Royal Brougham: Your Old Neighbor (Mark Bergin)

Author Mark Bergin lives in Seattle and works as a freelance journalist, primarily writing on sports for the Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle’s two metro daily newspapers. Bergin writes weekly for World magazine. He has been published in the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and St. Paul Pioneer Press, among others. Bergin began his journalism career while in college at the University of Washington, where he earned a B.A. in history. Several months after converting to Christianity, he authored a column for the student newspaper titled “I Am A Christian,” because he wanted to bring his Christian worldview into the publication. In 2002, Bergin attended the World Journalism Institute’s month-long summer course in Asheville, N.C., further piquing his desire to do journalism Christianly

By Mark J. Bergin

For most Seattle residents under the age of 30, Royal Brougham is a street – a four-lane stretch of pavement knifing between two downtown athletic stadiums. But for those old enough to remember the legend, he remains the most important sports figure in the area’s history – his asphalt namesake still preserving his place at the center of the Western Washington porting scene.

During a near seven-decade career as a writer and editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – one of the city’s two major metro dailies – Brougham achieved unmatched local celebrity and parlayed that into national influence. His columns sold newspapers. His persistence, vision and pleasant manner sold everything else. A promoter to his core, Brougham brought prime sporting events to the Northwest, elevating an often overlooked frontier town to a first-class destination for professional sports franchises.

Such public relations exploits launched Brougham into social circles with the nation’s top athletes. Despite deep religious convictions in the tradition of a Baptist teetotaler, he developed personal friendships with such notorious night-lifers as Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth.

When Brougham died at the age of 84 in the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 1978, he was widely considered the dean of American sports journalism by peers and readers alike. But the city mourned the loss of more than a sportswriter. Brougham was a friend, or as he often put it, “your old neighbor.” News of his death covered nearly the entire front page of the P-I and earned a story from bitter cross-town rival the Seattle Times as well – all this for a quirky elf of a man, who couldn’t remember your name.

 

Mr. Magoo

 

A slight figure with disarming friendliness and genuine concern for people, Brougham was nonetheless known for his inability to match names to faces. He often relied on generic monikers to cover this shortcoming. Most folks were “fella” or “girlie,” including some of the most famous folks in the nation.

Brougham once convinced baseball great Stan Musial to attend the P-I’s annual Sports Star of the Year Banquet – an event originally conceived by Brougham in 1938 that still continues today. Encountering the St. Louis Cardinals slugger in an elevator ride to the top of Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, Brougham was oblivious to Musial’s identity. “Enjoy yourself tonight, fella,” he said, leaving Musial bewildered as the two parted ways. Later that evening, Brougham introduced his guest of honor as “Stan Musical.”

Some years later at the 1973 banquet, Brougham’s foibles took public stage again. With Seattle Sonics forward Spencer Haywood, University of Washington defensive back Calvin Jones and softball official Bill Fenton as nominees for Sports Star of the Year, P-I officials suspected ballot-stuffing and elected to split the honor between Haywood and Fenton. When Brougham mistakenly announced Jones and Fenton as winners, however, the P-I had little choice but to declare a three-way tie, thus undermining the suspense-driven purpose of the entire event.

Hardly the airs of a disinterested bigwig, Brougham’s bumbling treatment of names was indicative of a man more Mr. Magoo than Mr. Big Shot. “He wasn’t an extremely polished person,” remembers Cathi Soriano, Brougham’s granddaughter. “He was kind of folksy. He wasn’t high brow at all.”

Nowhere was Brougham’s lack of polish more evident than on Seattle’s city streets. Stories abound of local cab drivers keeping tabs on him to avoid accidents. The same nervous kinetic energy that made Brougham a near scoop-proof reporter rendered him comically unfocused behind the wheel. “It was real easy for him to get distracted by something,” Soriano recalls. “You’re at the family dinner and he’d have to get up and call in and check a score. He was always thinking about something else – always curious about what was going on out there.”

 

From bylines to headlines

 

Brougham’s uncanny ability to witness news as it happened had as much to do with his propensity for making news as it did his reporting acumen. His column, “The Morning After,” could advance an idea from marginal to mainstream literally overnight. With one game remaining in the 1947 college football season, he wrote, “Ralph Welch will be making his last appearance as Washington football coach next Saturday. The big, likeable leader of the Huskies will be replaced after this year, definitely and positively.” Welch was released a month later.

