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Ex-Tigers help throw iconic Detroit columnist Pete Waldmeir a 90th birthday bash

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first call on Friday came in around noon and it took him completely by surprise. It was Mickey Lolich.

Suddenly it was 1968 all over again and the Tigers were celebrating winning the American League pennant. Pete Waldmeir, then a feisty sports columnist for The Detroit News, somehow got himself thrown in the tiny whirlpool, suit and all, during the clubhouse festivities. Mickey Stanley may or may not have been the culprit.

Pete Waldmeir takes a call from a former Tiger on Friday to wish him a happy birthday.

“My pants were all wet and I had to go back to the office and write,” Waldmeir said. “I was soaked. I walked past Lolich and said, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I’m trying to wring out my pants.

“So he gave me a pair of his baseball pants. I walked out of Tiger Stadium, the night they clinched the pennant, wearing a pair of Lolich’s baseball pants.”

The irony of it was, Waldmeir had often poked fun of Lolich’s girth in his columns, the portly left-hander and all that.

“He said, ‘You are always talking about my belly, but shoot, you fit in my pants,’” Waldmeir said, laughing. “Of course I had to fold them over to get in them.”

Waldmeir many years later sold those pants at a charity auction for $500.

The still-venerable Waldmeir will turn 90 years old Saturday. Lolich was the first of many callers Friday to wish him a happy birthday. Willie Horton called. Denny McLain sent a short video.

If you don’t know who Pete Waldmeir is and where he stands in the pantheon of Detroit journalism, Google him. Chicago had Mike Royko. New York had Jimmy Breslin. Boston had Mike Barnicle. Washington D.C. had Art Buchwald. Detroit had Pete Waldmeir.

Born on Mark Twain Street on Detroit’s west side in 1931, Waldmeir’s career at the news spanned 54 years. He was sports columnist from 1962 to 1972 and a general, city-side columnist, where he relentlessly, famously, poked and prodded former Mayor Coleman Young, from 1972 until his retirement in 2004.

He was named Michigan Sportswriter of the year three times (1967, 1969 and 1971) and was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2000. He was a correspondent for Sports Illustrated for 11 years, as well.  

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I covered the first Super Bowl. Me and (Detroit News alumnus) Jerry Green might be the only guys alive who covered the first one. I’ve covered auto races, World Series. I covered the 1968 Olympics. I got food poisoning on a plane from San Juan to Caracas. I had a tooth pulled in Argentina.”

His laughter is raucous and infectious. His storytelling, intact.

He also covered plenty of bowl games. He was a significant presence at the 1970 Rose Bowl. That was Bo Schembechler’s first bowl game, the one he watched from a hospital after he'd had a heart attack the night before the game.

Reporters were certainly aware that Schembechler wasn’t on the sidelines, but there was no announcement before or during the game. Afterwards, a doctor addressed the media but he wasn’t saying anything. Just hemming and hawing. Finally, Waldmeir had enough.

“Doc,” he gruffly interrupted, “did Bo Schembechler have a heart attack?”

Cut right to the chase and got the answer.

Waldmeir told the story of sitting next to Lolich on the flight home from St. Louis after the Tigers had won Game 7 of the 1968 World Series – Lolich besting Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson. First, imagine a columnist or any reporter being on the team plane and having that kind of access.

Second, imagine Waldmeir’s expression when Lolich asked him to be his business manager.

“He said, ‘I know I’m going to get a lot of calls now. Would you like to handle that stuff for me,’” Waldmeir said. “I said, ‘Hell, I’m a newspaperman. I can’t do that and work for the News at the same time.’”

He ended up putting him on to entertainment lawyer Henry Baskin.

Waldmeir’s relationship with Horton goes deep, back to 1965 when Willie’s parents died in an automobile accident. Waldmeir was the first to tell the story of how the late judge Damon Keith, then a young attorney, and his wife took Horton in.

Of course, the story he recalls isn’t the famous one. He is still a little chapped that he was up covering a boat race in Canada the day Horton officially signed with the Tigers. You always remember the stories you missed.

“When he called (Friday), I didn’t recognize the voice at first,” Waldmeir said. “It was really nice. I talked to him for about 10 minutes.”

His battles with Young, of course, made national news. One of his most frequent targets was Young’s tip-lipped and snooty press secretary Bob Berg. As recalled in a blog by Detroit News reporter Robert Snell, here’s some vintage Waldmeir prose from 1994:

“During the Young regime, Berg gleefully practiced the ‘mushroom’ method of media relations. The press, scum to the very last grain of their miserable existence, served his imperial master best when they were locked away in the dark and only permitted to catch a glimmer of what was going on when Berg opened the door to throw fresh manure on them.”

City and state politicians were wise to stay on the right side of Pete Waldmeir.

But he did so much more than write columns. He was a driving force, for 40 years, with the Goodfellows organization, both as its president, board member and out there year after year in the cold passing out newspapers and taking donations to help needy children at Christmas.

One time, and only one time, he put the location of where he’d be passing out papers in his column. On that day, he ended up being served legal papers for a lawsuit that never materialized. He did not make that mistake twice.

Waldmeir also helped Harrison Township’s L’Anse Creuse High School pass a $22 million bond issue — which is why the school’s football stadium carries his name.

“I guess things are a little different (in newspapers) these days,” he said. “I remember I had a column in the Sunday paper that sold 1 million copies. Imagine that. That was the only time we sold a million copies.”

The surprise virtual birthday party was set up by Waldmeir’s daughter Patti, also a journalist, a national correspondent for the Financial Times, and his wife Marilyn — with the help of the Tigers’ Player and Alumni department.

The Detroit News also sent a framed copy of the front page from Jan. 16, 1931.

“My mother lived to be 99,” Waldmeir said. “She was always telling me she was going to live so long we’d have to hire pallbearers (laughs). I don’t think I want to live quite that long, but it’s a good target.”

Twitter: @cmccosky