Bob Hammel · 1997
When Bob Hammel got his first professional sports editing job, his mom had to drive him to his assignments. He was only 17.
That was the summer of 1954, just after Hammel had finished his freshman year at Indiana University. He had gone home to Huntington for the summer, as students do, and taken a job at the local newspaper, the Huntington Herald-Press. But Hammel didn’t return to I.U. that fall. He did get back though, but that was 12 years later and that’s the Hall of Fame story that is to follow.
In his last newspaper column, published Aug. 5, 1996, in the Bloomington Herald-Times, Hammel recalled his first newspaper column, published June 12, 1954, in the Huntington Herald-Press. At about 2 a.m. that day in 1954, as soon as the presses began to roll, the 17-year-old Hammel walked _ he likely ran _ the four blocks from the newspaper to his home, where dashed in, turned on the bedroom light and handed his Mother a freshly printed edition that carried the first Bob Hammel column. Mom, he remembers, shared his excitement and couldn’t wait to read the column _ just as, we dare say, hundreds of thousands of readers during the 32 years that were to follow, daily shared the excitement and couldn’t wait to read what Hammel had to say; for the record, Hammel recalls, his Dad “grumbled something, rolled over and went back to sleep.”
That first column was in many ways like so many that Hammel was to write over the years, but it was in one way very unlike the others.
Like so many others, that first sports column showed Hammel to be a perceptive judge of talent, for in that first column he predicted good things for a young man from the nearby town of Bippus, the then-new DuMont television network boxing announcer Chris Schenkel. Said Hammel in that first column: “One can only wonder how far that Schenkel star will rise.”
Unlike the 10,000 or more columns that would follow, however, that first column was just 327 words long. The last one he wrote, the one in 1996 in Bloomington was more what readers through the years had become accustomed to: about 1,600 words long.
Bob Hammel, to all who watched him on press row and read his work the next morning in the paper, proved to be an uncomonly gifted wordsmith. He wrote long and he wrote fast. And he wrote awfully well, as so many prizes over the years would prove. Even after a night basketball game, you could expect to see a game story, a locker room sidebar and column in the next morning’s paper, all with the famous Hammel byline on them. He could do all that because he loves writing _ and reading great writers from across the ages, to which his bookshelf attests _ and because he doesn’t have to scurry around searching for literary illusions or researching sports facts, for those things are filed upstairs (“He remembers almost everything,” says his longtime Bloomington colleague Rex Kirts. “A wise man would not enter a sports trivia contest against him.”).
After getting his start at his hometown Huntington newspaper, Hammel made stops en route to Bloomington at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the Peru Tribune, the Kokomo Morning Times and the Indianapolis News.
In 1966, he went to Bloomington to take the sports editorship of the newspaper then called the Herald-Telephone, a newspaper which that year had lost several key people to a new newspaper in town, the now-defunct Courier-Tribune. Some reporters and editors may have left the H-T that year, but the new guy’s writing kept the readers. Hammel was quickly to become the franchise player.
Hammel was seemingly everywhere that Bloomington readers themselves wanted be: He was in Pasadena in 1968 for Indiana University’s only appearance in the Rose Bowl; he was in Munich in 1972 when Indiana’s Mark Spitz swam for seven gold medals at an Olympic Games marred by international terrorism; he was in Philadelphia in 1976 when the Indiana University basketball team achieved perfection and won the national championship under a 35-year-old coach named Bob Knight; he was back in Philadelphia in 1981 and was in New Orleans in 1987 when Knight’s teams also won national championships; he was, in short, where the action was. His final assignment before retirement was the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
His relationship with Knight became legendary. When most members of the press were excluded by Knight, Hammel had access. When Knight had no comment for anyone else, he had one for Hammel. Knight now says: “People [other members of the press] take a lot of shots at Hammel because they’re envious. He works hard, and they don’t want to work as hard. And he’s honest. When Hammel talks, I listen, whether I agree with him or not. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his opinion.”
Everyone does. In 30 years at Bloomington, Hammel was an unprecedented 16 times named Indiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and was four times named winner of the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters’ Corky Lamm award. In 1990, he was selected to the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. In 1995, he received the coveted Curt Gowdy Award from the National Basketball Hall of Fame. And in 1996, he received the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’s Silver Medal Award for distinguished service. But there’s more than basketball: He has also been awarded the Bert McGrane Award by the College Football Hall of Fame and the Jake Wade Award by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
His peers _ though may would say he is without peer _ have additionally honored him by electing him president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, president of the Football Writers Association of America and president of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. And no less an authority on sports writing than the Associated Press’s legendary Will Grimsley says Hammel is “one of a diminishing breed of our craft, to be linked with such giants as Red Smith and Jim Murray.”
Hammel has been married since 1958 to the former Julie Sowerwine. They have two children: Richard, a physician in Cincinnati, and Jane, an elementary school teacher in Bloomington.