Joe Strauss, a relentless reporter and feisty writer who earned respect throughout baseball for his distinctive and revealing coverage of historic moments, died at approximately 3:30 a.m. Sunday from complications related to leukemia. He was 54.
Before becoming a sports columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2012 and flexing his knowledge beyond the ballpark, Strauss spent nearly three decades covering baseball. His was the voice that chronicled, day by day, how Cal Ripken Jr.’s historic Iron Man streak came to an end, that brought context to the beginning of the Atlanta Braves’ dynasty, and was among the first to capture the peerless beginning of Albert Pujols’ career with the Cardinals. Strauss insisted on stretching beyond the conventional game story format to inject analysis and personality into his coverage.
He received multiple national awards for his baseball writing, and his ability to craft game stories influenced many who worked beside him or just read him.
“One of Joe’s defining skills was his ability to dig deep enough to get the story behind the story,” said Roger Hensley, the Post-Dispatch’s sports editor. “A sound bite or a quote was simply not enough. He wanted to know the thinking behind the initial answer. He was a consummate reporter in pushing those he was interviewing for more information. And he built such a broad network of sources within the Cardinals and around the league, if he couldn’t get his questions answered from the initial person he interviewed, he worked his other sources to help paint the full picture. Readers may not know how hard it can be to get the complete story, but Joe worked tirelessly to deliver the most comprehensive report possible to our audience.”
A native of Richmond, Va., Strauss attended the University of Dayton and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983, the same year he joined the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
His first newspaper job was with the Gwinnett (Ga.) Daily News, where he served as the suburban Atlanta newspaper’s beat writer for the Braves, Falcons, and the University of Georgia. Strauss also got his first licks in as a columnist, a role that he would work toward and cherish throughout his career. Strauss worked for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer before vaulting, in 1988, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. While there he was the beat writer for the Braves until 1991, the summer the club went from worst to first and began a run of 14 consecutive division titles.
“Twenty-two outs without allowing a run had brought John Smoltz only a 0-0 tie and an unexpected hook from manager Bobby Cox with one out in the seventh inning,” Strauss wrote after the Braves’ loss to the Minnesota Twins in an epic Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. “Now, standing in the losing clubhouse, Smoltz searched for explanations and found only microphones, notepads and lenses.”
Strauss served as a national baseball writer and national writer for the AJC before returning to beat work to cover the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun.
From 1997 through 2001, Strauss blended traditional beat work for the Sun with expansive features and weekly Sunday columns that carried the title, “Inside the Orioles.” He would expand on that concept several years later by starting the “Cardinals Insider” at the Post-Dispatch, a staple of the Sunday newspaper that continues more than a decade later. While in Baltimore, Strauss covered the back stretch of Ripken’s consecutive game streak. Strauss worked doggedly to break the news of when and why Ripken would take a seat, yielding third base famously to Ryan Minor. When it finally happened, Strauss crafted a lead that still resonates. He said later that he went to the ballpark that day knowing the importance of the story he would write that night.
“Around 7:30 last night,” Strauss began his story, “Cal Ripken ended the most imposing record in sports by entering Orioles manager Ray Miller’s office to say it was time.
“Quietly and without warning, Ripken decided to end a major-league record of 2,632 consecutive games played, all starts and all in an Orioles uniform. For the first time since May 30, 1982, the left side of the Orioles’ infield did not include the former American League Rookie of the Year and two-time Most Valuable Player who also had come to represent the virtues of perseverance and work ethic.”
In January 2002, Strauss joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch, and while his first story was about football it wasn’t long before he put his fingerprint on the paper’s baseball coverage. Strauss was the point man for the paper’s coverage of one of the most successful eras in Cardinals history. He also saw coverage embrace the Internet through STLtoday.com, where he developed a following on Twitter and online through his chat, which he called “Joe Strauss Live!!!” The exclamation points were important, he would joke.
