Cobb. “He never knew his parents. I think he said they were circus performers.”
He worked for the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa for four years before moving to Cincinnati as sports editor of the Post in 1951.
Harmon joined the FWAA way back in 1942, a year after the organization was founded, and worked as president in 1984. He spent 20 years, after retiring from the Post, as historian for the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, which at one time was located in Kings Island, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. He finally retired from that position at the age of 89.
He and his wife had 11 children. He liked to joke that sometimes he couldn’t tell if some of the kids at the dinner table belonged to him or one of the neighbors.
Koch recalled Harmon keeping an elaborate filing system that came in handy. Harmon had spent days trying to get hold of Gaylord Perry, a pitcher in the majors famous for his spitball. Harmon finally wrote the column without talking to Perry for an interview.
Days later Perry returned his phone call. They chatted amicably for several minutes, but Harmon never asked Perry a question. He finally hung up and proclaimed loudly to the whole newsroom, “Bastard.”