TAMPA — Tom McEwen, the wise-cracking, dealmaking former sports editor and columnist for the Tampa Tribune, who shaped the landscape of sports in the Tampa Bay area in a way no one else could, died at 3 a.m. Sunday at home. He was 88.
Mr. McEwen had struggled with cancer and other recent health problems that resulted in the amputation of a leg and loss of sight in an eye.
He will be remembered as a legendary sportswriter, a 19-time Florida Sportswriter of the Year and member of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame — but perhaps even more so as a maestro of human relations whose old-time political skills greased the tracks for professional football, soccer and hockey teams coming to the area, as well as the New York Yankees' spring training facility.
"What made him stand apart was that at the height of his profession, at the top of his game, he was also the top community advocate there was for trying to bring sports and grow sports in the Tampa Bay area," said Rich McKay, former general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and president of the Atlanta Falcons. "And that's unusual. Tom used his pulpit to really advocate for the community, and he had a great impact."
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great Lee Roy Selmon called Mr. McEwen a longtime friend and supporter who caused him and many other former players to move to Tampa and stay. "His legacy reaches out to so many people, from the community to the state of Florida and across the nation," Selmon said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn released a statement eulogizing "our friend and legendary sportswriter Tom McEwen. He chronicled our sports world and shaped our city's history."
The evidence of his influence lies everywhere, from a press box at the St. Pete Times Forum and a road named after him near Raymond James Stadium to scholarships in his name at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.
He built his accomplishments on relationships.
"Tom was always there for us," said Leonard Levy, one of a group of Tampa businessmen in the early 1970s to lobby the NFL for a pro football franchise. "If we had a difficult time, Tom would always get that door opened for us."
Mr. McEwen, for his part, championed the idea in his daily "The Morning After" columns, worked the phones to line up a coach and financiers, and accompanied the business group to New York.
"We wouldn't have gotten it done if it hadn't been for Tom McEwen," Levy said.
The Tribune's sports editor since 1962, when he took over a department with a staff of seven, he stepped down in 1992 as overseer of 57 staffers. He continued to write a column for the newspaper and to respond to letters in his Sunday "Hey, Tom!" feature.
He worked just as hard at civic causes related to sports, and pressed Tampa to build more baseball fields and swimming pools for young people.
"He made sports fans out of us. We initially were not a sports community, but he made us into one," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, who sat on the board when Legends Field, Raymond James Stadium and the St. Pete Times Forum were built.
"He was the cheerleader for all of them," Platt said. "He would write about them and be on TV speaking about them. And he would be at the events."
Before becoming sports editor of the now-defunct Tampa Times in 1958, Mr. McEwen was a sportswriter at the St. Petersburg Times for four years. He was a former sports editor of the Fort Myers News-Press.
He soon saw the city of Tampa as an untapped field of dreams.
"I won't forget driving that road at the old Cass Street Bridge," Mr. McEwen said in a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "Looking to my right and seeing the old (University of Tampa) Phillips Field. Looking to my left and seeing Plant Field. And saying, 'We need to make this place grow."
Thomas Massey McEwen grew up in Wauchula, part of a pioneer family. As a child, he wanted to be an engineer.
"They tell me I wanted to be known for building a bridge from New York to Paris," Mr. McEwen said. "So I guess I have been a dreamer and a thinker all my life."
At 18, he was serving with the Army in the Philippines during World War II, where he became a second lieutenant in charge of 2,000 Japanese prisoners. He remained in the Philippines for six years, also working as an investigator for the Veterans Administration.
"As a young man it probably shaped him," said Tampa businessman Frank Morsani of the prison camp experience. "He had to take a lot of responsibility for his actions."
He graduated from the University of Florida school of journalism, and remained loyal to the Gators throughout his life.
One of the more complex tasks he would undertake involved the effort to land a professional football team in Tampa. Getting the NFL's support meant staging three pro football exhibition games in Tampa, the first of which was held at Phillips Field between the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Colts. The game sold out. Two subsequent games at Tampa Stadium also sold well, and the potential market for football in the Tampa Bay area was set.
He was there when the Tampa Bay Lightning got its name.
Lightning founder "Phil Esposito called me to talk about the team," Mr. McEwen said. "We were walking out of the Tampa Tribune and lightning struck. We said, 'That's the name!' "
He continued to write a column for the Tribune after stepping down as sports editor, and wrote his last column for the paper in 2001.
In 2001, he took a visitor to his Davis Islands home on a tour, pointing to wall after wall of a career's proximity to greatness: framed photos of himself with Johnny Unitas, Bear Bryant, Jesse Owens and other sports superstars.
At times, his work to promote causes he was writing about and friendships with politicians and business leaders triggered criticisms of crossing an ethical line between journalists and sources.
"I've had critics of my style and I do understand their criticism," Mr. McEwen once said. "At the same time, I'm me, not them. I have done it my way."
In 1992, his wife's travel agency landed a contract to handle to the Lightning's travel arrangements. No one accused Mr. McEwen of profiting from his influence, but the relationship raised eyebrows.
"You've got to understand, it was a different era," said Skip Perez, a one-time Tribune stringer mentored by Mr. McEwen who recently retired as executive editor of the Ledger of Lakeland. "That could never happen today in this environment, and it's probably a good thing that it couldn't happen."
But arm's-length relationships were not his style. Recently, Mr. McEwen was asked to describe his proudest accomplishment.
"To have made contributions to this wonderful place in which we live," he replied. "A let's-do-it attitude. Let's try it anyway. Let's try to get it done."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this report, which also used information from Times files. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.