By Jeff Rosen
Sometimes the phone rings with good news. Last night, for instance, I had just sat down to eat dinner and watch the State of the Union address when I got a call from my Chiefs beat writer, Terez Paylor. The Chiefs were trading veteran quarterback Alex Smith to Washington, making way for newcomer Patrick Mahomes to become their starter this fall. The story, confirmed through two unimpeachable sources, was ours, and ours alone.
Scoop of the offseason. Good news.
Occasionally, the news isn’t so good. “Hello, Mister Jeffrey. This is Creditor X, and I need to tell you that we are a debt collector and this call is being recorded for security purposes…” Or, “Hey, dad, remember when you said that I needed to drive carefully because of black ice?”
Not good news.
Other times, what we learn from the person on the other end of the line is neither good nor bad. In fact, it really isn’t news at all, but it might turn out to be pretty informative, and possibly life-changing. Such was the case this morning, when I returned a call to Marianne McGuff, a kind-sounding woman who had left a voicemail explaining that she was the daughter of one of the Kansas City Star’s former sports editors. When she answered, she told me that she didn’t want to bother me because she knows how busy the life of a sports editor can be, but she just happened to see my name and number in the paper the other day and felt compelled to reach out.
A call like this, well, a call like this can be something different entirely.
What this call was for me was a timely reminder of how wonderful my job is. And that however much I might curse and spit and shake my fist at times, it’s a special opportunity in a great city in the only profession I’ve ever really known, or wanted to know.
Ms. McGuff, I learned, is one of six children of the late Joe McGuff. If you’re not from Kansas City or a well-traveled sports journalist, you’ve probably never heard his name. But Joe is a local legend, a man who arrived here in a car with a buddy and a dream in 1948; he’d just been hired away from the Tulsa World as a sportswriter and was eager to make a name for himself in KC.
Make a name he did. Showing up for work every day at 6 a.m., Joe would soon become one of the city’s foremost thought leaders not only in sports, but in matters of local government, commerce and just about everything else. He was sports editor of The Star and now-defunct Kansas City Times for 20 years and worked here for 44. Long before we’d ever heard of Joe Posnanski and Jason Whitlock, Joe McGuff was Kansas City’s ambassador.
As happens with many sports editors, Joe eventually outgrew his role in the sports department and became the paper’s editor and vice president. His contemporaries around town were personalities and politicians, but also plain folk who delivered the milk or ran the diaper service. He was just like you, except he happened to golf with Tom Watson and hang out with Len Dawson.
In the sweet spot of the industry’s golden age, when you didn’t know anything for sure until the newspaper hit your doorstep, McGuff became known as “St. Joe.” He helped Kansas City land a new Major League Baseball team, the expansion Royals, after Charlie Finley moved the Athletics to Oakland. His columns were instrumental in swaying voters to approve funding for new baseball, basketball and football venues. He led The Star to a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1992, his final year at the helm. But he never talked down to a reader, and he rarely got cross with a source. He eschewed the spotlight, preferring the power of the pen to pomp and bluster. Joe didn’t have to yell. People still listened.
Later this year, we’re moving The Star’s offices out of the 100-year-old building in which I type this column. We’re not traveling far, just across the street, into our sleek, newish press plant. We’ll leave behind halls once roamed by a young Ernest Hemingway, who worked here until he enlisted to fight in World War I in 1918. We’ll probably bring along the Pulitzer, but left behind, too, will be our wood-paneled conference space, dubbed The McGuff Room because it once served as Joe’s own office. Joe was as much a part of The Star as the newsprint and ink we used to print its earliest editions, of the brick and mortar merged to form a cavernous building that in a few months will house not ink-stained wretches but a mix of urban residential and commercial space. Our current sports department might become the den for a new loft condominium, or a play place for someone’s toy poodle. Who can say?
Anyway, Joe was a part of APSE, too, a very big part of it, and that brings me back to why I’m writing about him today. If you still have one of our old printed directories around, open it to Page 2, where it lists “Former presidents of APSE.” Joe is number three, right behind first leader Dave Smith and his successor, Earl Cox. Joe’s year as president, 1977-78, was exactly 40 years ahead of mine. And 19 years later, Joe won APSE’s prestigious Red Smith Award. It was presented posthumously in June 2006, the same year the Royals named the press box at Kauffman Stadium the Joe McGuff Press Box. Joe died in February of that year after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. I hold this office every bit as proudly as Joe once did, but I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never be a Red Smith winner. They just don’t make them like Joe anymore.
I have a feeling that my next conversation with Marianne won’t be my last. We’re Facebook friends now, and I’ve since learned that she’s a retired schoolteacher. My wife and I are invited over for coffee soon, and we’ll no doubt be poring over some of her clippings of Joe’s award-winning work and endless exploits. I am fascinated by him, by Marianne, by Joe’s widow Kay, who has had a couple of strokes and is fighting dementia but remains remarkably sharp at 90 years of age. And Joe would be 91, Marianne noted.
With Marianne’s five siblings spread out across the country, she remains in KC as the family record-keeper. I cannot wait to see what treasures she’s stored away from Joe’s seasons in the seat I now occupy. He once threw out a first pitch for the Royals. President Gerald Ford was scheduled to do it but had to cancel at the last minute. Perhaps she has that ball. Joe covered 31 World Series, 16 Super Bowls and six Olympics. Maybe he collected Olympic pins, like I do. I wonder what he’d think of this year’s Winter Games, about to take place in the shadow of a nuclear North Korea. Joe always had a take.
Yes, the visit with Joe’s daughter over coffee will be delightful. I regret that I never got to meet him, to talk about life with him, but I think about him often through passages like this one, written so eloquently by Posnanski:
In the last couple of years of his life, Joe McGuff cried often. I don’t think I saw him once in all that time when he did not, at least for a moment, break down in tears.
“Are you sad, Joe?” I asked him. Joe shook his head. He grabbed my arm. By then, Lou Gehrig’s disease had a choke hold on his voice, and his body no longer obeyed, but his mind was alert and alive. He still had things to say. He leaned in close.
“I … I …. wa … wan … want … I ….”
Joe stopped. He cried again. His hand gripped tight around my arm. He looked up at me, as if he were going to try to speak or cry again, but instead he just nodded and offered a little smile. The fight, he knew, was almost over.
Joe McGuff died in his sleep Saturday night, ending the fight that lasted all 79 years of his life. He battled all that time for the people and city he loved. He was that kind of newspaperman, a brand of newspaperman that, for so many reasons, does not exist much today.