Over A Year Later, We Still Miss Ralph Wiley

By Tony McClean
Updated: June 30, 2005

Ralph WileyRalph Wiley

Ralph Wiley

NEW HAVEN, Ct. – When the NBA Finals ended a few days ago, I caught myself feeling a little sad. Not because I picked the Pistons to win in seven games, but I realized that it’s been a little over a year since one of the true pioneers in our industry was taken from us.

Just before the start of Game 4 of the 2004 Finals, a fatal heart attack silenced a voice that had been a constant throughout my adult and professional life. It was still unfathomable to realize that Ralph Wiley had passed away.

The former Sports Illustrated writer and ESPN.com columnist left us way too soon on June 13 at the age of 52. Speaking for the majority of us African-American sportswriters and reporters, we still miss him.

We miss his candor, his wit, his intelligence, and we miss his genuine humanity. I never personally met Mr. Wiley, but I feel like I’ve known him all my life. He and men like Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith, and others will never know just how they helped inspire a generation of writers and reporters like myself.

I was first introduced to Mr. Wiley during the early 80’s while I was in college. I was lucky enough to be a part of a weekly sports talk show at the time. This was a long time before the Internet, Ipods, and when SportCenter was still watchable.

The Oakland A’s had just hired Billy Martin as their manager and their aggressive style was all the rage in baseball at the time. Leave it to the talented Mr. Wiley to come up with the appropriate phrase to describe that team. It was simple and but pure Wiley, who was working at the Oakland Tribune. He called it “Billy Ball”.

The A’s would later use the phrase as a marketing tool to sell tickets, but it was Wiley who was the originator of the phrase. Not go get into a pseudo Little Richard rant here, but Ralph Wiley was an originator and an innovator that we all craved to be.

Here was a fellow who could wax poetic about Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. all in the same breath. When his book “Why Black People Tend To Shout” was released in 1991, it served as a call to arms and a challenge for all African Americans long before Bill Cosby’s rants of last year.

While I admit my bias toward Mr. Wiley’s writing, I do believe that his book is one of the most important and most influential books on the Black experience in the 20th Century. I put it on the same scale as Alex Haley’s “Roots” and W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Soul Of Black Folks”.

When I think of Mr. Wiley’s contributions to his craft, I’m reminded a line the late Ozzie Davis used when eulogizing Malcolm X at the time of his assassination.

He (Davis) stated that “In honoring him (Malcolm), we honor the best in ourselves”. In my mind, those same sentiments can be said about Ralph Wiley.

It’s safe to say that Mr. Wiley and the great black writers before him laid the groundwork for us and helped pave the way for a website like the one you’re now reading. If I could speak to them I would say, “I can only hope to walk in the same footsteps that you put out for all of us”.

“While we think and refer to you often in good times and bad, us mere mortals down here on planet earth still miss your presence and influence”.

“Thanks for everything”.