A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sportsman of the Year

(Above: Bob with his daughter-in-law, Sarah)

Former Oakland Tribune sports editor Bob Valli, a grizzled vet who mentored generations of scribes, died on Nov. 2 at the age of 80. He started his career on the pigskin beat, later inking stories about hoopsters, keglers, horsehiders and thinclads.
But he would have hated those last two sentences. He despised clichés, especially sports clichés. Woe betide the sportswriter who called a football a "pigskin," a football field a "gridiron," an umpire an "arbiter" or a basketball player a "cager."
"If it's a basketball, call it a basketball!" he would roar. "Not a casaba!"
He was in love with the English language, and he liked it straight, without adornments or affectations. He was a great editor to work for, with an uncanny eye for young talent.
Award-winning sportswriters like Monte Poole and Henry Schulman got their first big break when Bob plucked them out of obscurity and handed them plum assignments. And they have never ceased acknowledging their debt to him.
With his gravely voice and authoritative manner, Bob was the picture of an old school, Oscar Madison-type sportswriter. But he departed from that cliché, too, in one important respect: Unlike many newspapermen of his generation, he was color-blind and gender-blind.
For instance, it wasn't easy being a woman in the newspaper business back in the 1980s, when I first met him. A lot of female reporters and editors felt the sting of resentment daily from the old boy network.
But never from Bob. He treated women with respect because he treated everyone with respect. He didn't know any other way. One female editor who worked with him said, "He was the sweetest man I ever met."
Bob's first assignment as a young reporter was covering a brand-new team called the Oakland Raiders, and he quickly earned every player's affection.
During practices, he would always sit on one particular spot on the sidelines. Once, when he was on vacation, his substitute sat down on that same spot.
The poor guy was immediately surrounded by angry Raiders, led by defensive back Dave Grayson, indignantly demanding to know what he was doing on "Bob's spot."
And could he write! Take his classic description of "The Play," the multi-lateral kickoff return that broke Stanford's heart in the 1982 Big Game: "Kevin Moen has silenced all arguments over which was the greatest Big Game ever played. The California senior started and finished one of the most bizarre last plays in college football history to make the 85th Big Game the undisputed thriller of all time." (And remember, he wrote this on tight deadline.)
Or this: "Steve Martin was acting when he played his role in 'The Jerk.' Billy Martin lived the part."
For many years, Bob was on the committee that selected members to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was he, more than anyone else, who was responsible for Al Davis' induction.
Bob was a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. And he knew more about football than anyone I ever met.
A few years ago, he and I were at Memorial Stadium watching a Cal game.
The Cal quarterback threw four interceptions that day, and each time - before he even let go of the ball! - Bob would say, "Uh oh, that’s gonna be an interception."
Same with penalties. Before the flag was out of the official's pocket, Bob would say, "Number 44 is holding."
Aside from the fact that it was fun to watch a game with one of the world’s nicest guys, it was a rare privilege to get an education from The Maestro.