Peter MacRae Axthelm

Peter MacRae Axthelm

Died February 2, 1991

Pete Axthelm was a natural born writer who began his career as sports editor of the Yale Daily News. By the time he died at the age of 47, he had become one of this country’s most famous sports columnists. His best known books are The City Game: Basketball in New York and The Kid, about racing prodigy Steve Cauthen. But perhaps his most impressive literary feat was to have his senior thesis, The Modern Confessional Novel, published by Yale University Press. John Leonard of the New York Times called him “a poet. . . [His] eye is cinemascopic, his prose precise.”

With talent like that, Ax worked anywhere he pleased – The New York Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, People, NBC and ESPN, becoming one of the first sports writers to cross over into broadcasting and walking away with awards for his work in both print and broadcasting. But, as he wrote the year before he died, “I discovered that there are more important things than making a ridiculous salary.” He gave a lot of that money to Covenant House, a home for runaway teenagers. He also gambled a lot of it on the horses, a habit which got him in trouble with his network bosses.

Although he became a household name as a commentator on shows like NFL Game Day, Pete’s first love was horse racing. He was a columnist for the Thoroughbred Record and once wrote that, “the happiest moments in my life were when my daughter, Megan, graduated from the University of Vermont and when Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby.” He had to be the only racing writer who ever scored a perfect 800 on his College Boards – and on his LSATs, which he took just in case he needed a deferment from the draft.

One of Ax’s colleagues at Sports Illustrated described him as “one of journalism’s great lost talents” and wrote that, “he died February 2, 1991 after a long struggle with alcoholism (though Pete might not classify it as a struggle).” The gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson called Ax “one of the last free spirits in journalism or anywhere else in these humorless times… We will miss him, but not weep for him.” After Pete died, a journalism scholarship was established in his name and that of his late sister at the University of Marquette. He never got to see his grandchildren, but he would be pleased to know they both wrote sports blogs in high school.

Gerold Libby remembers: Anyone who lived in Ezra Stiles College, as I did, knew Pete. He was a brilliant, exuberant force of nature, who followed his professional passions wherever they took him, and who seemed to have lived a full life in a shockingly short number of years. Bainbridge Cowell remembers: As a member of the Yale Daily News 1965 editorial board, I remember Sports Editor Pete Axthelm as one of the pillars of the paper. He knew his special area deeply and wrote about it eloquently, almost daily. What he accomplished at the YDN was the launch of a stellar career, publishing successful books right after graduation – notably The City Game, Basketball in New York – and going on to two decades as sports columnist for Newsweek and commentator on NBC sports and ESPN. By his untimely death in 1991, he had accomplished more than many do in a lifetime.

John van Merkensteijn remembers: Pete – football, horses,all night gin games, laughter, the Derby, Superbowl, country music,great writing,Marquette, pretty girls, PJ Clarkes, the Cowboy, Runyons, Peartrees, CC on the Rocks, David Gould, Max, Stephen, bad referees, if and reverses, Damon Runyon – you live with me every day.

Charles Dillingham remembers: Pete Axthelm had “a very strong mind,” to quote our Freshman Counselor. He was unquestionably the smartest man I have ever known and probably one of the very top of our class. His essay, “The Modern Confessional Novel” was originally written in one long all-nighter. It was so good the English department referred it to the Yale University Press, which published it in expanded form. He was a lover horse racing. In the spring of our senior year Jimmy Breslin recommend him to Jock Whitney for a job at the New York Herald Tribune. Pete’s job interview was conducted in Whitney’s limo following a meeting of the Yale Corporation. Pete missed graduation as he was already working as the chief turf writer for the Trib. Pete was also a hard drinker, which of course caught up with him later. I introduced him to Rudy’s Bar, and we closed the joint many nights. Once when we were speculating on how long it would take us to drink all the liquor in the bar, Pete said “OK, how are you for February?” Pete was great company. His memorial service filled the ballroom of the Yale Club to overflowing. Everyone who knew him still misses him.

Edward Newbegin remembers: Pete lived across the hall from me in Vanderbilt our freshman year. We were friendly, not great friends, but I always admired him for his intelligence. Everyone at Yale is smart but Pete was off the charts and maybe the smartest person in our class. He would write papers in one or two hours a few drinks and always get a 95 or higher while I would suffer with a 75 after days of work. His greatest love was sports and as most of you might know he was sports editor of the Daily News. He took the LSAT exam his senior year and scored a perfect 800 but he turned down numerous unsolicited scholarships to follow his love of sports. After graduation he wrote for Sports Illustrated and then Newsweek (both sports and some political) and finally became a one of the first commentators for the then unknown cable start-up ESPN and I thought he had made a mistake to go into TV. At our 25th reunion he was in the hospital waiting for a liver transplant which never happened and he died a few months later. It is sad that he died so young who knows what he might have contributed to sports or our country had he lived longer.