GLENDALE – The door of the modest ranch house opens and there, standing before you, is the dean of Wisconsin sportswriters, his body frail but his mind still as sharp as a Lombardi rebuke.
Merlyn “Bud” Lea has reluctantly consented to an interview. He doesn’t think he’s worth a column. Why would anyone care?
For the first time in decades, his news judgment is off.
Lea, 88, is vitally important to Wisconsin sports history. A sportswriter for more than a half-century, he is one of the last living connections to a golden era – Vince Lombardi’s Packers, Hank Aaron and those great Milwaukee Braves teams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Big O, Al McGuire.
He pounded out thousands of stories on a typewriter – look it up, kids – and his words were devoured the next morning by sports fans who went to work with newspaper ink on their fingers.
“I don’t like social media,” Lea says. “I don’t read all those Twitter things.”
He may be a dinosaur, but if so, he is Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Hired in 1953 by the Sentinel, back when Milwaukee was a two-paper town, Lea was assigned in ’54 to the beat no one else wanted: the struggling pro football team in his hometown of Green Bay. He wound up covering the greatest dynasty in NFL history and getting as close to Lombardi as any writer ever would.
“I’ve got to tell you one thing about Lombardi,” Lea says. “He was brilliant emotionally. You never knew what to expect. Nothing measured up to this guy. He was very difficult to deal with, but I’m glad I did. It toughened me up for dealing with some of these other (coaches and athletes). They give you crap and I would just kind of smile at them. I survived the best, the toughest, you know?”
Lea rummages through a stack of old photos and papers – a mimeographed (!) scoring summary from Super Bowl I, a photo of him alongside Packers legends Don Hutson and Buckets Goldenberg, a 1957 program from the first game at “new” City Stadium (now Lambeau Field), a photo of Johnny Unitas diagramming a play for him on a chalkboard – and produces a Christmas card.
“My apologies for my sometimes bad behavior during the season, and with gratitude for your understanding and friendship to the Packers and to me. Vince.”
Lea’s late wife, Filomena, also worked at the Sentinel and was close to Lombardi’s wife, Marie. Lombardi liked Filomena because she was Italian and a Roman Catholic. The day the NFL suspended Paul Hornung for a year for gambling, Lea tried and failed to reach Lombardi by phone for a comment. It turns out the coach had taken Filomena to lunch.
“The lunch lasted for hours,” Lea says. “He didn’t want to have to answer his damned phone. When I finally got ahold of him, he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re upset about. I took your wife out to lunch.’ ”
Lea succeeded Lloyd Larson as Sentinel sports editor in 1972 and also wrote a column for many years. He retired when the Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal merged in 1995 but continued to write for Packer Plus for 16 more years.
He covered the Ice Bowl. He covered 30 Super Bowls. He pecked at his typewriter on deadline and handed his finished stories to a Western Union man, who sent them to the Sentinel via telegram. At the paper, linotype operators then re-typed his stories, word for word.
“Honest to God,” Lea says, shaking his head at the unwieldy process of producing the paper back then.
Later came the first primitive computers. Lea winces at the memory.
“They were so sensitive,” he says. “I went to the Indy 500 and when the cars went by, my story disappeared. The same thing happened at the University of Wisconsin Field House. Right on deadline a guy came by with a vacuum cleaner and all of a sudden my story disappeared.”
Lea knew sportswriting legends Red Smith and Jim Murray. He hired Jill Lieber when few newspapers had females in their sports departments.
“I called Bud Selig (then the Brewers owner) and told him I was going to bring Jill to a game,” Lea says. “Bud said, ‘Ah, jeez.’ I said, ‘It’s the law, Bud.’ ”
Lea covered the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. The next year, he was in Atlanta when Marquette University won the NCAA basketball title under McGuire. He covered a Muhammad Ali fight. He covered every Packers coach from Lisle Blackbourn to Mike McCarthy.
Though he never “cheap-shotted” anybody, Lea was known to ask tough questions. He even challenged Lombardi on occasion. After the Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 55-14, in 1983, Bucs coach John McKay gave a short, terse statement to the media and started to walk away.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, Coach. Why did your team play so poorly?’ " Lea says. "He turned and glared at me and said, ‘If you ask me one more question, I’m going to punch you right in the nose.’ ”
Later that season, when the Packers played in Tampa, McKay invited Lea out to lunch and apologized.
In 1991, the Packers hired a new general manager named Ron Wolf. Lea flew to Atlanta and interviewed Wolf before a Falcons game, while the players warmed up. Wolf answered Lea’s questions but never took his eyes off the field. Turns out he was there to scout a young quarterback named Brett Favre.
“He never said one word about Brett,” Lea says. “I had no idea. He got back to Green Bay and said, ‘We’re going to trade for this guy.’ Funny thing was, I asked fans going into the stadium, ‘Who’s Ron Wolf?’ Nobody knew who the hell he was.”
The Packers wanted Lea to come up to Lambeau Field when they retired Favre’s number, but he declined. He’s outlived Art Daley and Lee Remmel, his old friends and rivals at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He has some health problems and drives only to the grocery store or to Walgreens to pick up prescriptions.
“I’m 88 years old,” he says, “and I look it and feel it.”
For nearly 60 years, though, most of it before everyone with a smart phone became an expert, Lea’s stories entertained generations of sports fans. He was their eyes and ears. He was their voice.
He had a great career.
“It went fast,” Lea says wistfully.
We’re the richer for it.
You can reach Gary D'Amato at email@example.com or on Twitter @garydamatogolf