Brougham wielded such power for ends beyond his sports wishes as well. He called on the generosity of his readers to help support former Olympic gold medalist swimmer Helene Madison as she battled cancer, diabetes and depression. He levied a similar call for the sake of former Major League pitcher and local favorite Dick Barrett, who was living on welfare and had been convicted of shoplifting. Soriano recalls that the Seattle Times campaign to raise funds for Madison fizzled. “When Royal took it on, there was an outpouring of response, and people wanted to help her out,” she said. “He had a way of generating public response.”

Brougham’s way required that he live what he preached. When longtime P-I sports editor Portus Baxter retired in 1920, Brougham maintained a relationship with his former boss, paying him a $5 per week retainer despite opposition from P-I management. For four decades, Brougham cut Baxter’s hair and helped him run errands. He was the lone friend of an old man with no surviving family. And when Baxter died in 1962, Brougham was the lone inheritor of a roughly $300,000 estate.

A headline in the P-I four years later stated, “Royal Brougham is giving away his fortune.” Rather than graduate to the category of super rich, the already highest paid journalist in Washington State deemed this extra lump sum more useful elsewhere. Brougham established a foundation focused on helping needy students pay for education at church-related schools or colleges. “The Lord and this community have always been mighty good to me,” he said at the time. “I’m just giving the money back to where it came from. I don’t see anything startling about it.”

Brougham’s peers, on the other hand, found the decision bizarre. Emmett Watson, a much celebrated P-I columnist, was present when Brougham declared his intentions for the money. “You are a freak,” Watson jabbed.

 

‘Editor of the paste jars’

 

Brougham’s life was indeed abnormal in many ways – if not freakish. Born September 17, 1894 in St. Louis, he was one of six children in a family shrouded by tragedy. Two of his brothers died very young, and as the new century began his mother grew deathly ill. She died in 1903, several months after the family moved to Seattle in hopes the fresh air would provide a cure for her mystery ailment.

Brougham attended Franklin High in Seattle but by age 16 was ready to enter the work force. Searching the help-wanted ads one weekday morning, he spotted an opening for the unglamorous entry-level position of sports copy boy at the P-I. Not reading far enough to notice the ad’s instruction not to apply until 2 p.m., Brougham sprinted across town to the P-I building and got the job. He dropped out of high school soon after. “He always felt very lucky – very blessed that he was able to land that job,” Soriano said. “He started off, as he used to call it, the editor of the paste jars.”

Late one summer night in 1914, editing paste proved eminently consequential. Brougham and one other co-worker were the only two people left at the P-I offices when a piece of dramatic news came over the wire: European nations had erupted in the First World War. The pair frantically reworked the paper’s cover under the tightest of deadlines.

That display of initiative earned Brougham a raise from $12 to $14 per week. More importantly, his stock skyrocketed in the minds of P-I bosses. Soon thereafter, Brougham’s byline began appearing with increasing regularity. And five years later, he assumed the role of sports editor at age 24. “It was a job that he was in many ways not prepared for,” Soriano said. “It just kind of happened for him.”

Brougham’s lack of official training in the field allowed him to chart his own course. His view of sports editing expanded considerably on the traditional role of managing a staff and cleaning up copy. Brougham was far more interested in making connections. Why should the reporters have all the fun? “He wasn’t that interested in the day-to-day working of the copy desk,” recalls former P-I reporter and editor John Owen, who worked alongside Brougham from 1956 until his death. “He always said, ‘You guys are college graduates. I’m only here on a free pass.’”

 

The inside scoop

 

Somehow Brougham’s “free pass” earned him entry into rarified company. Now treasured as a family heirloom in a Seattle safety deposit box, a personal letter from Babe Ruth once made its way onto Brougham’s desk with no more pomp than any of his other frequent celebrity correspondences. The letter, dated April 27, 1944, offers praise for Brougham’s wartime support efforts – namely a program to send soldiers sports equipment in the interest of bettering morale. The tale-end of the note reads, “Incidentally, I often think of the wonderful times I had in Seattle with you, years ago, when we had that record-breaking crowd at your ballpark one Sunday afternoon. … With old-time regards, I am sincerely yours, Babe Ruth.”

Ruth visited Brougham in Seattle on three occasions, in 1924, 1933 and 1947. In the final meeting, Brougham interviewed a cancer-stricken Ruth from his bed in the Olympic Hotel and broadcast the exchange live to a charity event at Sick’s Stadium, the city’s former professional ballpark.

