The only clue about what to expect in my first real journalism job – an overnight intern in the Bulletin sports department – was a terse note from the sports editor:
“Report to Herm Rogul at 11 p.m. Friday.”
I arrived early. So did Rogul, whose byline, I knew, topped the popular People In Sports column. He was a curious man, in his early 30s then, with a tiny mouth and eyes that rarely looked into yours. He moved awkwardly, the result of childhood polio. And when he spoke, it was a nervous, nasal giggle.
On that first night, visions of handling Phillies and Eagles stories danced in my 20-year-old head. But Rogul told me I first needed to answer a question:
“Who was West Philly’s high scorer in 1957?” he said, smiling slyly.
“Ray Scott,” I replied.
And Herm and I lived happily ever after.
Rogul, in many ways the epitome of the eccentric desk people who populated post-midnight newsrooms, comes to mind a lot these days. He was, essentially, a copy editor, that now endangered species. And in 2017 you won’t find many sportswriters with the time, inclination, or space to concentrate on the little people and little sports he highlighted for 40 years.
By the mid-1990s, when Rogul self-published a book on the business, he was already an anachronism. Winning Sportswriting For Good People Who Really Care was his futile effort to revive an era already as out-of-fashion as his orthopedic shoes.
The locally focused, upbeat micro-stories that he wrote, and which he urged young writers to find, had been replaced by serious reporting, skepticism, and a pro-sports obsession.
Between 1961 and 1982, Rogul, technically a copy editor, carved out his own beat at the Bulletin. He believed, not without good reason, that his colleagues were ignoring worthwhile athletes and sports, especially inner-city basketball.
He never wed or drove. He lived alone near Temple’s campus so he could more easily get to Public League games and monitor the Baker and Sonny Hill Leagues.
Gradually, as newspapering changed, that devotion to amateur, high school, and college athletics hardened into a defensiveness as well as a distaste for the sports he felt obscured them.
“Every year, Cheyney and Textile, I think, played the opener of a Palestra doubleheader,” said Pat McLoone, the managing editor for sports at the Inquirer and Daily News who worked with Rogul. “Herm would sit in the first row. When it was over, he would stand up and walk out before the Big Five game. He was making a point.”
His mission became his life. He spent longer hours at the Bulletin, once apologizing for being 1 ½ hours late on a day he’d been mugged and beaten. Rogul would attend games, make calls, and scour the wires, jotting notes on paper. Then, often before his 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift began, he’d type it all, edit it, and send it to the composing room.
He was no Red Smith and wouldn’t have wanted to be. His People In Sports contained no frills, just dozens of bold-faced names amid straightforward facts. But if you wanted a deeper dive into Philly sports than the papers provided, they were must-reading.
Those newsy columns made up the bulk of what he said were his 6,234 Bulletin bylines. Through them, he lifted up many Philadelphians and acquainted others with an overlooked world.
“I’d ask Herm why he wrote the column,” recalled former Bulletin sportswriter Julius Thompson. “He told me he wanted everybody who participated in sports to have their name in print and have a moment of glory.”
Rogul was born in West Philly in 1940. (“On Osage Avenue before it was famous,” he said, referring to the site of the tragic 1985 MOVE confrontation.) He won a scholarship to Temple, where he edited the school paper’s sports section.
He had a mania for accuracy, a photographic memory – especially about basketball – and, beneath an off-putting façade, an altruistic nature.
“Herm was a champion of minority sports people,” said Frank Bilovsky, another Bulletin alumnus, “providing a service by making the average sports fan aware of folks like Tee Parham, Claude Gross, and John Chaney, long before Chaney became a legend at Temple.”
Donald Hunt, a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Tribune, where Rogul worked following the Bulletin’s 1982 closing, said he “did things out of the kindness of his heart, without asking for anything in return.”
But he could be stubborn and condescending too. He thought stories should be upbeat and uncomplicated. He hated sarcasm, put-downs, anything he considered pretentious, as writers whose copy he edited soon learned.
“An image of Herm editing my copy remains vivid in memory,” said Alan Richman, who covered the 76ers for the Bulletin in the 1970s. “He would hook his entire arm over the top of the page he was editing, so that the hand holding the pencil would drop down from above. It seemed contorted, but Herm’s mind was absolutely clear, his focus total. I would watch for the hand holding the pencil moving vigorously from right to left, left to right, as Herm crossed out my funny lines. Herm was a stickler for accuracy, which was wonderful, but he also hated embellishments, or at least mine.”
Rogul’s unembellished life ended in 2012, when he was 72.
In his book, he had included poetic advice for future sportswriters. Like him, it was corny and out-of-date, but it could have served as the epitaph for both Rogul and the beliefs he never abandoned.
Maybe you lust for riches and fame
Or you dream of covering the big game.
I hope you like people, as you should
And want to write about what makes people feel good.