T.J. Simers

Jack Disney has lived, breathed and written of SoCal's sports icons

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"I'm still ducking Frank," he says. "Owe him $250 from gin rummy."

He counts playboy Angels pitcher Bo Belinsky as a running mate. Oddly enough, Disney's first two marriages fail. "But I'm fortunate," he says. "I have two great sons."

On the job, he strikes gold in the Raiders' locker room with maybe the best collection of talkers ever assembled. He latches onto Lester Hayes.

"Lester was always trying to get those deceased presidents" — dollar bills, he says. "What a character."

Disney says the games do not stand out, only the people who played them.

He marvels at Jerry West's intensity. But when he hears West is jealous of Baylor because Baylor gets introduced before West, he does not question West.

"We weren't gutsy journalists; in those days the mentality was different," he says. "We wouldn't get into the personality stuff."

What would it be like to cover sports today, the message boards often filled with anger?

"No fun," he says. "I look back on my career and it's been all about fun. Sports is supposed to be a diversion, not a passion."

He's lucky, he says. He knows Vin Scully because of his job. Call Disney's phone today and you get Scully's voice. "If anybody ever had a reason to have an ego, it would be Scully," he says. "And I don't see it."

He thinks Tom Lasorda is "the biggest phony" he's ever met before he gets to know him. "This isn't someone who wakes up and puts a mask on," he says. "He lives it; that's why I grew to have great respect for him."

Disney comes from an era when writers and players did everything together, teams handing out Christmas presents to writers. And no one even considering calling the bomb squad.

"Gene Autry would send a box of cashews; I thought that was a little cheap," he says with a laugh. "The Rams gave TVs. And lots of booze."

Drinking was just a part of newspaper life, he says, competing writers covering for each other. Unable to meet a Herald Examiner 6 a.m. deadline while on the road because of too much drink, he says, Times columnist Jim Murray wrote for him under Disney's byline.

"The next day I remember admonishing him for not having the right angle," says Disney.

Disney says he wasn't an alcoholic because he could always find someone else worse off. But he's fooling himself. He loses his job, gets help and stops drinking at age 38. If he doesn't, he says, "I'm dead now."

He gets his job and life back, but later the newspaper is about to fail. He goes to work for Hollywood Park.

People wonder why newspapers and horse racing are dying, no one ever mentioning Disney as the common denominator.

He says it's too late to save horse racing.

But when someone says it's never too late, Disney's actually lived it. Disney has been married for the past 16 years to the girl he dumped in junior high. "The best thing that has happened in my life," he says.

And I thought he had won a Pick Six for $25,000.

He laughs, a good life lived, he says.

But what will he miss?

"There's nothing to miss," he says. "I have the memories."

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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