Obituary: Phil Musick / Columnist who swung for the fences
Through metaphor and imagery, Phil Musick did more than chronicle the wins and losses of sports teams for an earlier generation of Pittsburgh readers.
In his words, the Steelers defended turf as if their children's lives depended on it and, as a unit, were as relentless as the Russian winter. When quarterback Joe Gilliam flung a football, the description was of coppery streaks through sun-lit October skies. When he told of breaking in a new catcher's mitt, the smell of leather and saddle soap almost wafted from the page. His notes column began, "Some things I think I think ... "
But in addition to the Sound of Musick, as his column was once called, he found room to expand his own family by adopting five Cambodian refugees who called him dad.
"Phil was terrific," said Steelers owner Dan Rooney. "I remember when my wife was studying at Pitt. She would read him every day, not so much because of what he wrote, but how he wrote it. He was that good."
Mr. Musick, 71, of Harmar, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Oakland. In a journalism career that spanned more than 30 years, he was a reporter, columnist, sports editor, talk show host at WTAE, managing editor at KDKA-TV, author and teacher at LaRoche College.
His byline hasn't appeared in local print for a generation, but he was a beat writer for the Steelers and Pirates when Pittsburgh was the City of Champions, and his column touched on all sports and subjects.
Tom McMillan, a one-time hockey writer and now vice president of the Penguins, called him an icon.
"He was not just the best writer of his generation, he was the best writer period, an amazing, elegant and passionate wordsmith who captured the absolute essence of the fan experience in this town," Mr. McMillan said.
"He inspired an entire generation of writers but set the bar of excellence so high that none of us could reach it. He made all of us better," he added.
A U.S. Air Force veteran, Mr. Musick was the outstanding male journalism graduate at Duquesne University in 1965. He began his sports writing career at The Courier-News in Plainfield, N.J., and later became sports editor of the Greensburg Tribune-Review.
In 1969, he joined The Pittsburgh Press and later wrote for the Post-Gazette during the time the Steelers won four titles in six years and the Pirates prevailed in two World Series.
"He was a special talent," said Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene, who arrived in Pittsburgh the year Mr. Musick first joined The Press. "He wrote about things that people wanted to know, not in some mushy way, but with wisdom and intelligence. You could always count on Phil to capture the essence of the moment. Sometimes he would pull up a stool and we'd have more of a conversation than an interview. It's a sad day to hear that he's gone."
When Mr. Musick was hired at The Press, sports editor Roy McHugh said he was emulating Stanley Woodward of the New York Herald-Tribune, who "never missed a chance to hire a better writer than he was."
Then in 1983, Mr. McHugh announced that Mr. Musick was succeeding him as columnist-at-large at The Press after Mr. Musick spent time as the first sports columnist at USA Today.
"He was a gifted writer," Mr. McHugh said. "I have nothing but admiration for his work."
Like a free-swinging home run hitter, Mr. Musick was prone to the occasional strikeout. As a columnist, he was inclined to hoard facts. His copy was larded with references to sex symbols and his fondness for drinking and Pall Malls. But he was what old-school news hounds called a must-read.
"He was of the Damon Runyon school," said former Steelers spokesman Joe Gordon. "He had a great sense of history and a great sense of humor."
Friend and colleague David Ailes, former sports editor of the Tribune-Review, described him as a character in an industry that is running out of characters.
"He was true to himself. He lived his life's story," Mr. Ailes said. "People would tell him not to eat so much or drink so much or stay up so late, and he'd say, 'Sorry, it's my life.' Through it all, he wrote some beautiful stuff. He was able to look inside with a special writing skill. He could put you there and make you feel like you were a part of it."
In the last five years or so, the two friends drove to Altoona five or six times a summer to watch the Pirates prospects play for the Curve.
"It may surprise some people, but baseball was his main love," Mr. Ailes said. "And he defended the Pirates in spite of himself."
Among his many awards, Mr. Musick was named Pennsylvania sports writer of the year in 1975 by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. He wrote books on Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Tony Dorsett, and he wrote articles for Sports Illustrated, People, Time and Newsweek magazines.
Truth be told, his newspaper career had a disconcerting end. In 1987, he left The Pittsburgh Press in a dispute over the originality of one of his columns, which was reminiscent of a situation from 1980 when he was demoted by the Post-Gazette for publishing a column that was similar to one written by Red Smith of The New York Times.
Mr. Musick said he was fired by The Press after he refused to take a week's suspension without pay and refused to quit as host of a WTAE talk show. He said he saw no need to defend himself.
"He had made peace with it. He had no regrets," said his daughter, Kristi Musick. "He always said that he didn't care if you loved him or hated him as long as you read what he wrote."
Mr. Musick, who taught journalism at La Roche College, was a writer to the end. He wrote so many notes from his bed in the intensive care unit that he asked for more paper so that he could compliment the doctors and nurses for the care he received. He also made friendly wagers with the night nurse on the college football bowl games.
"He went out as a character," his daughter said. "He lived hard. He went full throttle. He gave it the good fight. He went out swinging and died with peace, dignity and grace."
He penned a letter to Kristi and her sister, Kerilee.
"It has been an honor and a pleasure to be the father of two such extraordinary women," Mr. Musick wrote. "I had a career that I thoroughly enjoyed, and the love of some very fine women. No man can ask for more than that."
He also is survived by four grandchildren.
Friends will be received at the Devlin Funeral Home, 4678 Rochester Road, Cranberry, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. Funeral services will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Hope Lutheran Church in Cranberry.
The family asks that donations be made in Mr. Musick's name to the Fisher House Foundation -- Pittsburgh, 111 Rockville Pike, Suite 420, Rockville, MD 20850.
First Published January 6, 2010 12:00 am