I met Jim O’Brien and his wife, Kathie in 2015 when I interviewed them for a local magazine. Jim is a local legend in the Pittsburgh area… a respected writer, family man, and all around “good guy.” Since our interview, Jim has showed no signs of slowing down. He has written three more books in addition to contributing articles to local publications, teaching and making public appearances.
He has a new book called Franco, Rocky & Friends – It Pays to be a Good Guy. Jim has graciously agreed to a Q&A with me to discuss his work and what it means to be a “good guy.” But first, for those of you not from the Pittsburgh area, here is a little background on Jim.
Jim O’Brien is a best-selling author, sports historian, columnist, writing coach, and public speaker. Photos of Jim with sports legends such as Muhammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio line the walls of his home office.
Born in Glenwood, a close-knit Pittsburgh community of mill and railroad workers and their families, Jim organized neighborhood sports teams; he kept score and started writing about the games. He posted the stories on his front door, so everyone could read them. Thirteen year old Jim slipped a copy of an article under the door of the Hazelwood Envoy and they printed it. By 14, Jim had his own by-line. Unaware of his age, the Hazelwood Envoy offered him the job of sports editor for the bi-weekly publication.
Jim parlayed this opportunity into a sports writing career that has spanned decades. Starting at the University of Pittsburgh, He became the first non-senior to be named the sports editor of The Pitt News. Beano Cook, the sports publicist for the University of Pittsburgh, assigned Jim the task of writing features about Pitt athletes for their local newspapers. Together they started Pittsburgh Weekly Sports publishing forty issues a year for four and a half years.
Jim went to work for the Miami News in Florida. After a year in Miami, Jim spent nine years in New York covering hockey and basketball for The New York Post.
Next, Jim covered the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Press. In 1984 he became the assistant athletic director for public relations at the University of Pittsburgh. He has taught classes on sports history at Point Park University, Robert Morris University and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.
Jim has written for The Sporting News, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Miami News, The New York Post, The Pittsburgh Press, Sports Magazine, Newsweek, Basketball Times, The Football News, and the Washington Post. Jim was also the editor for Street & Smith’s Basketball magazine. Locally, he still writes a column for The Valley Mirror in Steel Valley, and for eighteen years he wrote a weekly column for The Almanac in the South Hills. For the past two years, He has also been a regular contributor to This Awful Awesome Life.
Jim has co-authored three books and written twenty-six books about Pittsburgh sports and his family since 1980.
1. When did you first know you wanted to become a writer and why did you focus on sports?
I was Christmas shopping with my mother, Mary O'Brien, one day in 1950 when I was eight years old and I asked her to buy me a toy printing press. I wrote stories about the games we played on our street and posted them on my front door for the kids to read. I helped my brother Dan deliver the morning newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I read the sports section. The writers traveled with the teams to distant places and had opportunities to have the best seat in house for all kinds of major sports and it sounded like a nice way to make a living. I became the sports editor of The Hazelwood Envoy in my hometown and filled nearly two pages every two weeks. I was paid $5 per issue.
2. What sports did you play growing up?
I played all sports as a kid. I organized the games and our own leagues and prepared the fields for us to play, and swept snow away so we could play basketball. We had a Sunnyside A.C., named for the street where we lived, and I even coordinated a track & field team. We played softball, baseball, football, basketball and track & field. I gave out trophies I purchased at Murphy's 5&10. I was the captain of our CYO basketball team. I was just a fair ballplayer, but I was always there, and I never dreamed of being a pro in any sport. I wanted to be a writer.
3. You met and married your wife, Kathie here in Pittsburgh. How hard was it to leave the area and your families to work in Miami? After nine years in New York, what made you return to Pittsburgh?
My friends came up with all kinds of propositions as to why I should stay in Pittsburgh. My wife, Kathie, said it was time to go. I had published and edited a newspaper called Pittsburgh Weekly Sports with Beano Cook. He went to New York and I went to Miami to cover the Miami Dolphins in the final season of the American Football League. We paid all our debts before we left town.
4. Tell us about your family.
My proudest accomplishment is my marriage to Kathie (54 years) and our children, Sarah and Rebecca. Both are highly successful in their respective careers. I always stressed communication skills (reading, writing and speaking) and not sports. Sarah is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist and travels all over the world talking about procedures to help kids with blood disorders. She works at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus and is an associate professor at Ohio State University Medical School. Rebecca is a director of talent for Mendocino Farms Gourmet Sandwiches and trains managers for their outlets in California and Texas.
5. You took a huge financial risk becoming a full-time author. What made you so confident that there was a market for non-fiction sports books?
I just decided I wanted to control my own destiny and I have always been confident of my ability to promote and sell things. Kathie made my decision possible by going to work as a medical social worker at Allegheny General Hospital where she remained for 17 years before retiring. It worked out well for both of us.
6. How did you choose the the subject of your first book?
Pittsburgh: The Story of the City of Champions was an easy choice because the city was reveling in the success of the Steelers, Pirates and other sports entities.
7. How do you decide the topics for your books and who to profile?
Like Indiana Jones, I just made it up as I went along. It was a "feel" thing, what appealed to me as a subject, and what I could sell.
8. Although you pay meticulous attention to team and individual stats in your books, you always find something unique and personal about each athlete. How are you able to break through the public persona?