Brougham’s access to such famed icons endeared him to readers throughout the state. The sizable following that read his everyday columns religiously were served a steady diet of inside scoop. Brougham wrote not as a reporter trying to peer inside but as a bona fide insider willing to tell all. He was as much a celebrity as the stars he called friends.

When a burglar of Brougham’s north Seattle home sought to use a stolen credit card at a downtown store in 1966, the sportswriter’s fame blocked the deal. “You’re not Royal Brougham – not even close,” the clerk charged immediately, calling security. Brougham’s face was widely known due to his 17 years of hosting a Friday night sports talk show on local television. “He was one of the Mr. Bigs in Seattle at the time,” said Bill Sears, a P-I copy aide in the 1950s who went on to several sports publicity jobs in the city. “When he went into a place, they knew Royal Brougham.”

In today’s greater Seattle metropolis of three million, a character like Brougham might get lost in the shuffle. But his combination of unaffected authenticity and aw-shucks resiliency proved perfect for a still budding region. Owen remembers Brougham as “a person you immediately took to because you could see he wasn’t after anything. A lot of people around the country were attracted to him, because he was just so interested in other people.”

 

‘He lived Christianity’

 

Brougham extended his hand of friendship to more than just those who could offer him something in return. He reached beyond the V.I.P. section, beyond a long list of financial donors to his various causes, and all the way into the gutter – literally. A mentally-handicapped homeless man from Queen Anne Hill, a neighborhood bordering the P-I offices, fancied himself a friend of Brougham and occasionally sauntered in for a chat. When not facing an impending deadline, Brougham took time to listen. He did the same for Joe Ryan, a notorious drunk and self-styled mayor of a small Seattle suburb. Brougham informed co-workers that Ryan was free to ride his horse upstairs into the P-I sports department. “He didn’t throw money around, but if he thought it was doing the work of the Lord, he wouldn’t be averse to giving a handout,” Sears remembers. “He was very gentle.”

Sears experienced that softer side first hand in 1958 while at home in bed recovering from testicular cancer surgery. A college student in his early 20s with only a part-time position at the P-I, Sears was shocked to see Brougham come visit him. “He came and sat by my bed for a while and talked to me and said a few prayers for me,” Sears recalls. “I can’t tell you what that did for me. It was incredible.”

Such religious gestures did not go unnoticed in the newsroom. While some shook their heads disapprovingly, others quietly admired. “I’m not a strongly religious person, but he lived Christianity the way I think it should be,” Owen says of his old colleague. “He was always trying to help people and be a good friend.”

   Even Owen, however, can recall moments when he wished Brougham had kept his convictions to himself – especially when the lifetime Sunday school teacher allowed his faith to affect his editorial judgment. When promoted to managing editor of the entire paper in 1925, Brougham refused to run front-page stories on actress Marion Davies due to her very public affair with William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the P-I. Brougham was soon relieved of his new duties and returned to his position as sports editor. “He was really an enigma in many respects,” Sears recalls, “because he was a very religious person working in an office where he was the only religious person.”

 

Chitter chatter

 

No one complained over the impact of Brougham’s faith on his writing or reporting. He rarely moralized or quoted the Bible in his columns, content not to hold others to his personal standard. The effects on his work were more subtle while also more comprehensive. Brougham cared more about the people of sports than the games.

In a 1938 column eulogizing Jigoro Kano, president of the Japan Amateur Athletic Union, Brougham wrote:

 

Nothing has contributed half so much to better understanding and friendly relations among men of different race and tongue as athletics. Tony and Georges and Fritz sweat and strive and strain in friendly rivalry, and their hates and prejudices disappear in a manner that would startle the garrulous delegates to the Hague peace conference. All the world respects a fellow who can run the century in 9.5; or who can stroke a world’s championship rowing crew or swim the 100 in 52 flat, whether he be black, brown or white, eats his meat with chopsticks, fork or fingers or worships God, Mohammed or the Sun.

 

While far from the most gifted or literary writer of his era, Brougham worked hard to serve his readers over himself. Rather than flowing prose, his columns typically consisted of several short news items or personal reflections interspersed with what he termed “chitter chatter” – clever or mindless observations, one-liners and even poems. Memorializing the famous Seattle Hydroplane Slo-mo-shun IV, Brougham wrote, “What’s that distant sound we hear from the lake in the dead of night? And now we catch it, low but clear, like a thunderbolt in flight. The rumble’s growing louder, men, it’s the old familiar roar. The phantom hydro rides again, the ghost of Slo-mo IV.”

