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T.J. Simers

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

The sportswriter turned horse racing publicist is stepping down after almost 60 years on the local scene.

T.J. Simers

October 7, 2012

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An athlete plays 15 or 20 years, retires and there is great fanfare upon his departure. Maybe tears, maybe gifts given, maybe his number hung in honor.

Los Angeles' very own Jack Disney calls it a day and he's just gone.

Disney is good people. There is no announcement when he leaves Santa Anita, some 3-year-old horses drawing more attention than he does as he ends almost 60 years as a sports reporter and horse racing publicist.

He's John McKay's first beat man at USC; the first reporter the Lakers would know upon their arrival; he is working as a colorful scribe before the Dodgers are here and before the Angels go major league.

"I'm sitting in a restaurant with another reporter when USC President Dr. Norman Topping sits down," says Disney. "He wants our serious opinion; he says he's torn whether to bring McKay back or not.

"We urge him to bring him back. McKay says that talk with Dr. Topping was instrumental in his staying."

Why did Disney urge Dr. Topping to keep McKay?

"McKay was quotable," says Disney, and what more does a writer want in a coach?

Years later, Disney is in Tampa when he gets a call from McKay, who wants Disney to join him in the front row for a Frank Sinatra concert.

"That probably wouldn't happen today," he says. And so far no Barbra Streisand concert invite from Arte Moreno.

Disney lives a lifetime in L.A., born here 11 minutes after his identical brother Doug, and now 77.

Jack graduates from Fairfax High, enters Occidental and counts Jack Kemp and Jim Mora as fraternity brothers before he drops out to be a newspaper copy boy.

A few years later, Disney is covering the first Super Bowl in the Coliseum, although it's not called the Super Bowl. His assignment is to shadow Vince Lombardi.

"He would meet with the press in his hotel room," Disney says. "Lombardi was careful not to say anything inflammatory, but he poured a generous cocktail."

It's a different time. Disney flies with Marcus Allen to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony and Allen sets him up with a stewardess.

When Allen plays for the Raiders, Disney writes something that doesn't sit well with Allen. They're no longer so chummy. Some things never change.

He says, "The best athlete I ever saw by far was Bo Jackson; the most dominant athlete, Bill Russell."

Muhammad Ali flatters him, he says. "He tells me I'm not as dumb as I look."

He says former USC coach John Robinson is "the "easiest guy I ever had to work with."

He parties with everyone, remembering especially Chick Hearn, Elgin Baylor and Frank Selvy with fondness.

"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