The last time I saw Joe Nawrozki in late summer, 2014, we ate crab cakes with Michael Olesker near Joe’s home in Harford County.
Sick with leukemia – battling it again after a brief remission – Joe was in good spirits and good appetite. The Orioles were on their way to winning the American League East pennant and I was wearing a retro ball cap from the Birds’ inaugural year of the modern era.
“Where can I get one of those?” asked Joe as we sat down to eat.
“Right here,” I said, taking it off my head and putting it on his.
Joe was 10, a ballplayer for the Shrine of the Little Flower parish team on Belair Road, when the Orioles played their first home game at Memorial Stadium on April 15, 1954. Bob Turley was on the mound that day, pitching the home team to a 3-to-1 complete game win against the Chicago White Sox.
Nawrozki called the hat his “Bob Turley Special,” and wore it the next day to a round of chemotherapy. And to the following treatment and the one after that. He wore it until he died at home on September 27 at age 70, convinced to the end that his blood had been poisoned by Agent Orange in Vietnam a half century earlier.
“Dad loved that hat,” said his daughter, Lisa Nawrozki, who survives him along with her brother, Damon Nawrozki.
Nawrozki and Olesker worked together as investigative reporters on a fabled Baltimore Hearst paper called the News American.
During their big time in the 1970s, breaking news on municipal corruption and manifold malfeasance almost weekly, Nawrozki was confronted by major heroin dealers unhappy with the straight dope Joe was putting in the paper.
Olesker recalls asking Joe, an honorably discharged combat veteran (he received the Army Commendation Medal for his service in Vietnam), if the showdown had frightened him.
Video by Bonnie Schupp
Nawrozki laughed – he loved to laugh, enjoyed stupid jokes, talking like a Balti-moron and pretending he was still a kid chasing kicks on the corner of Belair and Erdman. “Nah,” he said. “The real courage was being a kid, and playing ball for Little Flower. Do you know how brave it is to be 10 years old and standing out there and wanting to feel tough and your uniform says ‘Little Flower’?”
On the near side of his graduation from parochial school, life began to open up for Nawrozki, a kid from Cliftmont Avenue. “It was great, for the most part, growing up in Baltimore. Dancing, running from the cops, summer hoops league, never dreaming about the future. . .”
That future included dreams come true, first and foremost being paid to learn and write about the city he loved for nearly 50 years: landing at the News American not long after graduating from City College high school in 1962; moving to the Evening Sun when the News folded in 1986, and then to The Sun when the evening paper printed its final edition in 1995.
Voice of Baltimore
As news of Nawrozki’s death spread through the Aging Newspapermen of Baltimore, a weekly luncheon group that Joe helped found, longtime Sunpapers police reporter Roger Twigg observed:
“Joe’s writings were indicative of the person he was – a blue-collar Baltimore person who wrote for his audience in the language that they understood and appreciated.”
A sample of Joe’s writings, this from 1995:
“By the time [Marian] McKew came into sole ownership of the Gayety, the flavor of the old house was disappearing. Strip tease and racy one-liners became valentines from another day.
“Her managers booked Irma the Body, Tempest Storm and Chili Pepper in the 1960s and although those dancers attempted to keep bump and grind alive, suddenly they were almost too tame for that era’s sexual revolution.”
Many of the people who knew Joe from the world of vanished newspapers learned that he was sick on Armistice Day, 2013, about three weeks after his diagnosis. He broke the news during a literary gig at Freddie’s Ale House on Harford Road, reading poems about Vietnam by Americans who had been there.
In Vietnam, he remembered, you couldn’t “tell friend from foe. You don’t know what that does. You just don’t know.”
The friends of Joe Nawrozki will gather sometime soon, the date and location net yet determined, to celebrate the life and career of a true Baltimorean. I’ll be the guy in the well-worn Bob Turley cap.