145-pound Jewish guy enters the football pantheon

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Woody Allen would probably be able to come up with a funny bit about a 5-foot-8, 145-pound Jewish guy being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But it was no joke two months ago when a Bay Area sports columnist received such an honor. Art Spander became the 1999 winner of the Dick McCann Memorial Award for "long and distinguished reporting in the field of professional football."

He is just the 31st person to be honored as a Hall of Fame football writer. Spander participated in a ceremony in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at the same time NFL greats Eric Dickerson, Tom Mack and Lawrence Taylor were inducted as players.

"You might say it's an odometer award," said the diminutive Spander, who lives in the Oakland Hills and is a member of Temple Sinai in downtown Oakland. "They choose one [sports writer] every year for lifetime achievement."

The 61-year-old Spander has been a fixture on local sports pages for more than three decades.

He started at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1965, moved to the S.F. Examiner in 1979 and has been a columnist for the Alameda Newspaper Group, which includes the Oakland Tribune, for the past three years.

Although he said his religion almost never mixes with his profession, Spander has met a number of Jewish athletes and team officials over the years and developed special bonds with them.

For example, former San Francisco 49ers lineman Harris Barton "often talked to me about Judaism. He'd always wish me Happy New Year when I'd see him around Rosh Hashanah."

Spander began writing about football as the Los Angeles Rams beat reporter for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in 1963.

After coming to the Bay Area, he covered the Raiders and the 49ers for the Chronicle before moving to the Examiner and becoming a columnist.

As a young writer for United Press International in Los Angeles, one of his great thrills was getting to cover Hall of Fame Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"He was a big hero of the Jewish community, particularly in L.A.," said Spander, who grew up in Los Angeles and went to UCLA. "Most of my friends I hung out with [as a teenager and young man] were Jewish, and there was such great pride in the Jewish community whenever he pitched."

Spander remembered when Koufax refused to pitch for the Dodgers on the High Holy Days, even though it was during the 1965 World Series.

"It was major, major news," Spander said. "He was such a dominating player, the most dominating pitcher of his time. Everyone had to take notice of his Judaism because of his decision not to pitch on the High Holy Days."

Spander said that while he tries to attend synagogue or be with his family on Jewish holidays, it isn't always possible — especially when the Oakland A's or the San Francisco Giants are in the baseball playoffs and a game falls on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

"My wife says, 'Why do they schedule these games on such important holidays?'" Spander said. "That's the way sports is today. No matter what religion you are, there's going to be a game — there are NBA games and college football games on Christmas Day, and even the Masters [golf tournament] is on Easter."

One year, Spander was away from home on Passover to cover the men's Final Four college basketball tournament in Kansas City, Mo. He ended up participating in a seder at the home of golf legend Tom Watson, whose former wife is Jewish.

"My wife, Liz, conspired with Linda Watson, whose maiden name was Linda Rubin, that I was going to go over to their house for the first night of Passover," Spander said. "So I did."

Spander said he probably should have grown up "more Jewish" than he did. His father, Carl, grew up on the Lower East Side in New York and spoke only Yiddish to his parents, immigrants from Poland and Russia who never learned to speak more than a few words of English.

"My grandma was really Orthodox," Spander said. "I remember going over to her house, and she'd turn on the gas stove on Friday afternoon so she wouldn't have to turn it on during the Sabbath."

Spander said his father fashioned a less religious home "as a little rebellion against his parents, I believe."

Interestingly, the name at the top of Spander's sports columns probably should be "Spinder." His grandfather's last name — at least the name given to him at Ellis Island — was Spinder, but his father's birth certificate read "Spander."

"I guess maybe my grandparents didn't speak good enough English and the doctor couldn't understand them, so he wrote down Spander instead of Spinder."

Spinder, er, Spander has covered every Super Bowl for the past 20 years, and he's been at every Rose Bowl for 46 straight years.

He covers the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the British Open golf tournament every year, in addition to the major U.S. tournaments: the Masters, U.S. Open and the PGA.

In addition to writing for the Oakland Tribune and the other ANG newspapers, Spander is a columnist for two sports Web sites and the American correspondent for the Sunday Herald in Scotland and the London-based Daily Telegraph.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.