“The give and take he had with those submitting questions … it was just something altogether different from what we had been doing previously with chats,” Hensley said. “Joe went beyond the Q&A. He brought so much personality to it. In one of his chats you got answers, but you also got humor, snark, and a gloves-off approach. He wasn’t the emperor sitting on high; he was the guy sitting next to you on a barstool ready to debate any topic you threw at him. His background as a reporter ensured we weren’t going to get someone (as a columnist) who just liked to shoot from the lip.”
Strauss’ passing comes less than 13 months after the Post-Dispatch sports department lost another of its distinctive voices to cancer. Bryan Burwell, the distinguished sports columnist and sports personality, died in December 2014. Through a radio show they co-hosted at WGN/920 AM, Burwell and Strauss became close friends, and Strauss was a regular visitor for Burwell as he battled cancer. Also in the past year, the Post-Dispatch’s celebrated film critic Joe Williams was killed in a single-car accident.
“The deaths of Joe Strauss, sports columnist Bryan Burwell and movie critic Joe Williams in a little more than a year have taken an emotional toll on their families and their Post-Dispatch friends,” editor Gilbert Bailon said. “The positive impact of their great careers and their drive to create great work for our readers is how they should be remembered.”
About Strauss, Bailon added: “The loss of Joe is devastating to his many friends and colleagues in the newsroom. Joe never shrank from giving his opinions, whether to newspaper management or to baseball managers. His sharp wit, clever turns of a phrase and vast knowledge of sports made him a treasure as an employee and as a writer respected by our readers.”
On Oct. 17, 2005, at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Strauss and the other Post-Dispatch writers were nearing deadline, each writing a coda to the Cardinals’ season that appeared to be ending that night in Game 5 of the National League championship series. Minutes before stories were due, Pujols hit a home run that reversed the course of the game and held off elimination. The series would be zooming back to St. Louis.
A veteran of such hairpin turns on deadline, Strauss coolly scrapped one story lead for one of his best leads.
“Down to their last strike, their last chance, their last prayer, the Cardinals were rescued Monday night by a 412-foot bolt that ricocheted off Minute Maid Park’s left-field railroad trestle. First baseman Albert Pujols saved the Cardinals from a premature demise when he turned what looked to be a certain 4-2 defeat into a 5-4 win against a stunned Houston Astros team. … Where this series goes from here is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Pujols brought the Cardinals back to Busch Stadium for Game 6 Wednesday.”
Strauss was comfortable in any arena.
He would pepper his presence on Twitter with opinions about football, college basketball, golf, and horseracing, a special fondness of his. He got to flaunt his fondness for other sports — and the opinions he always had — when after the 2012 Cardinals season he moved from beat writer to his most recent position with the paper, sports columnist. Strauss often played the role of contrarian but in truth he celebrated the untold story or the underdog. Through his reporting he sought scoops but also exclusive details he could convey. He worked the post-game clubhouse like a panner would a stream — sifting, sifting, sifting for that morsel of gold only he would have.
“Joe was certainly capable of writing a column that would pull at your heartstrings, and did so on many occasions,” Hensley said. “But when it took a strong voice to deliver something Joe felt the readers and fans of our local teams needed to hear, he pulled no punches. Joe didn’t dance around a touchy topic, he hit the hole. When you finished reading a Joe Strauss column, whether you agreed or not, there was no doubt you knew where he stood. And knowing Joe, there’s no other way he would have it.
“A beautiful writer, a hard-nosed reporter, an even-handed columnist, and more than all of that, a great friend,” Hensley added. “I will miss Joe immensely.”
Throughout his career, regardless of his position, Strauss was just as deft pulling a story out of an unknown as he was working an icon for an angle. He not only interviewed the legends of many games, but he often would interview legends about legends, and once asked a legend about the legend of a legend.
“I mean no disrespect to Babe Ruth and what he did, but I played the game,” Home Run King Hank Aaron once told Strauss for a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that touched on the legitimacy of Ruth’s fabled called shot. “There ain’t no way somebody can tell me Babe Ruth or anybody else can stand up and point their finger and say, ‘I’m going to hit a home run.’ I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”
Strauss is survived by his wife Diana Minardi Strauss and their daughter, Alexis. Services are pending.