The great Pete Hamill, an icon of New York City and journalism, died on Wednesday. He was 85. According to an obituary written by Larry McShane of the New York Daily News:
Hamill passed away in New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where he was taken after a Saturday fall that fractured his right hip, said his brother and fellow ex-Daily News columnist Denis Hamill. His elder sibling underwent emergency surgery, but his heart and kidneys failed four days later in the intensive care unit.
I was at the New York Daily News in 2007, and when it was announced that Walter O’Malley had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, we knew we had to get Pete Hamill to weigh in.
Maralyn Matlick, on the city desk, told us the story of how she got a column from the legendary newspaperman. He had begged off, saying he was too old, at 72, to get back into the grind of cranking content for a daily.
Thirty minutes later, he sent her roughly 1,000 words of fiery prose, full of raw anger and emotion from a man who was still young when the Devil O’Malley had ripped his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers from his hometown borough for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. We gave it the headline, “Never Forgive & Never Forget,” and we didn’t change a single word.
Forget the dithering about Barry Bonds. Send apologies to Pete Rose. Warm up a place for Shoeless Joe Jackson. All moral arguments about who belongs in Cooperstown are over forever. Walter O’Malley has been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A columnist, editor and best-selling author of 20 books, including the classic 1994 “A Drinking Life,” Hamill had an affinity for Brooklyn and the Dodgers, who signed Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947, when Hamill was 12.
“Pete was a good and gracious man and a singular personification of New York’s heart and soul,” said Arthur Browne, who was the longtime editorial page editor at the News, and briefly its editor in chief in 2016.
Mike Lupica recounts in Wednesday’s Daily News that Hamill once told him that a writer’s voice was like a boxer’s right hand. You either had one or you did not. “It can’t be taught,” Pete said, “and certainly can’t be manufactured.” Hamill had the thunderous right hand of an Ali or Tyson, and he never lost it.
Lupica says he and Hamill started at the Daily News on the same day, Jan. 2, 1977. Hamill would become the only man to be editor of both the Daily News and the New York Post, and he and Lupica got there just in time for the year that would be immortalized in the book and movie “The Bronx is Burning.” This was an era of the famous 1975 Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” It was the year of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz writing to Jimmy Breslin, of Reggie and Billy in the Bronx, Rupert Murdoch buying the Post, of the blackout and crime wave that followed.
“He understood that tabloids were supposed to be smarter than broadsheets,” longtime former Daily News columnist Michael Daly, now of the Daily Beast, told me. According to Daly, Hamill didn’t go for the “Brit-tab stuff where they talk down to people.”
Hamill was an advocate for the working class, a champion of the downtrodden armed with his words and 30-40 inches of newspaper columns. He stressed the importance of words, and he didn’t compete with Breslin, said Daly. He only competed with himself, to be better.
Breslin and Hammill were featured in the 2018 HBO documentary, “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.”
In his 2004 book, Downtown: My Manhattan, Hamill said of New York: “I have the native son’s irrational love of the place. New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty.”
My friend Bob Shields recalled applying for a job at the Daily News when Hamill was editor. He looked his Shields’ crazy clips with headlines like “Sex in the Mortuary,” from the scrappy tabloid The Trentonian, and said to senior editor Bob Sapio: “You want to hire this guy?” Shields went on to work at the News for almost two decades before moving on to Newsday. He was a driving force behind the paper’s unmatched ability to comprehensively cover breaking news of the largest city in the country. Hamill learned to appreciate Shields because they were cut from the same cloth: ink-stained wretches who could cut through all the bullshit.
“He loved newspapers and newsrooms,” Daly said. It was the chaos and excitement that drove him. “Now newsrooms are like insurance offices.”
If Walter O’Malley’s in heaven, he must be getting an earful right now.
Rest well, Pete.