I swap stories with my subjects. I tell them a story and they tell me a story. It's more like a conversation than an interview. Joe Gordon, who was the public relations director for the Steelers, said it was unreal the kind of stories I was able to get from those guys. It is my strongest asset. I want to tell people stories they have not heard before. People tell me they feel like they are with me, sitting around swapping stories.
9. What inspired you to write your latest book, Franco, Rocky & Friends – It Pays to be a Good Guy?
I had some personal experiences with Franco and Rocky and some of their teammates that inspired me to do the book about them being good guys and setting the bar for others to emulate.
10. How do you measure what it means to be a “good guy” and why do you think Pittsburgh has attracted so many high caliber athletes who are also “good guys?”
A friend of mine, Tony Accamando, who does so much to help veterans, and another friend, Pat Santelli, told me they wanted to spend more time in the company of good guys. It was important, at this stage in our lives, to seek and enjoy the company of good guys. I always liked writing about good guys and tended to ignore the jerks. I couldn't learn anything from the latter.
11. Without naming names, have you ever removed an athlete from a work in progress or declined to interview someone based on their beliefs and behavior?
Yes, I have, without getting into specific names.
12. Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier are both featured in several of your books. Though both men played several years ago, why do you think their fans still hold them in such high esteem?
Franco and Rocky continue to contribute to our community in so many ways and they are for real, genuinely good guys who remain popular with people. (Don’t miss Jim’s story about Rocky Bleier in this issue).
13. Do you think an athlete should be a role model?
I think kids have to be careful whom they choose as a role model in sports. Many provide a good example of how to conduct themselves. Sadly, too many today do not. Parents should provide the best models.
14. Who will be the next generation of Pittsburgh “good guys?”
I am not sure, but there will be some. I am always optimistic.
15. After a 50+ year career, why do you keep working?
I am not working, that's why. My kids tell me I have never had "a real job." Writing is always easy for me and I try to accomplish positive thinking with my stories. It keeps me vital. I actually believe writing has become easier for me, and Bill Hillgrove, the great broadcaster for the Steelers and Pitt, tells people I am always working. It beats loafing. I am still a salesman.
16. What’s next for Jim O’Brien? Have you ever considered writing fiction or possibly a children’s book about sports?
I read fiction and non-fiction, but I have never attempted to write fiction or poetry. I do what I do best. I am still excited about what I'm writing. If I stay healthy, I hope to keep writing and to help others, young and old, to write and express their thoughts. I am able to help people to write easier.
17. Where can our readers find your books?
Because bookstores are no longer in our malls, I am selling my books directly. If you Google Pittsburgh sports author Jim O'Brien, you will find books by Jim O'Brien. I am the only Jim O'Brien in the Pittsburgh phone book. I usually have books in my car trunk and will sell them on the spot to anyone seeking a good book on sports and on life.
18. Do you have any personal appearances or programs planned for June, July or August? Are you teaching any memoir classes this year?
I will be teaching a course on Pittsburgh sports history in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Pitt in October-November for the sixth year, and I help kids with their communication skills in the Open Door Program at the Presbyterian Church in Crafton, and at the Peters Township Library near my home. I learn how to write better stories from my interaction with my students.
19. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your new book?
A friend of mine, Don Carlucci of Carlucci Construction in Cheswick, Pa. buys my books for Christmas gifts for his clients and business associates and says I am one of "Pittsburgh's best-kept secrets." I write good books and I'm told I'm easy to read. I handle every aspect of producing my books, from cover to cover, and I like to put pictures where they are most appropriate to telling the stories.
20. Any parting thoughts for our readers?
I live in the right city to write and publish the kind of books I provide. I have had all my books printed in Pittsburgh, first by Geyer Printing and now at RR Donnelley Printing, where they take pride in printing books like mine that promote our city and its athletic prowess in so many ways.
Be sure to visit Jim’s website, www.jimobriensportsauthor.com, for more information and to purchase copies of his books. Don’t miss Jim’s articles in this month’s issue of This Awful Awesome Life and be sure to search our previous and future issues for more of Jim’s articles.
All photos courtesy of Jim O’Brien:
Family collage: Jim and Kathie; Rebecca, Kathie and Sarah; Sarah with daughters, Susannah and Margaret; Margaret and Susannah with their Grandmother, Kathie; Sarah’s twins, Madeline and Jeffrey.
Next collage: Jim with Muhammad Ali and Jim with Dr. J.
The book cover for Jim’s new book
Images of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier
Jim O’Brien flanked by former Pirates pitchers Bob Friend and El Roy Face at the wall that remains of Forbes Field.
Jim with Mel Blount at Steelers' golf outing (Photo by Jerry Morrow)
Dick Black of Mt. Lebanon High School, Bill Shay of CCAC, Jerry Conboy of South Catholic, and Jim O'Brien, editor of Street & Smith's Basketball at their induction into the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Hall of Fame
Jim with Upper St. Clair’s Sean Lee, a Penn State star who is now a Dallas Cowboys linebacker (Photo taken at Cowboys' camp in Oxnard California by Jack Sega).
Jim and Kathie at PNC Park
Kathie and Jim on the Danube River on Viking River Cruise of Europe in mid-July 2015.
Jim and Kathie