In the Fenway Park press box, Dave O’Hara seemed to conjure sentences from thin air as he dictated into the phone, recreating a just-finished game in succinct prose Red Sox fans read from northern Maine to southern Florida.
Memorable to watch, matchless in execution, he performed that magic during thousands of baseball, basketball, and hockey games while composing a day-by-day history of Boston sports in his longtime role as New England sports editor for the Associated Press.
“My image of Dave forever will be a clutch of papers in one hand, eyeglasses askew, but velvet in terms of off the top of the head dictation,” said Globe sportswriter Kevin Paul Dupont.
“And that voice. I’d kill for that voice,” said retired Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan. “It was a radio announcer voice, a good, deep baritone. You could hear him on the phone calling back to the office: ‘Six outs to go.’ ”
Mr. O’Hara, whose tenure and impact were such that in 1993 the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America created an award in his name “for long and meritorious service,” died of cancer Wednesday in his Winter Haven, Fla., home. He was 86 and previously lived in Brighton for many years.
As a wire service reporter, his byline almost never appeared in Boston newspapers, which publish their own staff stories. (In 50 years of reporting news and sports for the AP, he had just one byline in the Globe.) Outside the city, though, Mr. O’Hara’s writing had greater geographic reach than any of his sportswriter peers. His subject matter ranged just as widely.
“During a long career with the Associated Press, I covered virtually every major sports event — the World Series, football, hockey and basketball championships, world title boxing bouts and the Rose Bowl,” he recalled in a 2002 piece commemorating the life of Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. “Nothing, though, was more memorable and, in a way, more rewarding than covering Ted.”
Mr. O’Hara’s career outlasted the run of a host of Boston’s legendary sports heroes, but for him, Williams stood out.
“A writer soon learned that he loathed seeing a pencil and a notebook,” Mr. O’Hara recalled. “The best personal interviews were seemingly casual talks before the writer went around the corner and jotted down valuable quotes.”
Mr. O’Hara plied his trade long before every utterance or uncomfortable detail was fodder for a tweet or a blog post. At times his notebook stayed shut and players valued his discretion.
“When you went to the bar with him and talked about the game, our talk would stay in the bar,” former Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley told the AP.
“You could share anything with him and he would put his reporter hat away. He felt that was a code of honor,” said Mr. O’Hara’s daughter, Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski of Andover. “That’s why he had so much respect from the players and the organizations and everyone in between. Ted Williams, who didn’t like reporters, liked my dad.”
The oldest of three siblings, David A. O’Hara grew up in Brighton and was in high school when the AP hired him in 1942 as a $15-a-week office boy. Six months to the day after he started, he was playing cards in the office when phone calls announced the deadly Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire.
“That was the biggest story I ever covered,” Mr. O’Hara told the Globe in 1992, when he retired from the AP.
He continued his right place, right time life by commandeering a barroom phone to assist the AP’s coverage of the Brink’s robbery in 1950. During a stint for the AP in Milwaukee, he covered the 1959 game when Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched a perfect game for 12 innings before losing to the Milwaukee Braves.
In 1951, Mr. O’Hara was out with friends in Boston when he met Julia Hufnagle, who was known to all as Cis. “She went back and told her friend, ‘See this guy? He’s the guy I’m going to marry,’ ” their daughter said.
They married in 1952. Mrs. O’Hara died of cancer in 1995.
Mr. O’Hara served in the Army for two years during the Korean War, and after his time in Milwaukee returned to Boston in 1965 to become the AP’s New England sports editor.
The rest of his tenure spanned memorable Boston Marathons; the Bruins’ Stanley Cup victories in 1970 and 1972; the Red Sox trips to the World Series in 1967, ’75, and ’86; the end of Bill Russell’s era with the Celtics, and nearly all of Larry Bird’s playing career.
Mr. O’Hara was a mentor to young sportswriters, paying them $7.50 a game to collect quotes from players and giving them a toehold in the profession.
“I loved Dave O’Hara,” said Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy. “He was extremely generous to young writers, young reporters, upstarts. I can’t even begin to tell you how great he was.”
Along with giving aspiring reporters access to Boston’s best athletes, Mr. O’Hara offered them floor space to sleep in his spring training hotel rooms, and presented the daily example of his own professionalism.
“He was so pivotal in so many of our careers,” Shaughnessy said.
And in the press box, “nobody could dictate a story, could move on a story faster than O’Hara,” said Nate Greenberg, a retired Bruins executive who as a college student worked for Mr. O’Hara. “He was a master.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. O’Hara leaves two sons, David Jr. of Canton and Stephen of Fort Myers, Fla.; a sister, Ethel O’Neil of Winter Haven; his longtime companion, Sue Ezell of Winter Haven; and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Columbkille Church in Brighton. Private burial will be in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
Known as Dancing Dave for jitterbugging skills that were not quite as refined as his reporting, Mr. O’Hara “was such a colorful character, he really was,” his daughter said. “He loved life, he loved people. He had this charm about him that was really captivating.”
Diagnosed in 2011, Mr. O’Hara had time “to see everybody he cared for and loved, and to tell them he loved them,” she said. “You know how some people are afraid to say those words? He told people he loved them.”
To the end, she added, “he said, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world. I have the most wonderful family and I had a wonderful career. Who could ask for anything more?’ ”