When boxing and horse racing defined popular culture in Miami-Dade in the 1950s into the ’70s at hallowed grounds like Gulfstream Race Track, Tropical Park, Hialeah Race Track and the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, the sports writer on those beats was akin to today’s celebrity reporter.
And in this town, Art Grace was the man.
Grace, who died in Tallahassee on April 17 at 88, worked for The Miami News from the early 1950s until its demise in December 1988. Grace was the boxing columnist, the paper’s television critic in the late 1950s, and he spent decades chronicling life at the racetracks for his readers. After the News folded, Grace continued to write feature stories for The Daily Racing Form and The Associated Press until he moved to Tallahassee in 2012.
“He never came into the office,” said Howard Kleinberg, the News’ managing editor. “Legend has it for the three tracks — Tropical, Gulfstream and Hialeah — he’d change his residence to be near each track as its season opened. That’s how Art was.”
Son Brian Grace remembered his father’s work.
“He served the community for all those years with his newspaper columns and he cared about the city and the people in it,” he said. “He was never afraid to voice his opinion even if it was not popular.”
A true sentiment.
As TV critic, in a year when Gunsmoke blazed in the Nielsen Top 10, Grace groused in a Jan. 6, 1958 column about the Orange Bowl Parade telecast.
WTVJ’s colorcast of the Orange Bowl Parade Tuesday night was one long eye-ache. I assume it may have been a rewarding show for those who own color sets, but for the thousands of us who do not, the picture was fuzzy and aggravating. The parade, pre-empting The Phil Silvers Show , drove me to watch George Gobel for the first time in many weeks. I found I hadn’t been missing anything.
Racehorse owners didn’t escape a barbed comment in a Dec. 30, 1987 column on Zonker Harris, a gelding at Hialeah named after a Doonesbury character. Grace, “a zealous fan of the Doonesbury comic strip,” liked the winning horse’s name. After all, he said, Most people who name horses have the imagination of a flea.
Grace could also defend those easy targets who came under attack by readers, as he did in an Oct. 30, 1958 response to reader Max Shapiro who felt Miami Beach and Miami fight judges were “lousy.”
Miami Beach fight judges do indeed have a lousy reputation, but while I disagreed with them many times, I cannot recall a really atrocious, indefensible decision in the Auditorium.
Grace could also offer no-nonsense advise to his kin. “He taught me not to expect pats on the back, congratulations. He taught me to do your job well and to avoid criticism and don’t expect any compliments,” said Brian Grace, who works for the U.S. Postal Service in Miami.
And Grace could be, well, wrong. There was the time, as TV editor, he took on a new offering from comic Red Skelton and temporarily lost his job.
“One of the great TV stories is he panned a Red Skelton opening show. When the managing editor called him into the office, because he had seen the show and liked it, he wanted to know why Art didn’t like it. Art said, ‘I didn’t see the show. I didn’t have a TV. I just knew it would be lousy.’ He was a rough guy to deal with,” said Kleinberg, who was, nonetheless, charmed by Grace.
When Kleinberg became managing editor he brought Grace back to the paper and put him on the horse-racing beat, where he thrived for decades.
Grace was born in Rockland, Maine, and served in the Navy on the USS Boxer during World War II’s closing years, 1944 to 1945. After graduating from the University of Miami in 1952, Grace landed at The Miami News. The paper, competition to the Miami Herald, was originally housed until 1957 on Biscayne Boulevard in the building that would become known as The Freedom Tower in the 1960s when it was used to process Cuban refugees.
“He and I alternated a lot,” Kleinberg said of those earliest years. “He covered boxing. I covered boxing. He covered horses. I covered horses. We mixed it up in those days. Not too many specialists.” The two became fast friends and sometime roommates when Grace was between marriages and he’d crash with Kleinberg and his wife.
“Art and I had one other gimmick in the sports department at the Tower,” Kleinberg says. “There was a Coke machine — Cokes were a nickel in those days. The bottoms [of the bottles] would say what plant they were bottled at. We would sit there and didn’t even need the Cokes. We’d put nickels in and bet who got the furthest-away bottle. I always considered that Art had hidden an Anchorage, Alaska, bottle somewhere.”
Grace is survived by sons Brian and Russell and grandchildren Kevin and Jennifer. Services were held.