Obituary: Phil Elderkin

Celebrated, award-winning sportswriter and columnist, helped popularize the NBA

Phil Elderkin, for many years a nationally syndicated columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and The Sporting News, died December 21 at the age of 93.

Mr. Elderkin, who consistently took readers where their tickets would never admit them, began his writing career with the Monitor in 1943. His first byline outside the Monitor was in the August 1947 issue of Baseball Digest. He carried card number 5 in the more than 900-member Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Winner of a National Headliners’ Award in 1975 for outstanding sports commentary, Mr. Elderkin’s “Rimming the NBA” column in The Sporting News helped popularize pro basketball at a time when most publications treated it as an afterthought.

From 1957 and 1969, when the Boston Celtics won 11 world championships in 13 years, he never missed a playoff game. In fact, it was he who wrote—seven months before it happened—that Bill Russell would succeed Red Auerbach as coach of the Celtics in 1966.

Mr. Elderkin became friendly with many sports celebrities during his career. Cleveland Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch, who often liked to tweak the establishment’s nose, made him the Cavs’ 17th round pick in the 1973 National Basketball Association draft. Asked for an explanation by the editors of Sports Illustrated, Mr. Fitch replied, “Phil was the only guy I could find who didn’t have an agent, will play for the 1960 minimum, and will bring his own sneakers.”

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Elderkin began a series of adventures that gave readers a taste of what it was like to be a professional athlete. That series made him one of the leading professional amateurs of his time: He played tennis against Australia’s number one Davis Cup player, drove in a stock car race, acted as coxswain to the MIT freshman crew, played basketball with Marques Haynes’ Harlem Magicians, competed in the roller derby, and clowned his way through Ringling Brothers Circus.

Mr. Elderkin also borrowed the microphone of Baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell to broadcast part of a Detroit Tigers-Red Sox game at Boston’s Fenway Park. Later he opened for Mr. Frick in the Ice Follies before a Boston Garden crowd of 13,909. He also made appearances in two movies, Two-Minute Warning and Roller Coaster.

Probably the highlight of his “misadventures” occurred in 1973 when he played former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in a best-of-five game set in a plastic bubble set up just outside the Houston Astrodome. This was two nights before Mr. Riggs played Billie Jean King in the Battle of the Sexes before a TV audience that numbered in the millions. “By the time Bobby finished me off, even the tongues of my sneakers were hanging out,” Mr. Elderkin said.

One of Mr. Elderkin’s biggest romances was with single-engine airplanes. “The feeling you get from flying a plane for the first time is almost unparalleled in a young man’s life,” he said. “It’s not something you can describe in words.”

In the summer of 1948 he was invited to make a three hour press trip over Boston in the Goodyear Blimp.

“Suddenly,” Mr. Elderkin wrote, “zircons turned into diamonds when the captain of the Columbia told me that the ship I was riding in had made the last radio contact with the aircraft carrier Hornet prior to Jimmy Doolittle and his boys taking off to bomb Tokyo.”

During his 65-plus years in the newspaper business, he wrote numerous magazine pieces and contributed articles and quotes to a variety of other publications, including the Claremont COURIER.

“Despite knowing many of the greats and near-greats in sports, my favorite interview was with Groucho Marx at his home in Beverly Hills,” Mr. Elderkin said. “Along with a chicken dinner, Groucho also provided plenty of ‘ham.’”

Mr. Elderkin grew up in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and lived in nearby Hudson for 20 years. He moved to Claremont in 1975. He was married to Barbara Cummings for 57 years.

He is survived by his three children, John Elderkin, Jean Barr and her husband Michael, Mark Elderkin and his wife Nancy; grandchildren Casey Hamilton and her husband Brian, Cody Elderkin, Andrew Elderkin, Mata Barr and Mark Barr; and great-grandchildren Teagan Elderkin and Asher Hamilton.


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