November 19, 2018

Melvin Durslag, journalist, dies at 95

Melvin Durslag, one of the last surviving major metropolitan newspaper columnists who personified and shaped the golden age of Jewish sportswriters in post-World War II America, died in Santa Monica on July 17. He was 95.

At the peak of his career in the 1960s through the ‘80s, Durslag’s byline was published in daily and weekly newspapers and magazines with a combined circulation of some 25-million. This figure was estimated to be higher than that of popular and widely read Jewish advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

A journalism graduate of USC, his best-known work was with the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, as well as TV Guide and the Sporting News in the heyday of their popularity. In any given week, he would write seven daily columns for the Herald Examiner, and then serve as a contributing writer of lengthy feature articles on the leading sports personalities and events of the 20th century. Magazines to which he was a contributing writer included the Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Sports Illustrated.

His newspaper column, in particular, served as a springboard for bringing major league sports to Los Angeles. He lobbied, in writing, for bringing Dodger Stadium to Chavez Ravine, the Lakers and the Sports Arena to Exposition Park, and the Raiders from Oakland to L.A. and into a new stadium that never was to be. Durslag was one of the first journalists to focus on the business side of sports. He generally did not approve of tax dollars going into public stadiums and arenas, warning readers that they were sure-bet money losers. 

Despite his work appearing in many of the most influential and highest circulation publications of the time, Durslag’s name was not as widely recognizable as one might expect. He never considered himself a “media celebrity” even though he was a confidant of many of sports’ most controversial and high-profile owners. These included maverick Jewish NFL executives such as Al Davis, Carroll Rosenbloom, Gene Klein and Art Modell. To that list may be added non-Jewish and non-conformist owners such as Walter O’Malley, Jack Kent Cooke, Gene Autry and Charles O. Finley.

Working in the pre-Internet age of communication, Durslag was trusted by sports’ elites because he strictly abided by a code of confidentiality and ethics; still he was able to perform his job with utmost objectivity, which earned him the trust of his legions of loyal readers.

He clung to a journalistic philosophy in which he did not consider himself the center of attention; rather, the modest purveyor of the information from those he interviewed as the experts. Rarely did Durslag’s stories venture beyond his sources doing the speaking, and they were almost always written in the third person.

Joe Siegman, founder of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and co-founder and past chairman of the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (which elected Durslag in 1991), said, “Mel Durslag let his typewriter tell you who he was.  Before there was Google, there was Durslag. He was especially helpful for research during the early days of the Halls of Fame.”

Writing about the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972, Durslag slightly reverted off of his journalist ethos, and wrote in the first person. “I never thought I would live to see this at a sports event. As times began to change and people started taking their philosophic differences to the streets, and they expressed themselves with bombs, with bullets, and with fire, the possibility began to develop that sports was not exempt from this behavioral pattern.”

Durslag penned these words for the Sporting News as someone who, in his career, had covered 10 Olympic Games, as well as 25 Super Bowls and 34 World Series – all potential targets for terrorists. Henceforth he was concerned about security and the high costs involved at sporting events, especially international competition.

Melvin Durslag was born in Chicago on April 29, 1921, the second of two sons of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents. When he was a small child the family moved to Los Angeles.

After graduating from Los Angeles High School and USC, he took his first journalism job with the Los Angeles Examiner (later the Herald Examiner), one of two flagship newspapers in the once powerful chain founded by “Citizen Kane,” the legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

His journalism career was placed on hold when he entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. He served with distinction in India and China. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, Durslag concluded his military service by writing speeches for legendary Air Corps Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle who gained fame for leading his airmen in daring and successful missions along Asia’s Pacific Rim.

Like many other Jewish GIs returning to civilian life, Durslag pursued — against his immigrant mother’s wishes — a career as a sportswriter. Before the war, sports writing had been previously dominated by the sons of Irish and German immigrants. After the war, Jews began making a name for themselves as national columnists, “rewriting” the rules of sports journalism. Durslag’s contemporaries who went on to the national spotlight (those born between 1915 and 1929) and that predeceased him included such names as Dick Young, Leonard Koppett, Milton Richman and Joe Reichler from New York; Jerome Holtzman from Chicago; Hy Hurwitz from Boston; Art Rosenbaum from San Francisco; Stan Hochman from Philadelphia; and Hal Lebovitz from Cleveland.  

The writing style of sports articles evolved to appeal to the emerging middle class, which was better educated, and wanted more leisure time. This led to record TV ratings, attendance and marketing revenues for sporting events. Durslag was a pioneer in composing feature stories and in-depth interviews which later evolved into the TV news magazine format.

He brought diversification to the topics to be included in the sports column, not limiting himself to football and the three B’s –boxing, baseball and basketball. He would write about golf and the Kentucky Derby to attract more affluent readers. He did not have a distinct “written voice.” He utilized many styles, tailor-made for his publication and its readers.

In 1995, Durslag was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.

When Durslag retired he, without fanfare, gifted his extensive career files to the Paul Ziffren Sports Resource Center Library at the Amateur Athletic Foundation in L.A., according to Joe Siegman. Ziffren, a prominent Jewish community leader, was chairman of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

As recently as 2007, he appeared in HBO’s documentary, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, the former Lorayne Sweet, three children, Bill Durslag, Jim Durslag and Ivy Durslag, and three grandchildren.

Richard Macales is a contributor to the four-volume reference/anthology work, “American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas,” edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson. ABC-Clio.