Bob Fortus was a thoroughbred among sports writers.
He might not have looked the part, he certainly had no airs about him, and he wasn’t a fixture covering mainstream events. He primarily plied his trade at the Fair Grounds as well as Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont covering the Triple Crown races each spring. So his byline wasn’t all that familiar to people who gravitated to football, basketball and baseball stories.
But when he was asked to cross over and cover other events he brought with him the same professionalism, attention to detail and clarity that were hallmarks of his horse racing coverage.
Fortus died Tuesday at the age of 69 from severe injuries suffered when he was struck by a car while crossing a street not far from the Fair Grounds.
I first met Bob in the early 1980s when he left his job as a teacher of statistics at Tulane University to join the sports staff at the Times-Picayune, where I was in the early days of my own sports writing career.
Bob was better educated than most sports writers, having earned three degrees at the University of Michigan, but more importantly he was just plain smart.
He earned a letter as a runner at Michigan and his natural athleticism made him easily the most talented player on quite possibly the worst softball team ever assembled. He patrolled the outfield and ran the bases as few others have on the storied softball fields of City Park.
We were the T-P’s beloved Typos and we had as much fun playing softball as any team could while getting bludgeoned each game. Bob never seemed to mind the fact that he was just about the only person on the team who really belonged on the field.
When it came to being a sports writer, Bob was as much of a natural as he was at softball. He also was as generous in trying to elevate those less skilled than himself in sports writing as he was on the softball field.
Perhaps Fortus’ greatest virtue among many was that he brought an uncommon perspective not only to his own writing, but also to the copy desk and the department as a whole.
His ability to capture the nuances of a two-minute horse race through the athleticism of the horses and the skill and strategy of the jockeys and trainers made the Sport of Kings accessible to royalty and peons alike.
Bob brought that same keen eye into the newsroom where it was enormously valuable. He had a respect for and command of the English language that steered him away from the triteness that some of us would comfortably fall back on in our lazier moments.
The clichés that regularly sneaked into print – or blared from the television set – rarely if ever found their way into a story written or edited by Fortus. He made us more conscious of the sloppiness of word choice that had become too easily accepted.
Fortus was one of the rarest and therefore most valuable of journalists – a writer who made the copy editor’s job a breeze and a copy editor who made writers’ copy breezier than it was when it arrived in his queue.
Sometimes copy editors change what a reporter has written and make it not better, but merely different. Fortus could be a master triage doctor when the tightness of deadline or the sloppiness of the writing required it. He could diagnose less severe maladies in a story and fix them on the fly with surgical precision. But perhaps most importantly he was perfectly comfortable applying the physician’s creed – first, do no harm.
Usually when a story left Fortus’ care it was appreciably better than when it arrived. And it was never worse.
Bob was often bemused by the silliness that broadcasters would verbalize. One time when he was on the copy desk and a game was being broadcast on the TV in the sports department, he suggested facetiously that broadcasts should feature a “momentum meter” that would keep the viewer updated on the constant “shifts in momentum” that broadcasters insisted on using each time a significant play transpired.
The late Marty Mule’, never one to overlook a story opportunity, seized upon the concept and turned it into a witty column.
I imagine Bob and Marty are about to resume lamentations about copy editors. And there’s no doubt fellow Fair Grounds railbird and occasional copy editor critic Ronnie Virgets, who passed away in May, will chime in.
Just as Fortus recognized that a claiming race on a weekday at the Fair Grounds deserved as much care from him as a Saints game or LSU game deserved from the writers covering them, he also brought a Yankee’s understanding of stuff beyond the immediate area.
He would casually and respectfully note that good college teams, players and coaches weren’t exclusive to the Southeastern Conference, but also emerged periodically from other places such as the Big Ten, which he grew up with.
Fortus made a few of us just a little less myopic, a little less provincial.
Thank you for that, Bob.
Speaking of Fortus’ Northern roots, the St. Louis native followed the Detroit Tigers during his college days in Ann Arbor and would periodically refer to a home run as “a Freehan homer.” It was a reference to catcher Bill Freehan, a really good player for the Tigers in the 1960s and 70s, but who, Fortus insisted, had an infuriating habit of hitting statistics-padding but otherwise useless home runs late in games in which the Tigers were hopelessly behind.
I adopted the phrase and still use it, causing those around me to sometimes wonder what I mean by “a Freehan homer” or “a Freehan touchdown” or even “a Freehan 3-pointer.” But once I explain the genesis of the term people grasp a significant point from a minimum of words, which was a trademark gift from Bob to readers.
Just as Fortus’ beat extended beyond Gentilly and even Louisiana, so did the appreciation for his reporting and writing. In addition to being inducted into the Fair Grounds Press Box Hall of Fame, Fortus received the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters award for “career excellence in turf writing.”
Rare was the occasion that Bob and I didn’t see eye to eye on news judgment, writing or society at large. But one such occasion occurred around Christmas in 1988. The sports staff was putting together the obligatory end-of-year list of Top 10 stories.
I thought the Saints having played their first playoff game ever after two decades of seemingly endless futility was a no-brainer as the top choice.
But ultimately the Saints story merely placed behind a story that Bob had covered as Risen Star emerged from the Fair Grounds to finish third in the Kentucky Derby and win both the Preakness and the Belmont.
Fortus’ skill, passion and professionalism in chronicling the son of Secretariat’s run from Louisiana Derby champion to a margin of victory in the Belmont surpassed only by his father’s, elevated a story that wouldn’t typically have been as clearly on the mainstream’s radar and eclipsed the Saints’ biggest moment to date.
And that is a heck of a Triple Crown in itself. R.I.P., Bob.
Bob is survived by his partner Cherish van Mullem, his niece Amanda Growe, grand nephew Thomas Bates, both of Vancouver and many friends. There will be a Celebration of Life on August 1, 2019 at Molly's at the Market located at 1107 Decatur Street. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in Robert's name to your favorite charity. Funeral arrangements have been entrusted to JACOB SCHOEN & SON FINERAL HOME, 3827 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119. Condolences may be expressed at www.schoenfh.com