Dave O’Hara’s formal sendoff was Saturday, at his funeral Mass at St. Columbkille Church in Brighton, where family and friends prayed, wept, commiserated, and laughed, and then laughed that little bit extra, all in celebration of “Dancin’ Dave’s’’ life well lived.
The good laugh was an O’Hara standard. His laugh. His friends forever will imitate it, for its rich, distinctive, infectious, and fun-loving cackle. Though impossible to do it justice in print, the short burst of an O’Hara laugh would bring a noisy, bustling, frenetic press box to an abrupt halt — a reminder that, no matter how serious the moment or how wrought with deadline anxiety, there was one guy in the room able to remember that a ballgame was just a ballgame.
“That humor’s long gone from the business today,’’ said Tom Shaer, for decades a Chicago broadcaster, whose big break in the business came in the late-’70s when O’Hara hired him part-time to work Red Sox games at Fenway Park. “Everyone worked hard, Dave as hard as anyone, but everyone also was having fun. And there was no laugh like the Dancer’s.’’
In a decades-long career with the Associated Press, the bulk of it in its Boston bureau as the New England sports editor, O’Hara treated everyone with dignity and grace. He was also a man without ego or pretense, to be remembered for his accuracy in reporting, clarity in writing, his masterful top-of-the-head dictation, which he delivered in a clear, melodious voice that was silenced last week when he succumbed to cancer at age 86.
Oh, to have the honor of being one of O’Hara’s boys. There were many of us. I was one. Dan Shaughnessy, my dear friend and Globe colleague, was another. Shaer, who grew up in Agawam, yet one more. Nate Greenberg, the retired Bruins executive, worked for O’Hara off and on for a couple of years out of Boston University before joining the Bruins in 1973. Steve Wilson was fresh out of Tufts in the late-’70s when he started at the AP as one of O’Hara’s boys. Wilson today is the AP’s sports editor in Europe.
All of us signed up for the meager stringer’s fee of $7.50 per event, which at Fenway typically entailed gathering quotes in both clubhouses after games and racing back up the grandstand to feed them to O’Hara in the press box.
“Yeah, gee, that’s swell,’’ O’Hara would say as he scribbled the quotes out on various scraps of paper. “That’s good stuff. Nice job. I can make two stories out of what you’ve given me here.’’
None of us signed on for the money, but rather the access to the press box, the clubhouse, the field . . . the chance to gain a first foothold in the job market. We had a front-row seat in the business, and O’Hara put us there. We were the know-nothing apprentices at his side, watching him sandwich carbon paper between two pieces of typing paper as he banged out take after take, story after story, on his portable Royal typewriter.
“You don’t forget the people who give you your first chance,’’ said Greenberg. “I kid all the time that I would have done the job for free — and basically you did it for free if you were one of Dave’s boys. But to get that foot in the door, to be around the game, the writers, the players . . . what an incredible opportunity he gave us.’’
“What do I owe to Dave O’Hara these 35 years later?’’ Shaer mused over the phone late last week. “Oh, not much, just my whole career.’’
Hired when he was a college freshman, Shaer sat next to O’Hara on the chilly April day in 1978 when Len Barker, then pitching for Texas, lost control of a pitch that sailed up the Fenway backstop.
“Dave lets out one of those laughs, you know, ‘Whoa! Did you see that!?’ ’’ recalled Shaer. “Then he reaches right for the phone to start dictating, ‘Len Barker [that’s B-a-r-k-e-r]’ . . . I can still hear his Boston accent, ‘uncorked the granddaddy of wild pitches [that’s d-a-d-d-y]’ . . . ”
A couple of years earlier, on July 9, 1976, Red Sox general manager Dick O’Connell walked into the cozy press dining room at Fenway to deliver somber news well ahead of the night’s first pitch; Sox owner Tom Yawkey was dead.
O’Hara, who had been enjoying a cold drink on a warm summer’s eve, caught my eye as I dashed out of the dining room to call the AP office from the nearby press box. In the age before Twitter and the Internet, it would be the AP or UPI that first told the world of all big stories. We made our plan on the fly. I would alert the AP office on Summer Street that Yawkey was dead, ready an editor to take O’Hara’s dictation.
Not five minutes later, eyeglasses askew, one hand clutching a fistful of papers on which he’d scribbled O’Connell’s quotes, O’Hara swept into the press box and grabbed the open phone line. The flag in center field already was lowered to half staff as he began to talk.
“Thomas A. Yawkey . . . comma . . . owner of the Red Sox for 43 years . . . comma,’’ O’Hara dictated, all off the top of his head, “died Friday at New England Baptist Hospital after a months-long battle with leukemia . . . period.
“New paragraph . . . ’’
Then a slight pause, as O’Hara collected his thoughts.
“Yawkey . . . comma . . . age 73 . . . comma . . . ’’ O’Hara started again, “who, who . . . ’’
And this is where he uncharacteristically faltered. Typically fluid and flawless in dictation, he was caught short by the editor’s request at the other end of the phone.
“Uh . . . uh . . . what?’’ he stammered, voice now angry. “According to whom!? According to whom!? According to Dave O’Hara of the AP . . . the [expletive] man is dead!’’
Later, long cooled off, O’Hara would discuss his disdain for such needless attribution.
“What next?’’ he said. “If the Red Sox beat the Twins, 5-3, do I say, ‘According to an American League umpire?’ ’’
O’Hara’s family and friends gathered six years ago, for his 80th birthday bash, at the Hampshire House in downtown Boston. The Dancer, a nickname from his long-ago jitterbug days, gracefully worked the room, shaking hands, trading memories, posing for pictures.
At one point late in the evening, the inimitable Dancer looked around, took it all in with obvious appreciation, and said, “You know, this is great . . . it’s like attending my own funeral, but I’m still here!’’
Then came the laugh, the good O’Hara laugh, the one that won’t ever fade.