Remembering Joe Distelheim, a Hardball Times Mainstay

Baseball lost several legends in 2020, and our little corner of the baseball world was not spared. Joe Distelheim, a long-time editor and writer at The Hardball Times, passed away on December 30 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He was 78 years old. News of his passing only recently reached those of us who worked with him at THT.

Joe left an indelible mark on The Hardball Times during his extensive tenure there. Indeed, his tenure may have been the longest of anyone associated with the site: records going back that far are sketchy, but he worked for THT from 2007 to 2020. He advised, developed, and coached numerous writers and editors, improving their work by drawing on his wealth of knowledge and experience, experience that started well before he joined THT’s ranks.

A Chicago native, Joe followed an educational path to Northern Illinois University, the University of Delaware, and Stanford before embarking on a 38-year journalism career that included jobs in Delaware, North Carolina, Michigan, and Alabama. The Detroit Free Press, Charlotte Observer, and Anniston (Ala.) Star paid tribute to Joe upon his passing, all citing his influence on his colleagues as they began and made their way through their careers.

Joe advocated accuracy, battled bigotry, and cared about the communities in which he lived. Perhaps his most impressive career achievement was the 1981 Pulitzer Prize his staff at the Charlotte Observer received for a series on brown lung disease in the textile mills of North Carolina. In addition, while at the Detroit Free Press Joe hired Mitch Albom, one of the more notable American writers of the last few decades. He definitely had an eye for talent.

But Joe didn’t just hire good writers; he cultivated them. He once told Peter St. Onge, “I don’t want you to tell people what you think. I want you to write about what things mean.” That’s certainly a lesson many of today’s talking heads would do well to learn. And Joe was a stickler for details. Every few months, his fellow THT editors would receive an email reminding us to, among other writing faux pas he had noticed creeping into some posts, spell out zero through nine.

Upon retirement from full-time journalism in 2005, Joe did anything but slow down. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today with Joe Hoppel, which was read by scores of baseball fans. And not long after that, he joined The Hardball Times, contributing his extensive skills to a site devoted to his favorite pastime, baseball.

Dave Studeman, the first person hired by THT co-founders Aaron Gleeman and Matthew Namee, had this to say about Joe.

“We took a lot of pride at THT for the extra editing we did on every post, but we couldn’t believe our luck when an actual real-life journalist wanted to help us during his retirement. Joe immediately upped our editing game, and the entire process started going a lot more smoothly. Plus, it was obvious in his emails that he was a great, level-headed guy who never panicked and just seemed to enjoy what he did.”

“Joe did more than just edit copy. He was also a big baseball fan (and a passionate Cubs fan) who brought valuable, real opinions and guidance about content, the quality of writing and just the general direction of THT. We tried all sorts of things in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, and he contributed so much behind the scenes. He was also a huge help with The Hardball Times Annual, which was a major undertaking every autumn. I can’t imagine producing it without his tireless help. Joe was truly one of the unsung heroes of THT’s success.”

Joe’s long-time association with THT ended when the site went on hiatus. Fittingly, he wrote the final article for the site before it shut down.

For the last several years, the THT editorial team consisted of Joe, Jason Linden, Dustin Nosler, and myself, ably guided and supported by several managing editors who have gone on to bigger things. As Studes mentioned above, Joe was a devoted Cubs fan, while Jason supports the Reds, and I’ve been a Cardinals fan my entire life.

Despite having allegiances to three different teams in the same division and having some light-hearted fun with each other because of that, the 2016 season will always stand out for all three of us. Joe was able to attend one of the World Series games at Wrigley Field. That certainly was a lifetime dream and an amazing memory for him. As Jason said upon hearing of Joe’s passing, “I’ve never been happier for a Cubs fan than when they won the World Series.” I couldn’t agree more.

Upon his passing, Joe contributed one final piece of writing – his own obituary, which is very much worth spending a few minutes reading. The style is quite obviously Joe’s, factually and grammatically spot on, self-deprecating, and full of love for “his wife of 40 years, Dottie, the finest wife in the history of wives.”

It’s very difficult to sum up a life in just a few paragraphs, but count on Joe to do it so well. His influence on journalism over more than 50 years was significant. His influence on people over his 78 years was immense. On behalf of everyone at The Hardball Times, FanGraphs, and every other area of life he touched, thank you, Joe. You are greatly missed.

Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.

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1 year ago

Respectfully done. Well done