SATURDAY, JANUARY 03, 1970, is one of the most memorable dates of my life. I had just finished my first week on the job at T&FN and our staff was in the hospitality suite of the All-American Games in San Francisco. I was the proverbial kid in the candy store as I met literally dozens of the sport’s movers and shakers.
I didn’t know what a tectonic-force-to-be he would become but I also met a super-fan from New York City named Bob Hersh. By the time the decade would be over, so varied were his contributions to the sport that he had picked up the nickname “Commish” (as in, “the commissioner of all track & field”).
Legendary trackwriter Jim Dunaway called him “Hats Hersh” because he wore so many. And wore them all well, sharing his mighty skills wherever he could find an outlet, be it in the pages of T&FN, on a microphone or in the halls of administration.
A corporate lawyer by trade, Bob was combining a business trip with a chance to check out a track meet — sans hats — that winter’s day. I knew him by name just because of the coincidence that 6 months earlier we had simultaneously been granted “Senior U.S. Contributor” status by the magazine and our names were alphabetically consecutive in the staff box.
We sat next to each other in the Cow Palace that night and it didn’t take long before I realized I was in the presence of greatness. This guy knew not only everything about all the athletes, but also where to find split points on a 160-yard track!
A 50-plus-year high-level working relationship was quickly forged (although I never did figure out that splits thing). And more importantly, a deep and abiding half-century friendship that ended with his death in January.
When Bob was inducted into USATF’s Hall Of Fame in 2018, Indy sent a film crew to my house to prep a short video tribute. In it I made a point of saying that while I was certain Bob knew more about track & field in all its aspects than anyone else I had ever met, I wasn’t sure that was his greatest skill.
His knowledge of/passion for track was matched by the opera, symphonic music, fine food & wine and at one time, baseball.
It was sad to see Bob’s interest in baseball (honed as a Dodgers-loving kid growing up in Brooklyn) fade away in recent years. As did his interest in the rest of the professional ball sports.
Why? The scourge of PEDs. Bob dogmatically refused to take seriously any sport which didn’t have WADA-level doping control. Goodbye baseball, football and all the rest.
Bob brought his lawyerly skills to no end of out-of-the-spotlight projects that benefited the sport, not the least of which was a basic rewrite of the IAAF Rulebook that made it much easier to follow.
Easier-to-follow is what marks Bob’s biggest contribution to the sport: bringing real announcing to the Olympics and World Championships.
I was shocked at my first Games, Munich ’72, when I discovered announcing was restricted to “the list of competitors is now on the scoreboard,” followed by the singling out of the WR holder and/or defending champ if they happened to be in the event. There were no race calls. That’s right, none. And it stayed that way for too long.
Bob first pushed the envelope at LA ’84, sliding in bits of commentary, but paved the way for the IAAF and IOC to accept full-on chatter at Atlanta ’96. It didn’t hurt that Bob had been on the IAAF Technical Committee for a decade at that point.
He would, of course, go on to become a member of the IAAF Council, eventually becoming Senior Vice-President (outpolling, it must be noted, both Seb Coe and Sergey Bubka). Unfortunately his career there was cut short by political legerdemain at the USATF level.
In true Hershian fashion, of course, not only did he refuse to seek retribution in any fashion, he also continued to faithfully serve the organization.
We’ll miss ya, Commish! ◻︎