The Steamer: Bud Furillo and the Golden Age of L.A. Sports
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For nearly sixty years, Bud Furillo wrote and talked about sports in Southern California. For fifteen of those years, he authored a popular column for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called The Steam Room, which gave him the nickname that lasted him for the rest of his life—”the Steamer.”
As a reporter, columnist, editor, and pioneer of sports talk radio, the Steamer dished out insight and understanding to Southern California sports fans while Los Angeles grew into a sports empire. On his watch, L.A. acquired the Rams from Cleveland, the Dodgers from Brooklyn, and the Lakers from Minneapolis. He covered them all while they won championships for the city. It was the same with USC football, UCLA basketball, the horse races, and boxing matches—champions flourished, and the Steamer chronicled it all. He helped shape the Los Angeles sports scene as it achieved world-class status. Furillo brokered trades, saved coaches’ jobs, helped show others to the door, tweaked the owners, encouraged and promoted franchise moves, and even worked as a cut man for an L.A. fighter who defended his title in Madrid!
The Steamer reported on the golden age of L.A. sports, writing about events and athletes that have long since seared themselves into the memories of Southern California sports fans, from the greatest generation to its baby-booming offspring. They were the years of Sandy Koufax no-hitters, Elgin Baylor yo-yoing on the dribble, and Sam Cunningham going over the top four times for touchdowns against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
It was the roar of the Olympic Auditorium on Thursday nights, Bill Walton dropping a high lob pass into the hoop for UCLA against Memphis State, and Native Diver winning another stakes race at Hollywood Park. Vin Scully’s voice wafted from foul pole to foul pole on cool and comfortable summer nights, when transistor radios lifted his words into the Chavez Ravine sky—”Russell to Lopes to Garvey: Double play!” On winter evenings, the transistor carried the more rapid-fire style of Chick Hearn, as he described Jerry West driving left to right across the radio dial, stopping on a dime, losing his defender, and rising up and swishing a jump shot to win yet another game at the buzzer.
The Steamer spun his work with whimsy and spiced it with insight. Through his writing, he passed along the insider knowledge he gained from his close relationships with players, coaches, managers, owners, jockeys, trainers, fighters, and celebrities. He earned their trust and they gave him access, which he then turned into brilliant and entertaining columns where he was able to share his own hard-core love of sports and appreciation of athletic greatness with his loyal readers.
During a heated pennant race with the Giants, Koufax broke Bob Feller’s single-season strikeout record on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Dodger Stadium. After the game, in the dugout, Koufax sought a moment of peace to absorb his accomplishment, away from the madness; he invited Furillo to stick around awhile and share it with him.
The Lakers showcased two of the most exciting players in basketball history in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, but L.A. needed Wilt Chamberlain to finally win a title. Along with beating the Knicks for the championship with two bad hands, the barefooted Dipper used them in the kitchen of his home in Trousdale Estates to prepare a shrimp dish for the Steamer.
Furillo regularly joined John McKay and other writers at a bar across the street from the USC campus in the years when the coach revived the Trojans’ football dynasty. The revered John Wooden didn’t gather sportswriters around him for drinks like McKay did, but the humble and intense coaching genius did introduce the Steamer to star players like Bill Walton. Furillo took Walton to lunch and reported that there was more to the kid than blocking shots and triggering the fast break, that he thought deeply about the toughest issues of his day, including America’s problem with race relations.
In The Steamer: Bud Furillo and the Golden Age of L.A. Sports, Furillo’s son, Andy, himself a long-time newspaperman, uses his father’s lens to give focus to the city’s rise as a sports empire. The Steamer is a history of a great sports town at its most dynamic, told from the point of view of a streetwise, fun-loving sports fanatic who stood at the center of it all and used his phenomenal access to reveal the inside story of the greatest athletes and teams to ever play in Los Angeles.