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Hal Lebovitz's career as a Cleveland sports journalist spanned 63 years and four generations of readers. After breaking into the business with the Cleveland News in 1942, Lebovitz worked at the afternoon paper until it went out of business in January 1960. He was the Indians beat writer through most of those years at the News and also covered the Browns.
Lebovitz was hired by The Plain Dealer the day after the News folded. He was named sports editor of The Plain Dealer in 1964 and held that job until his retirement from the paper in 1984. In addition to the ''Ask Hal, the Referee'' features running weekly in the Sporting News from 1957 to 1993, for many of those years Lebovitz was the Indians correspondent for the St. Louis-based magazine.
The same as most boys in the Glenville and west side neighborhoods where he lived, Lebovitz played pickup baseball, football and basketball. Looking back on his younger days, Lebovitz spoke fondly of summer afternoons spent watching the Indians at League Park on Lexington Avenue. He admired the way Hall of Famer Tris Speaker and Charlie Jamieson patrolled the outfield for the Indians. From his usual perch in the left-field bleachers, Lebovitz also watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the Yankees, Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and other of the game's greats from the 1920s and '30s in action. By the time he was in Glenville High School, Lebovitz was accumulating money for college tuition by working as a vendor at League Park.
On one particularly memorable afternoon when the Yankees were in town, Lebovitz recalled that Ruth was out of the lineup and sitting in the seats behind home plate. Lebovitz was an outstanding student at Glenville High School while playing on the varsity football, baseball and basketball teams.
After graduating from Glenville in 1934, he enrolled at Western Reserve University. A chemistry major, the 6-foot-3 Lebovitz was the starting center on talented WRU teams coached by Roy Clifford. Back then, Lebovitz and his WRU teammates played Stanford, Michigan State and other big-name opponents.
Tellingly, the busy student and athlete somehow found time to serve as sports editor of the WRU newspaper, the Reserve Tribune.
In the summer of 1938, the nation was still in the grips of the Great Depression when the newly married Lebovitz landed a job at Euclid Central High School. For a weekly salary of $25, Lebovitz taught chemistry and math, supervised home room and study hall, served as an academic counselor and helped coach the basketball, football and baseball teams.
To supplement that modest income and to stay active in sports, Lebovitz umpired sandlot baseball games. He also officiated baseball and basketball games for junior high schools, high schools and colleges. In 1938, while coaching baseball at Euclid Central, Lebovitz started collecting box scores from the 25 schools in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Baseball League.
He struck a deal with the sports editor of the Cleveland Press to run the batting averages and pitching statistics that he compiled from those box scores. The Press also agreed to purchase trophies for the winning teams and individual statistical leaders. Four years later, the News offered Lebovitz $15 a week to write a thrice-weekly notes package about local highschool sports. By 1944, the pay was raised to $25 and Lebovitz got his first byline.
Lebovitz came to a fork in the road in 1946, when the News offered him a full-time job as science writer for $75 a week. As much as he loved teaching, Lebovitz couldn't pass up the money and the opportunity to have a career in journalism.
News Sports Editor Herman Goldstein loved the fact that Lebovitz was a go-getter and made sure the newcomer stayed in his department instead of getting moved to the science beat. For the rest of his life, the Cleveland sports scene was Lebovitz's domain. Lebovitz covered the Indians until 1964, when he succeeded Gordon Cobbledick as sports editor.
It never occurred to Lebovitz to slow down or rest on his laurels when he left The Plain Dealer. He immediately started working for The Morning Journal and The News-Herald. His Sunday column, full of news, views and insights, was immensely popular with readers of this newspaper. It also was a can't-miss proposition for many of the leading figures in Cleveland sports who paid little or no heed to other sports columnists.
To gather material for the Sunday column, Lebovitz would go to games and practices whenever possible during the week. Then, on Friday morning, he'd get on the phone and touch base with a roster of contacts that was the envy of every sports reporter in town. Lebovitz is a member of halls of fame administered by Cleveland Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, Case Western Reserve University, Glenville High School, Euclid High School and Sports Media Association of Cleveland and Ohio.
He was a 1999 inductee into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame along with former Browns offensive lineman Gene Hickerson, former Indians slugger Andre Thornton, college and pro football great John Hicks, figure skater Tonia Kwiatkowski, boxer Jackie Keough, auto racing impresario Roger Penske and Cleveland sandlot baseball legend Nobby Lewandowski. Lebovitz's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2000 was an especially important milestone in a career full of them.
A devoted husband and father who enjoyed going to movies and plays, Lebovitz jogged or exercised daily well into his 80s. He loved life and meant every word of his customary column sign-off, ''Stay well and see you somewhere, I hope.''
Did you ever cut a boy?
August 23, 1964
Consider this an open letter to every high school coach, principal, and superintendent:
Football practice is now under way. The boys have reported; they have been issued uniforms. This is what happened to one boy some years ago:
The boy had just entered high school. All summer he looked forward to the opening of football practice. He enjoyed contact. He had tossed a football around almost from the day he left his crib. His dream was to play on the high school varsity.
On August 20 he reported for the first day of practice. "You'll have to furnish your own shoes and you'll heed $7.50 for insurance," the junior varsity coach told him. The boy rushed out to buy a pair of shoes. Cost: $20.
He returned the next day carrying them proudly, paid his $7.50 insurance fee, did calisthenics with the squad and at the end of the session he was cut.
So were several other boys—all dropped from the squad after one session of calisthenics.
The boy rushed to the telephone and called his dad's office. Unable to withhold the tears, he sobbed, "I was cut"
"Go back tomorrow," the father suggested gently. "Maybe there was a mistake."
The boy returned, finally summoned sufficient courage to ask the coach for another chance. "Come back in two weeks," said the coach.
Two weeks later the boy carried his new shoes back to practice. "Sorry," said the coach. We haven't time to look at you now Come back after school starts."
The boy did. This time the coach apparently had no alternative. He gave the boy a uniform. Within a week he cut the boy once more.
The boy was crushed completely. The father advised, "Try next year, son."
"No," said the boy. "I don't want to be humiliated again."
The boy never did try out again. He never followed the team. His interest in school was never the same. The cleats on his $20 shoes are slightly worn—from football on the neighborhood lot. They remain the heartbroken memento of his brief high school football experience.
Later the father checked with the coach. "We can't handle 60 boys," he offered lamely. "We didn't want your son to get hurt."
If you are such a coach, I strongly urge you to quit. Mr. Principal and Mr. Superintendent, if your school has such a coach, get rid of him fast. Either that, or drop football, a game in which anybody's son can get hurt.
I speak as a former football coach who never cut a boy. I firmly believe there are lessons to be learned on the football field that are valuable carry-overs in life.
Doyt Perry, who, until his retirement, was one of the state's most successful coaches, in high school and later at Bowling Green State University, never cut a boy.
"I didn't care if 100 came out, and we got almost that many," he said. "If they want the football experience, they should have it. At Ohio State, Woody Hayes never sent a boy away, no matter how green or how puny:"
Fortunately, most high school and college coaches have the same philosophy.
Football takes stomach. A boy who doesn't have it will quit of his own accord. The fields are big. They can accommodate large squads. Let the boy hang around. Let him do calisthenics. Let him run until he's out of breath. Let him scrimmage with the fourth and fifth teams after the regulars are finished.
But don't cut him. If he hasn't got it, he'll cut himself. If he has, he'll stick it out. He'll be a better man for the experience and by the time he's a senior he'll surprise you. He'll help make you a winner.
So, Coach, hold that knife. Why plunge it into a boy's heart.
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