Mike Downey, Sports columnist who enlightened Times readers for 15 years, dies at 72

Mike Downey learned to be a sports columnist in Detroit and Chicago, but from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, it was as if he’d spent his whole life in Southern California.

“Mike didn’t get that Chicago Mike Ditka-type gene where you butt heads with everybody,” recalled Scott Ostler, a fellow Los Angeles Times sports columnist. “He came to the right place, because he just had this mellow sensibility.”

Downey, who entertained and enlightened L.A. Times readers for 15 years, died of a heart attack Wednesday at his Rancho Mirage home. He was 72.

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His career took him from a suburban Chicago newspaper — where he began writing at age 14 — to the Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times, to the Detroit Free Press, to Los Angeles and back to his hometown Chicago Tribune.

His peers voted him state sportswriter of the year 11 times, with seven of those coming in California and two each in Illinois and Michigan. At the end of his career at the L.A. Times, Downey moved from sports to news.

Mike Downey's first column in the Los Angeles Times appeared on May 20, 1985.
Mike Downey's first column in the Los Angeles Times appeared on May 20, 1985. (Los Angeles Times)

“Mike was like my spiritual guidepost,” Times columnist Bill Plaschke said. “Every morning reading him was like going to journalism school. He was one of the best and smartest wordsmiths in this city’s history.”

In his first column when he arrived at The Times, Downey wrote about what he knew and didn’t know about L.A.

“I do not know Vin Scully,” he wrote. “Somebody once told me that if you live in Los Angeles, you can say something bad about the Dodgers, you can say something bad about the Rams, you can say something bad about the smog, you can even call Mother Teresa a busybody, but if you say something bad about Vin Scully, you will be strapped to the rear bumper of a stretch limo and dragged down the Santa Monica Freeway until dead.”

Said close friend and fellow sports columnist Ron Rapoport of Downey: “He had a crazy sense of humor. His columns were brilliantly expressed, brilliantly done.”

There was a kindness to Downey. He could be critical when he needed to be, but there was a humane sensitivity to his writing. In 1991, when an impaired Willie Shoemaker was paralyzed in a car accident that nearly took the life of the world-renowned jockey, Downey wrote:

“It can all be taken away from anybody in a flash, the way it was for a young professional football player for the Raiders who drank too much and drove his BMW into a tree, the way it was for a young professional hockey goalie who drank too much and sped his Porsche into a wall of concrete, the way it has been for thousands and thousands of people who climbed into their cars and thought they knew where they were going, but never got there.”

He concluded that column with: “All we want for now is for Shoe to get well.

“After all of the years of watching him, of cheering for him, of wagering on him, of seeing Bill Shoemaker place his diminutive body at risk more than 40,000 times for the public’s entertainment, it is the least we can do.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey (Los Angeles Times)

“Ride this one through, Shoe.

“Ride this one through.”

Although highly decorated as a writer, Downey didn’t thump his chest. When legendary Times columnist Jim Murray was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, Downey wrote: “If you think we are just going to sit here and accept the fact that we are never going to be half the sportswriter you are, well, all I have to say is, mister, you are right.”

Even away from the keyboard, Downey could think on his feet. Bill Dwyre, longtime Times sports editor, recalled a stunt the columnist pulled on the media bus at the Olympics in Atlanta, when the drop-off point was a half-mile walk past the hotels where the reporters were staying.

“We did that for about three days,” Dwyre said. “Then on the fourth day, we got near the logical spot where we wanted to be dropped off and Downey asks the bus driver, `What would you do if I lit up a cigarette right now?’ The driver said, `I’d stop right now and throw you off.’

“So Downey pulled a cigarette out. The driver stopped the bus and threw him off. Downey looked at the rest of us and walked away, and we had to walk a half-mile to get back.”

Before arriving in Los Angeles, Downey was an institution in Detroit.

“He was willing to poke fun at himself, at the teams and at sports in general,” said Mitch Albom, Detroit-based author and media personality. “But gentle fun, never mean, and that was not common here in Detroit.”

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Albom said Downey’s column on the Tigers winning the 1984 World Series still is posted in bathrooms of local bars and restaurants.

“If you go into urinals all over the city, you can see Mike Downey’s face,” he said.

Downey was single into his late 40s before meeting and marrying the love of his life, Gail Martin Downey, daughter of Dean Martin. The two met after Gail mentioned to a mutual friend how much she loved his writing.

They would have celebrated their 25th anniversary this month.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.