Sports writing pioneer Jean Giambrone dies at 91

By Jim Mandelaro, Democrat and Chronicle, January 22, 2013

Jean Giambrone was covering the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey when she overheard an animated rookie tell friends, “I just finished four practice rounds of par golf. Do you know what four rounds like that could do for my career this week?”

Working for Rochester’s afternoon paper, the Times-Union, Giambrone was always searching for offbeat topics. She was intrigued by the talkative young golfer from Dallas and followed him around for four rounds, writing daily on his progress.

She had plenty to write about, because Lee Trevino finished fifth that week.

One year later, he won the Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford. When it was time to speak to the media, he singled out Giambrone.

“I’m giving Jean press time,” he told the throng of reporters. “She’s the first writer who noticed me.”

It was one of the great moments in a great life for Giambrone, who died Monday morning at 91 after a brief illness.

“She loved that Lee recognized her in her hometown,” Giambrone’s daughter, Fran Pascarella, said “In her later years, all Mom wanted to watch was The Golf Channel. She loved when they ran old tournaments or interviewed living legends. And whenever Trevino was on, she’d say to the TV, ‘Do you remember when I discovered you?’ ”

Giambrone, often called “Rochester’s First Lady in Sports,” died at Unity Hospital in Greece. Fran and Pam Giambrone, her daughter-in-law, were at her bedside when she passed.

“I’m blessed, because I got to be there and hold her,” Fran said. “We were really good friends, actually. It’s going to sound corny, but I wanted to be just like her. She did everything, but she always had dinner on the table.”

Giambrone was a sportswriter at the now-defunct Times-Union for four decades and a female pioneer in the male-dominated world of sports journalism. In 1967, she became the first female golf writer awarded full press credentials at The Masters tournament in Augusta, Ga. She had been turned down the year before, but some of the world’s top golfers acknowledged her.

 “Jean goes first,” Jack Nicklaus would tell reporters. “She can’t come into the (media) tent, so let her ask her questions.”

Nicklaus, who turned 73 Monday, was saddened to hear of Giambrone’s death.

“I remember Jean well. She was a true professional in her craft,” he said through a spokesman. “She always did a wonderful job, no matter the subject matter. She was both patient and pleasant in the way she interacted with you.

“I always enjoyed talking to Jean, whether it was a simple conversation or an interview. And I always felt confident and comfortable that what I was saying is what was going to end up in print.”

Giambrone contested the Masters ban, telling officials, “I need to be inside the tent to get my job done.” She also told legendary Associated Press sportswriter Will Grimsley that she was there to cover the event “not to write about the dresses the players’ wives were wearing.” Grimsley and other prominent reporters went to bat for Giambrone, and she was granted full access.

“She truly was somebody who was very strong-willed and thought that women deserved coverage,” said Dan Guilfoyle, her friend for 40 years. “She became a champion of women’s sports, but she always held her family before her work. Her husband and kids were tops in her life.”

Giambrone often would marvel at her close-knit family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Can you believe all this from an only child?” she would ask at family get-togethers.

Giambrone was born Virginia Cardinale, but her name had evolved into “Jean” by college. An only child, she grew up in Rochester and graduated from the old Washington High and the University of Rochester, where she majored in government. As a sophomore in 1939, she took a bus downtown to the Democrat and Chronicle and complained to sports editor Elliot Cushing that women athletes weren’t being given proper coverage.

“I’m tired of reading about men all the time,” she said.

Cushing hired her on the spot, and she began covering women’s sports part-time while still attending UR. She was paid $5 per column and $2 per news story.

 After graduating from college, she thought she would take a job in management training at Rochester Products. Instead, Times-Union managing editor Joe Adams offered her a job as a city news reporter. Intrigued, she decided to stick with writing.

Good thing, too: One day, a visitor to the newsroom asked Cardinale to mail a letter to her brother, Charlie, an MP on duty in New Orleans. When Charlie Giambrone came home on furlough, he asked Jean out. The two married on May 15, 1946, settled in Irondequoit and raised two children — Ben and Fran.

Charlie died in 1995, eight months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary. Ben died of cancer in 2007 at 56. A local philanthropist like his mother, the annual Compeer Sports charity luncheon which brings in sports celebrities such as Joe Montana, Reggie Jackson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is named after him.

After four years as a news reporter, Giambrone returned to sportswriting in the late 1940s, covering men’s and women’s soccer, golf and bowling for the Times-Union. Although management wanted her to join the staff full-time, she resisted.

“I’ve spent all these years arranging my work around the needs of my family,” she once said. “I never wanted to be put in a position where my job would come before Charlie and the kids.”

Giambrone also wrote about high school and college women’s sports, but her first loves were golf and bowling, and she would do anything to promote them. Each week, she took hundreds of names and scores from local tournaments via telephone from her home on Keswick Road.

An avid golfer herself, she was a member of Locust Hill Country Club from 1950 until her death and was a four-time club champion. At 16, she was women’s club champion at Genesee Valley Park. She also was a multiple winner of the Women’s Rochester District Golf Association tournament.

In 1967, her story on young bowling superstar Millie Ignizio was judged the best feature of the year by the National Women’s Bowling Writers. She was the first woman member of the Rochester Press-Radio Club and joined with club president Bruno Sniders to form the highly successful Sportswoman of the Year luncheon in 1978.

She left the paper in 1981 to spend more time with her family. She was 60 and insisted, “I didn’t retire. Only old people retire. I quit.”

Upon hearing the news, Nicklaus and fellow golf legend Arnold Palmer sent her letters of appreciation.

Longtime colleague Bob Matthews said Giambrone’s legacy is secure.

“She’s the best friend women sports people in Rochester ever had,” he said. “I never met anybody who didn’t have a nice word to say about her. She gave women exposure in golf and bowling they never would have had without her.”

A charter member of the Frontier Field Walk of Fame in 1997, she remained active in the community and was still on the Walk of Fame voting committee at the time of her death.

“We took her to dinner two weeks ago,” Guilfoyle said. “She was so full of life.”

Giambrone is survived by her daughter Fran (Roger) Pascarella, her daughter-in-law Pam Giambrone, five grandchildren — Gina (Tony) DeRosa, Paul (Melanie) Pascarella, Robb (Helen) Giambrone, Charles (Melissa) Giambrone and Catherine (Mark) Tortarella — and seven great-grandchildren.

Calling hours and funeral arrangements are pending.