Spinning words that might never survive most editors’ chopping blocks, Brougham found his niche. “He wrote a good column,” Sears said. “He wasn’t going to win any awards for it, but he wrote a column that was readable. He just said it like it was.”

Brougham was more than capable of serious sports journalism as well. He covered several heavyweight championship fights, including the Max Baer vs. James Braddock bout recently portrayed in Ron Howard’s critically-acclaimed film Cinderella Man. In 1936, Brougham became the first P-I reporter to cover the Olympic Games, boldly approaching the suite of Adolf Hitler for an interview only to be turned away. Unbeknownst to Brougham until his return home, the stories he filed from Berlin fell victim to a newspaper strike and never made it to print. For Brougham, that hardly diminished the experience. “He didn’t write just because he was paid to,” Owen said. “He loved it.”

 

Shine on Harvest Moon

 

Brougham had a way of sticking to things he loved. He loved the P-I and never spoke of leaving in 68 years. He loved his wife Alice, showing unwavering commitment over a 50-year marriage that included great difficulty. The couple met at Dunlop Baptist Church, where Brougham taught Sunday school to a group of high school students for his entire adult life. Brougham married Alice Victoria in 1915. Some 30 years later, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body for the final two decades of her life. She died a loved woman in 1965 at age 72.

The Broughams had only one child, also Alice, who grew up to marry Dewey Soriano, the president of baseball’s Pacific Coast League and later of Seattle’s first Major League team, the Pilots. Brougham and his daughter were close to the end, dying just eight months apart. The celebrity dad sought to pass on his passion for sports, often using his position to score free tickets or get his family V.I.P. access. He pulled young Alice out of school each year for trips to spring training in San Bernardino, Calif. When Brougham’s grandchildren arrived, he extended a similar invitation into his behind-the-scenes world. “Being Royal Brougham’s granddaughter was an entrance into all sorts of experiences that you wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Cathi Soriano said.

More than merely a good connection, Soriano remembers Brougham as a playful man even into his eighties. She recalls fondly a drive with Grandpa out to Mom’s house not long before he died. Brougham expressed pride in his granddaughter’s recent acceptance to the University of Washington and the two broke into song, “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

Brougham loved to tease the girls in his family as well. At age 12, Soriano accompanied him on a trip to Westport, a small fishing town on the Pacific. Brougham was slated to deliver a high school graduation speech and attend a celebratory dinner. In an elevator ride, the consummate kidder informed an older couple that his granddaughter had traveled with him to find a boyfriend. “When you’re 12, you want to die,” Soriano remembers. “I’m still embarrassed by it.”

 

‘What’s the score?’

 

The longevity of Brougham’s good-natured personality was matched by his work ethic – not that he ever considered his job work. After stepping down from a 48-year run as an editor to become a full-time columnist in 1968, he wrote, “It has been a vacation with pay. A free-loader for half a century. What a ride.”

Over the next decade, Brougham’s lucidity slowly began to fade. On his last road trip for the P-I to the 1978 Rose Bowl, he watched his beloved Huskies beat Michigan 27-20 but was forced to lionize the game on a much tighter deadline than the other reporters in attendance. Aiming to head back to the team hotel to write his story, Brougham mistakenly boarded the Michigan team bus. He wondered why the players around him looked so glum after their glorious victory, discovering his guffaw only when arriving at the wrong hotel all the way across town. Two airport shuttle buses and a cab ride later, he arrived at his original destination late that evening.

Such incidents caused some at the P-I to wonder whether Brougham should continue. “A lot of people thought he should retire when he got older because he was forgetting things and his copy looked sort of messed up when it got to the copy desk,” Owen remembers. “But he said, ‘I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to play golf. All I want to do is be a sports writer.’ So that’s what he was.”

Standing in the Kingdome press box one fall Sunday in 1978, watching the Seahawks threaten to upset the powerful Denver Broncos, Brougham collapsed on the job. As the frail 84-year-old was lifted onto a stretcher, he assigned Owen to pass along regrets to a friend he’d planned to share dinner with after the game. Moments later, the accomplished wordsmith uttered his final refrain. Tugging at the pant leg of a Kingdome elevator operator as they hurdled toward a waiting ambulance below, Brougham asked the one question to which every sportswriter must know the answer: “What’s the score?”

