Another National Writing Award for Altadena’s Plaschke

Flip open the sports page of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Plaschke is usually there to greet readers with thought-provoking commentary about a local team or player. He’s lived in that space for the past 20 years as a columnist, constructing opinionated narratives that speak to the city’s fan bases with poignancy. Earlier this month, the Altadena resident took first place in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors contest for column writing in newspapers with circulations of more than 175,000. It was Plaschke’s sixth time receiving the national honor.
“It’s a real tribute to our sports section, that they’ve given me the space and the ideas and the inspiration to do this,” said Plaschke, who first joined the Times as a reporter in 1987. “We have the best sports section in the country. With all of the internet and all the websites and all the noise out there, we’ve become even more credible than ever. Our sports section has gotten even stronger than ever and I’m really proud. It’s just a reflection of the sports section because they let me do my job.”
Prior to the contest, Plaschke submitted a collection of what he thought were his best columns to Times sports editor Angel Rodriguez, his two deputy editors and an assistant. Together, they narrowed the list down to five, showcasing Plaschke’s versatility.
There was the feature column about John Shoemaker, a longtime minor-league manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization. A news column excoriating the relationship between reality TV star Khloe Kardashian and former Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Lamar Odom as he fought for his life following a drug overdose also made the list. As did a game column expressing concern about Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour during an abysmal season for the Lakers.
But Plaschke’s favorite column was one that directly affected change in the community. Last April, he brought to light the plight of John Muir High School’s baseball program in Pasadena, linking the Mustangs’ struggle to remain competitive with the dilapidated state of their field. This wasn’t just any high school, though. Muir is the alma mater of Jackie Robinson, a sports icon credited with breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Dodgers in 1947. As a result of Plaschke’s column, that same Dodgers franchise pledged thousands of dollars to refurbish Muir’s baseball diamond.
“I was really fortunate to be in that position, to be able to tell that story,” Plaschke said. “That was a neighborhood story that people pass every day on their way to work and nobody knows it’s there. I love telling those kinds of stories.”
After the Times’ editorial staff entered the five Plaschke columns into a pool of 47 for consideration, APSE contest chair Tommy Deas numbered them all, making sure they had been stripped of headlines, bylines, graphics and any other elements that would identify the columnist or news outlet. Preliminary judges then selected the top 10 and ranked each of them based on style, writing quality, originality and local appeal. First-place entries earned 10 points, second-place entries earned nine points and so on down to one point for a 10th-place vote. This process was repeated with a second judging group.
Plaschke garnered 46 points and two first-place votes in the final balloting to edge runner-up David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News (42 points, one first-place vote). Juliet Macur of the New York Times came in third with 39 points.
“Everyone reads Bill’s work and knows how well he tells stories and how he drives the conversation on our local teams, but I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know him and to see how great he is as person,” said Rodriguez in an email to The Outlook. “He goes out of the way to welcome and encourage our interns, for example. He is the best ambassador the L.A. Times sports department can have.”
Plaschke, who has also authored five books, likens his style to sitting around a campfire with friends or across from someone at dinner.
What would your buddy want to hear?
That’s the question he always asks himself when diving into a column.
“Just spinning yarn, that’s all I’m trying to do,” Plaschke explained in his Kentucky twang. “I write like I talk. I gesture on paper, inflection, all kinds of stuff, pretty much what you would do with words. I’m trying to have a conversation with Los Angeles and that kind of drives everything. … Every column I do, I try to either make them laugh or cry or think or get mad — one of those four things, usually.”

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