By Andrew Vitelli
A Boxing Legend and Chappaqua Native: Bert Sugar Remembered for Persona and Prose
The illustrious and prolific writing career of Herbert (Bert) Randolph Sugar can be said to date back to 1956, when Sugar, then a 19-year-old summer school student at Harvard University, published a story in the Harvard Crimson detailing Red Sox slugger Ted Williams’ spat with a group of fans.
As is now history, Sugar went on to become perhaps the premiere boxing writer and commentator to ever sit ringside and the author of dozens of books. A 47-year Chappaqua resident, Sugar died on March 25 at Northern Westchester Hospital at the age of 75. Sugar had been battling lung cancer and died of cardiac arrest.
Sugar’s rise in the world of sports reporting was far from a straight line to the top of the industry. After graduating from the University of Maryland, Sugar went on to earn law and business degrees from the University of Michigan. Though he passed the bar, he was a lousy law student– finishing last in his class–but excelled in his business studies, according to family.
“He had a good time doing a million things, other than studying,” says his wife, Suzanne of Chappaqua, whom Bert met at the Ann Arbor campus.
At Michigan, Sugar wrote for The Michigan Daily and after graduating he made his first venture into publishing with Baseball Monthly, which he later sold to Sports Illustrated. He turned his focus to advertising and brought his family from Washington D.C. to New York City and eventually to Westchester.
“It was the age of Mad Men,” explains his daughter, Pleasantville resident Jennifer Frawley.
Even before he turned his career focus to journalism, Sugar earned a reputation for having a way with words. He subscribed to six daily newspapers at a time, says his wife, and Bud Gilligan, who now works at Quaker Hill Tavern in Chappaqua, remembers riding the train to Manhattan with Sugar three decades ago and being awed by his vernacular prowess.
“He was the quickest guy to do a crossword puzzle out of anybody on the whole train,” Gilligan says. “Anybody who was having problems trying to find a word, a word to fit in the crossword puzzle, they would ask Bert.”
After parting ways with the advertising agency at which he worked, Sugar turned his attention to sports journalism and purchased Boxing Illustrated. It was one of a handful of magazines he would own or edit over his career.
While Sugar was a fan of all sports, boxing was always his favorite. It’s been written that his love of boxing began at the University of Maryland, but Suzanne Sugar says it predates his college years. Growing up in Washington, he lived down the block from the CYO, where he’d often go to put on the gloves and hone his limited skills.
“His mother would send him off and probably not know what he was doing,” says his wife.
From the time he jumped headfirst into boxing coverage, Sugar was a star the sport had never seen outside the ring. He was, as many liked to say, a “walking encyclopedia.”
“He knew all the players, he knew all the referees, he knew the boxing game itself, and when he spoke, people would listen,” explains Louis Schwartz, president of the American Sportscasters Association. “He had an awful lot of knowledge in that head of his.”
His unparalleled knowledge was just the tip of the iceberg; he had a larger-than-life personality that shined whether one was watching him on TV or sitting at the next barstool. He was the kind of guy who could make friends smile even while telling grimace-worthy jokes and correcting grammar. His writing–in books, magazines and newspaper columns–showed an unparalleled mastery of the English language and a style so engaging readers needed no interest in the subject matter to become immediately enthralled.
“With an enormous crowd of 51,000 acting like youngsters suffering from a severe case of green-apple colic, hollering and screaming at every image shown on the giant overhead screen and even participating in the first ‘Wave’ ever seen at a boxing event, the fight lived up to its billing as ‘The Event,'” he wrote for HBO.com in his recap of a 2010 match between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey. “Unfortunately, the fight did not live up to its billing as a fight.”
Sugar was known to write a book in two weeks or less. His method was as unconventional as his writing style; he would jot down his thoughts on pieces of scrap paper, spread them around his desk and sit down with his typewriter. Then he’d spend days on end turning them into a book, according to Michael Gaffney, who was Muhammad Ali’s photographer in the late 1970s and worked with Sugar on Gaffney’s book, “The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali.”
“One of Bert’s greatest gifts was that he could write exactly as he spoke, and he was a character,” Gaffney says. “His writing approach was as unorthodox as he was.”
Some of Sugar’s most popular books included “Bert Sugar on Boxing,” “Boxing’s Greatest Fighters” and “Bert Sugar’s Baseball Hall of Fame: A Living History of America’s Greatest Games.” Opinionated on any subject, he also wrote books about horse racing, Harry Houdini, New York City, Blackjack and ABC Sports.
Sugar filmed some of his ESPN segments at Quaker Hill Tavern, where he was known to bring signed copies of his latest books and chat with strangers.
Never blessed with much hair, he began experimenting with different headwear after college and by the time he was becoming a ringside mainstay, his fedora, along with an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth, had become as much a part of his persona as his eloquent prose. He styled himself, Frawley says, after early-1900s newspaperman Damon Runyon.
“He had a real public persona,” says Frawley. “Wherever he went, he always filled a room.”
Sugar, though, also had a persona distinct from the one known to the public, Frawley describes.
“He was also just a really good, caring person,” she says. “He had a really gentle side, and he really loved his grandchildren and his family.”
Sugar was married to Suzanne for 51 years. They had two kids; Jennifer Frawley and son, J.B. Sugar. He’s also survived by his brother, Steven, and four grandchildren.
Andrew Vitelli is the editor-in-chief of The White Plains Examiner.