Phil Axelrod dreamed of playing second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but at some point early in his life, he realized he wasn’t good enough and that dream would never come true.
So, like many others, Mr. Axelrod did the next best thing — he became a sports writer and built a career that spanned four decades, his byline becoming a fixture in Pittsburgh sports in 37 years with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Mr. Axelrod, who graduated Allderdice High School and Duquesne University, covered everything from football to baseball, tennis to bowling, small colleges and high schools to Division I schools and developed a reputation as a gentleman and sports debate waiting to happen.
Mr. Axelrod died Monday at his home in Squirrel Hill after an eight-month battle with lung cancer. He was 67.
“I can’t imagine that Phil would have been nearly as good at any other job — and I can’t imagine he would have been happy in any other job,” said Post-Gazette sports reporter Mike White, who worked with Mr. Axelrod for 30 years. “He loved sports, loved being around sports, loved to argue about sports — it was just who he was and he really loved his job because it fit him perfectly.”
He is survived by his wife, Sharon Eberson, his son, Josh Axelrod, of Falls Church, Va., and a sister, Nancy Axelrod of Washington, D.C., but he will be sorely missed by many as he was an extremely devoted member of his home community of Squirrel Hill.
“One thing that sticks out is just how deeply rooted in this community he was and how much he gave back to it,” Ms. Eberson said. “He coached soccer for the Dynamo for 10 years, he was a fixture at the Jewish Community Center and many of the guys he grew up with on Phillips Avenue still met every Saturday for breakfast.
“Of course, the one thing everybody who knew Phil will tell you is that he was a debater, that he loved to debate you and that was just his way. He came from a family of doctors, he was very intelligent and he would dare you to defend your points of view and that was seen as annoying. Some would say challenging, others would say it is a cool thing, but he loved to debate you.”
Mr. White said Mr. Axelrod would keep the newsroom in constant discussions because he would come up with off-the-wall points or challenges and then vehemently argue his side even if he were the only one supporting the argument.
“You could tell him the sky was blue and he would say ‘are you sure’ or ‘how blue is it’ or ‘it looks more green’ — that is just how he was and he always had these crazy things to throw out there,” Mr. White said. “One day, for instance, he asked me if I played Dennis Rodman one-on-one in basketball to 50, would I score one basket. I said, ‘One basket in a game to 50, of course I would.’ And Phil disagreed, and for years and years and years this debate went on and he stuck to his story, that I would get shut out 50-0.
“He was funny, he had a great sense of humor but he could push your buttons with those crazy debates if you let him.”
Mr. White said Mr. Axelrod was “old-fashioned and in some ways stubborn” and cited the fact that he refused to learn how to use a microwave for years and would type with two fingers — though really fast — even up to the time he retired.
Mr. Axelrod loved all sports and was a favorite of many of the sports information directors of small colleges in the area because he not only had a wealth of knowledge of every sport but he also treated them all equally in terms of his coverage.
Post-Gazette assistant sports editor Terry Shields said one of the things he always appreciated most about Mr. Axelrod is that he tackled every assignment the same way — as if it was the most important thing going on in the world of sports.
“He loved all sports and he was very diligent about making sure he covered everyone and gave them the same treatment,” Mr. Shields said. “He would treat the Division III teams the same way he would cover the Pirates or Steelers and people really appreciated that.”
Pitt sports information director E.J. Borghetti said Mr. Axelrod, who covered Pitt football and basketball during his years with the Post-Gazette, distinguished himself with his coverage of the big sports — but was never too “big time” to reach out to the less popular sports and smaller colleges.
“Phil had a wonderfully diverse talent that you rarely find anymore,” Mr. Borghetti said. “As the former [sports information director] at Carnegie Mellon, I greatly appreciated his enthusiasm for small-college sports. He was really our lone media voice and seemed to relish that role. Phil was a sports editor’s dream in that he had the versatility and talent to cover any beat.”
Although Mr. Axelrod loved all sports and was an excellent tennis player and golfer and even hustled pool for a few extra bucks — “He was quite a pool shark and could walk into a pool hall with maybe a few bucks and walk out with some good money,” Ms. Eberson said — his passion was basketball.
Mr. Axelrod played basketball in various pickup leagues at the Jewish Community Center into his 60s and was the commissioner of the league for seniors there.
Jarret Durham, who is a special assistant to the athletic director at Duquesne, played at Duquesne while Mr. Axelrod was a student there and got to know and work with him over the years.
Mr. Durham laughed while recounting several stories about the “advice” Mr. Axelrod would give him from time to time when he was coaching.
“Phil thought he knew more about basketball than anyone on the planet, including guys like Phil Jackson,” Mr. Durham said, laughing. “When I was the coach at Robert Morris, he’d let me know who I should play, who I shouldn’t play, what I should run.
”Phil was one-of-a-kind, that’s for sure. But you appreciated it because he actually did know what he was talking about when it came to hoops.”
Mr. White said Mr. Axelrod should be buried “in sweatpants, a shooting shirt and holding a basketball” because he loved the sport so much.
One of Mr. Axelrod’s favorite sports memories actually was rather recent as he attended the Pirates wild-card playoff against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park in October with his son, Josh. While others around them tried to explain how long it had been since the Pirates had been in the playoffs, Mr. Axelrod came up with the perfect way to express that to his son.
“Phil said he looked at Josh and said, ‘The last time they were in the playoffs, you weren’t even here,’ and that was what made it such a special memory for him,” Ms. Eberson said. “He loved his son, he was proud and excited to be able to share that playoff moment with him.”
A month later, Mr. Axelrod collapsed while vacationing on a cruise, and after a series of tests, it was discovered he had developed lung cancer.
Mr. Axelrod was recently inducted into the Western Pennsylvania Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh for his work as a reporter, and many of his lifelong friends were at the ceremony.
Post-Gazette Executive Editor David Shribman said of Mr. Axelrod: “As a member of Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai and as an alumnus of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, as the son of an academic and as a sportswriter, Phil Axelrod might have been the most authentic Pittsburgher — and one of the most authentic journalists — of his time or any other. He was an original, and no one who knew him can imagine that his boundless spirit and broad smile could possibly be gone.”
Along with his work with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Axelrod wrote for numerous publications including Sport, the Sporting News and Football Digest, and he and Ms. Eberson authored a book on the history of the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic.
Visitation is scheduled for noon Wednesday at Ralph Schugar Funeral Home in Shadyside, with the service to follow at 1. Friends will then be received at the Axelrod home in the days following.
The family requests contributions be sent to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh or the American Cancer Society.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 or on Twitter @paulzeise.