Pete Axthelm

...in his own words
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By Alicia Barillari

It is not too hard to imagine Pete Axthelm in today’s sports media world; his wit, passion and complete love for sports-and gambling-would have made him a true force in the dynamic of today’s sports reporting.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Alicia Barillari.

About Pete Axthelm
HOMETOWN: New York, New York
EDUCATION: Yale University
BORN: Aug. 27, 1943
DIED: Feb. 2, 1991

Axthelm, “Ax” to friends, loved the life he lived and he loved his job. This was mainly because Axthelm viewed his role at Newsweek, ESPN and NBC as more than just a job. Axthelm went beyond sports coverage- he told a story; a story that was important, a story that mattered. Sports did not just hold a strong value in his life, they were his life.

Axthelm had his favorites, horse racing being one. He loved to bet; he relished in the subculture of gamblers, bookies and Vegas odds makers.

Andrew Beyer, an expert on horse racing and columnist for the Washington Post knew Axthelm well and he considered him a friend. In 1991, shortly after Axthelm died, Beyer wrote a column, “Axthelm’s Life Was A Joyful Gamble,” and in his article Beyer said, “I will always envision Pete Axthelm standing in the Florida sunshine, with a beer in his hand and binoculars draped around his neck, preparing to watch the horses warm-up before a race at Gulfstream Park. This was his favorite track, and the conviviality of the gambling world was his favorite environment.”

Beyer also wrote that at the time Axthelm had said to another friend, “If I had to live any other way, I’d rather be dead.”

To those who knew Axthelm well, knew he was not spewing nonsense when he said these words. Axthelm would not want to live a life that did not involve sports, gambling and beer.

On Saturday February 2, 1991 at the young age of 47, he died of liver failure. He had been waiting at the Presbyterian-University Hospital in Pittsburgh for a liver transplant, when he died of complications, a New York Times obituary stated. Axthelm lived in both New York City and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. throughout his lifetime.

Axthelm was a columnist, sports television commentator and author of four books.

He was born on August 27, 1943 in New York City and later had gone on to study at Yale, where he wrote his first book as an undergraduate. It was an analysis of the confessional novel, titled “The Modern Confessional Novel” and it examined the unique literary works of authors such as Dostoevsky, Gide, Sartre, Golding and Bellow. Beyer wrote in his column, despite Axthelm’s scholastic knack, “he was not tempted to pursue such a strait-laced path in life.”

After graduating, Axthelm went to work in 1965 at the New York Herald-Tribune, which was where he got his start covering horseracing. After a year, he moved to Sports Illustrated as a staff writer. Then, most notably, Axthelm spent 20 years writing and editing for Newsweek magazine, from 1968 to 1988. There, he made his mark and developed a method of sports reporting and commentary that the New York Times article regarded “as both insightful and witty.” He also covered the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City for Newsweek. As a gifted writer, he wrote his second book, “The City Game,” which gained honorable attention, and was what Beyer called “a classic.” The book is a depiction of street basketball as it was played in black neighborhoods, drawing parallels to the 1969-70 season of the New York Knicks, which Axthelm followed throughout. According to a New York Times obituary on Axthelm, John Leonard, a literary, television, film and cultural critic wrote in a 1970 New York Times review of the book that “Mr. Axthelm is a poet. Axthelm’s eye is cinemascopic, his prose precise; the mind is instructed while the emotions are exhausted. On finishing his book, you’ll want to practice your jump shot. You will be aware of some beauty. You will be nagged by a knowledge of the economy (energy, money, fate) that makes basketball a metaphor for city life.”

It was evident Axthelm could write, but he had a way of doing so that grabbed people’s attention, his words held strong meaning and conviction. Axthelm had a method of writing that would evoke a sense of wanting to play the game even if you never had before, which all came directly from his passion for sports.

Beyer wrote that many years prior to Axthelm’s death, “he had a long relationship with a woman who took no interest in sports or gambling, but they managed to coexist happily until they took a trip to Hawaii. Pete would describe it as if he had been subjected to physical torture: ‘No racetracks. No casinos. No sports. No action. Just walking on the beach picking up shells.’ The relationship was doomed after that.”

Axthelm would later on marry Andrea, and have a daughter, Megan.

While he was at Newsweek, Axthelm made his television debut and began working for NBC Sports as a commentator for the NFL pregame shows and his passion for horse racing followed him there as well. He also reported on sports for the “Today Show.” In 1987, Axthelm joined ESPN where he continued to do NFL commentary and cover horse racing. He wrote two more books, “The Kid,” which was a biography of the 18-year-old triple crown-winning jockey Steve Cauthen and wrote “O.J.: The Education of a Rich Rookie” which was co-authored by O.J. Simpson.

Axthelm’s personality and his not-especially-polished front made him likeable on camera.

“He was a distinct contrast to all of his neatly coiffed colleagues -- but he communicated the sheer joy of playing the game as well as the exquisite agony of seeing your team fumble away the point spread in the last minute,” Beyer wrote.

When it came to his journalistic talent, Axthelm was not much of a bragger, but when he was betting at the racetrack, it was a different story.

“At the track his self-anointed nickname was the Great Beader -- this being his term for one who appraises horses on the basis of their appearance in the post parade. He boasted for years how he “beaded” and bet the two horses who produced a $7,000 exacta payoff. His friends debunked this achievement by pointing out that Pete always liked the looks of horses whose jockeys wore yellow silks, and both horses in the exacta were carrying his favorite color,” Beyer wrote.

“We would all relish opportunities to deflate his ego as a handicapper, for Pete’s own preferred form of communication was the good-natured insult. If we were together at the track, and somebody approached me to say that he read one of my books on handicapping, Pete would gaze at the ground and note that it was unusual to see one of my followers who was still able to afford shoes,” Beyer wrote.

He mentioned that the people who knew Axthelm solely from his role as a sports analyst on television or from reading his articles, or even just from the local bar, would only know a fragment of Axthelm. Beyer knew Axthelm as a man with a deep range of talents.

“He could write adeptly about such diverse topics such as country music or runaway kids,” Beyer wrote.

However, Axthelm was not one to preach the art of journalism, he did not speak profoundly of his career nor did he even truly realize his own aptitude, according to Beyer, who also explained in his article how it seemed like Axthelm took his immense skill set and talent for granted.

But that is not to say that Axthelm was not driven. He was driven by his passion for action, whether it was through sports or gambling, a conventional life was not meant for him. Beyer wrote how Axthelm got bored by the basic day to day lifestyle, he wanted in on the action, he wanted to be a part of the game.

Beyer shared an anecdote about Axthelm, which further shed a light on Axthelm’s true gambler personality and outlook on life.

Beyer wrote, “If Pete’s team was winning a football game by 21 points in the third quarter, and a friend assured him, “You've got this one in the bag,” he would deliver a stinging rebuke. Every gambler’s fate, he would say, lies in the fickle hands of the Goddess of Wagering, and he once wrote: “The Goddess must be appeased, soothed, tithed. She must never be affronted by statements hinting that a gambler has taken fate into his own firm grip.”

Though Axthelm’s life was short lived, it was lived exactly how he wanted; surrounded by the passion and action of sports, horse tracks, betting and beer. Beyer knew, and Axthelm’s doctors knew one day drinking might kill him, but Axthelm only knew one way to live and did not want to change a single thing.

Axthelm is an icon in sports journalism, he has paved the way for others and has left a lasting impression on sportswriters and broadcasters for generations to come.

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