By Ben Brigandi
Nov. 1, 2019
Dick Sandler had to show The Boss who was boss.
One spring training, Newsday’s Joe Donnelly missed all the news from George Steinbrenner’s daily sessions. These scoops drew notice back home, where Donnelly had to tell Sandler, his sports editor, that Steinbrenner invited other New York reporters into his office but not him.
So Sandler, despite worries from upper management, withheld all Yankees coverage for three days in protest. Finally Steinbrenner called Sandler from Florida and demanded the Yankees return to Newsday’s pages. Sandler told Steinbrenner no, that if he chose not to invite Donnelly inside his office then Sandler chose not to run any stories.
“(Richard) said, ‘If you can play hardball, so can I,” said his widow Gloria, laughing about it decades later. “He called it as it was. He was honest with everyone.”
Steinbrenner relented, and Donnelly’s coverage again satisfied the cravings of both Steinbrenner’s psyche and Newsday’s readers.
Those who worked with Sandler described him the same way, supporting his staff and as one who valued local reporting with an eye for talent. Those skills, which led to a number of APSE awards for Newsday in the 1980s, helped make Sandler a Red Smith Award winner. He was the first posthumous winner, in 1995, as he died in 1989 at 50 after fighting pancreatic cancer for a year.
Gloria recalled setting up dinner once, figuring he’d be home in half an hour. One hour passed, then two. So she called him in the office, complaining that dinner was ruined.
“‘What do you want me to do,’ he said. ‘Someone came into my office with a real problem, and you want me to tell him that I have to leave because dinner is waiting?’” said Gloria.
Dick Sandler came to sports from the city desk in the early 1970s, which Gloria said was a surprise and that upper management wanted someone to take control of the staff. Jim Toedtman, a former managing editor at Newsday, said things turned out great for Newsday, its readers, and Sandler himself.
“Dick would, as often as not, have reporters covering a Riverhead high school game one day and the New York Giants the next,” said Toedtman. “He rotated his best reporters to do local reporting.”
Toedtman said it showed during USA Today’s growth in the 1980s, as the nascent national newspaper penetrated several major markets suffering from weak sports coverage. Exceptions, he recalled, were in Baltimore where he worked for a stint at the News-American, and Long Island, also Newsday’s base.
“Our surveys showed two strengths. Local reporting, which we emphasized, and sports, which was second to none,” said Toedtman.
To get there Sandler needed great writers and he hired plenty. Toedtman recalled Peter King, Tom Verducci, Tim Layden, Wallace Matthews, Jan Hubbard and Helene Elliott, among several outstanding others. Verducci, now with Sports Illustrated and baseball TV duties, was the rare hire who wasn’t in at least their second or third job, Gloria Sandler said.
Jeff Williams, one of those writers and also editors, said Sandler insisted writers each have their own style but was also a very straightforward professional.
“That’s what I will always remember,” said Williams. “He was confident, he knew what he was doing, and was a straight-up good journalistic presence in the department. He didn’t overpower anyone.”
That didn’t mean writers routinely got what they wanted. Gloria Sandler recalled how during the 1984 Olympics one of his writers stayed away from the rest of the writers in the Los Angeles media cluster, renting his own car for $700 in addition to his own hotel room bill.
“Richard wouldn’t accept it. He made him pay his own way,” said Sandler. “They never spoke again, and that writer bad-mouthed him later on, but Richard did what he felt was the honest thing for the paper.”
Other contentious exchanges saw happier endings. Sandler recalled how one older desker, who spent much time on the evening shift on the phone with his wife, was moved to daytime after complaints from others in the department. Dick watched him carefully, Gloria said, and the man retired after three months because he didn’t like the day shift, either.
A few years later, during Sandler’s funeral, Gloria couldn’t believe the man approached her.
“I thought oh dear, here we go. But he told me my husband did the best thing ever for him in his whole life,” said Sandler. “‘He made me switch to days and I realized how many years I missed spending with my wife. Now that I’m retired, it’s never been happier.’”
Greg Gutes, still at Newsday after Sandler hired him for the desk in 1983, said that’s just the way he was. But Gutes didn’t learn that until later. Before joining the department, Gutes was paranoid from seeing a colleague’s job offer elsewhere pulled at the last minute, and so he asked twice to make sure Sandler still intended to hire him. Gutes chuckled at the memory now, but neither he nor Sandler thought it was funny back then because Sandler prided himself in honoring his word.
“Dick treated me well even though, back then, he didn’t know me from a hole in the wall,” said Gutes. “He’d answer my letters saying there were no openings, but that he’d keep my resume on file, and he later hired me out of Poughkeepsie.
“When he died and they cleaned out his office in 1989, he did keep my resume on file and they gave it to me,” said Gutes. “A man of his word. He didn’t just say it to say it, he meant it.”
One of Sandler’s last acts as sports editor was preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he traveled in advance with other editors to help set up media protocol. But cancer’s sudden onset was taking its toll on Sandler. He was a Rutgers and Columbia graduate, also a former marine who ran five miles most days so he could eat extra dessert. Gutes recalled how difficult it was to watch from the newsroom. One year after Seoul, Sandler died.
Gloria Sandler said her late husband used to read the sports pages to relax, but upon moving to sports he had to turn to the news for that. He might not find much fun there in 2019, she thought, recalling a letter their son found recently from an old USFL owner.
“A letter falls out, and it’s from Donald Trump about Steve Jacobson saying something he did wasn’t true,” said Sandler. “It’s kind of a funny thing, but it was true.”