Gentile: Time to finish the top 50 athletes list for Brian Sullivan

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In 1998, former sports editor Brian Sullivan approached me about a project he had in mind. Brian wanted to compile a list of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century in Berkshire County.

I balked.

To be honest, it seemed really hard. I quickly did the math. We'd have to sift through the biographies of maybe 30,000 to 35,000 athletes in the past 100 years. It seemed an insurmountable task.

But Brian persisted, and in fact, agreed to take on the bulk of the work. In fact, as it turned out, he'd been thinking about it for a while, probably several years. One of the great things about Brian Sullivan was that he almost always assessed the parameters of a project before doing it.

As it turned out, what he really needed was someone to help him write the profiles. That's sort of my strength, so I agreed.

In fact, he pretty much had the list. I made a couple of suggestions. Some he accepted. Many he rejected. Good-naturedly, of course. And I accepted, good naturedly. He was my boss, but he was also my closest friend in the company — in many ways, a brother.

We moved along at a pretty good clip for a while. Then we didn't. I was wrapped up in work on the news side, so I wasn't paying a lot of attention. From time to time, Brian would send me an email and it would say something like, "Mickey Marvin is No. 24. Look him up. I need it in a week or so." And boom! I'd look Mickey up and give Brian his story.

In retrospect, I think his failing health had something to do with his slowdown, obviously. Another of his traits, which was at times infuriating, was that one often didn't know exactly how he was feeling. He volunteered nothing.

Anyway, in 2015, he died. I thought about carrying on, but to be honest, I kept hearing his words in my head, "This is my list, and I'll decide when to finish it." It was a hard thing to get around.

But late last year, Martin Langeveld, our interim publisher, brought me into his office and asked me to finish the list. It was kind of a direct order. Hard to avoid. So I jumped in.

The first thing I had to do, though, was find the dang list. The only copy I had ever seen was in Brian's desk, and the desk had been cleaned out years ago. I could probably write a whole other column about the quest for the list. Eventually, I found a copy of the top 10 athletes. With the help of Eagle archivist Jeannie Maschino, I recovered the other 40.

The one thing I noticed was how varied it was. Brian had basketball players, boxers, skiers, skaters, softball players, golfers, swimmers and runners. And they came from every decade of the 20th century.

I have no idea if his intent was to portray such a variety, spread over the whole century. But I suspect it was, at least, part of his plan. And it worked.

Anyway, I started last week, with a story about my friend, Mary Lou DiNicola, who was surly one of the few athletes to be a world champion in any sport. Next week, we'll do No. 6. No, I'm not telling you who it is! But we'll keep this in a weekly basis, I promise. And when it's done, we'll launch the complete list.

I don't know if the individuals you're going to read about or have read about were definitively the greatest athletes in the history of the 20th century in Berkshire County. I'm just the water boy in this operation. But one has to admire the research and imagination of the guy who thought it all up in the first place.

Reach staff writer Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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