He died in the hospital that night at 1:05 a.m. The final score: Denver 20, Seattle 17.

 

Seattle royalty

 

Brougham’s legacy still echoes throughout the Northwest and well beyond. The Royal Brougham Foundation, now governed by Seattle-area-based Christa Ministries, holds roughly a million dollars in grant money and continues its longstanding mission of helping needy students around the world.

Initially focused on local campaigns, such as purchasing buses for the Green Hill Academy boys’ school, the foundation broadened its scope to global efforts in 1974. In Zaire covering a much-ballyhooed fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Owen encountered an African teenager with a dream. In English, the young man detailed his desire to attend medical school, pleading with the rich American sportswriter for financial aid. Owen scribbled down a name and address on a scrap of paper, and upon arriving back in the states, handed it over to Brougham. Several years later, Owen received a thank-you letter from a practicing doctor in Africa.

The ripple effect of Brougham’s many philanthropic and charitable exploits extended from individuals to entire communities. He freely gave both money and time, raising more than $150,000 for the wartime servicemen’s fund while also serving as an advocate for American-born Japanese during World War II. He helped remove a “whites only” clause from the American Bowling Congress bylaws. He crusaded for better high school sports facilities and improved parks throughout the city. He brought Little League baseball to Seattle. At a banquet honoring Brougham just 10 days before his death, Seattle mayor Charles Royer proclaimed it “Royal Brougham Appreciation Day.”

South Royal Brougham Way and Royal Brougham Pavilion, the basketball complex of Seattle Pacific University, serve as more lasting tributes. Brougham is the only famed Seattle sporting figure with two prominent public namesakes. Local baseball great Fred Hutchinson, who went on to become an all-star for the Detroit Tigers, and legendary University of Washington football coach Don James, who compiled a record of 146-57-2 over 18 seasons, each have only one.

Today, visitors of the SPU gymnasium wonder whether the building earned its name from some past coronation of royalty. They are not far off. Brougham was and remains Seattle royalty – at least in the minds of those old enough to remember. “For most people, he was the only sports writer they really knew.” Sears recalls. “He was a hero of mine.”

Despite enjoying unparalleled social status in the city, Brougham maintained an accessibility and rapport with the common citizen. During an extended hospital stay after a nasty fall in 1976, he affixed a sign to a pillow on his bed: “Wake me up – I can sleep anytime.” Evangelist Billy Graham was among those to accept that invitation, visiting Brougham twice while in Seattle to christen the newly constructed Kingdome. “They had a lot in common,” Owen said of Graham and Brougham.

Graham’s repeat visits, however, did not assuage Brougham’s itch to attend his hero’s crusade in a stadium the sportswriter’s public support helped build. Defying doctor’s orders, Brougham arranged for his son-in-law to sneak him out of Swedish Medical Center and back before anyone could notice. Nurses were shocked the next morning to see a front-page P-I photo of Graham greeting a wheelchair-bound Brougham before a crowd of 61,000. Those who knew him well expected nothing less. “He made himself the go-to guy in Seattle,” Soriano said. “He loved being the go-to guy. And sports was the avenue that took him there.”

 

REFERENCES

 

Brougham, Royal, “A Disappointed Old Man Dies: War Spoiled His Athletic Dreams,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 1938, reprinted at (http://www.bstkd.com/KANOPI.htm)

Brougham, Royal, “The Slo-mo’s Days Are O’er,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1956, reprinted at (http://www.thunderboats.org/art_slomos_daysover.shtml)

Flom, Eric L., “Brougham, Royal (1894-1978),” HistoryLink.org, Aug. 22, 2005, (http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=7395)

Raley, Dan, “The Life and Times of Royal Brougham,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 29, 2003, (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/othersports/145946_royal29.html)

Raley, Dan, “Seven decades of antics, jokes and getting lost,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 29, 2003, (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/othersports/145933_royalside.html)

Post-Intelligencer staff, “Royal Brougham’s 68 years at the P-I left mark on the NW,” seattlepi.com, retrieved Aug. 5, 2005, (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/facts/piroyal.shtml)


ORIGINAL INTERVIEWS

Bill Sears, Seattle Post-Intelligencer copy aide in 1950s (interviewed July 2005)

Cathi Soriano, Royal Brougham’s granddaughter and Seattle resident (interviewed July 2005)

John Owen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer employee 1956-1980, sports editor 1968-1980 (interviewed July 2005)