Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, most kids in my neighborhood wanted to be Mickey Mantle or Roy Rogers or John Glenn.
I wanted to be Al Cartwright.
I wanted to be that guy I read in the newspaper every day, the guy who got to go to all the Phillies games and Delaware football games and always found something smart and witty to say about them. I wanted to be able to write about the things he wrote about and, more importantly, write them the way he wrote them.
I fell way short, of course, but at least I aimed for the top. Cartwright, who died on Sunday at the age of 97, is the best writer to ever work for The News Journal, in any department, and the best that ever will.
Cartwright was sports editor and columnist for The Morning News and the Evening Journal from 1947-1969, when they put out two papers a day and “blog” was a sound you made when you threw up.
Cartwright could do it all. He could make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same column, sometimes in the same paragraph. And he always, always brought a human touch to his stories. Al Cartwright didn’t write about things or events — he wrote about people.
Maybe the most impressive thing about his writing was how easy he made it seem, and maybe to him it was. And it didn’t matter what the subject was; in fact, the more obscure and odd-ball, the better.
He also made big league baseball and small college football – the two engines that powered the sports sections back then – seem accessible in an age when you didn’t see your heroes 24 hours a day on Comcast SportsNet and Fox Sports and CNN and ESPN, not to mention ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN-U and, well, you get the picture.
But we didn’t back then, and the written word was really the only thing that could convey the fun, excitement and drama of sports. And Cartwright did it better than anybody. He worked with other legendary News Journal sportswriters like Izzy Katzman and Matt Zabitka and Hal Bodley and Karl Feldner and Bill Schellhammer and they were all good, but nobody could touch Big Al.
And he didn’t just limit his talent to sports. Cartwright left the paper for a spell in the early 1970s to work for the Phillies in their public relations department, and it was a dream come true to be part of the team he always called “My Beloved Phillies.’’ Cartwright eventually returned to the News Journal, and this time he brought his magic to the features department three times a week. His gems are way too numerous to mention, but you can get a good sampling if you dig up a copy of his 1974 book “A’ La Carte: The Best of Al Cartwright.’’ I have a signed copy and it’s one of my prized possessions and, no, you can’t borrow it.
Perhaps my all-time favorite column was his take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,’’ which should be reprinted in The News Journal every holiday season. It’s original and clever and funny and pure Cartwright.
As a kid, I read every column he wrote and I was fortunate enough to meet him one day when I was in high school. My father knew Cartwright well and he took me to The News Journal’s old headquarters on Orange Street in Wilmington, where Cartwright talked to me for almost an hour. Needless to say, it was a thrill, especially since he was so nice and so obliging to a kid who wanted to be a sportswriter like he was.
And I still want to be a sportswriter like he was, even though I know it will never happen. And that’s OK. It’s like what guitarist Pete Townsend once said about Jimi Hendrix – Townsend never harbored any illusions that he could play as well as Hendrix, so he was never envious of him or tried to imitate him.
Instead, he just enjoyed him. And that’s what we all did for more than three decades with Al Cartwright, the best that ever was.