John Feinstein Pays Tribute To His Mother

Many things – and people – remind John Feinstein of his mother, including the Mets, "A Season on the Brink" and, yes, John McEnroe

John Feinstein
October 02, 2019 - 11:41 am
John McEnroe

USA Today Images


There are times in Congress—or in any legislative body—when a member will stand up and ask for “personal privilege.” This means he or she is asking to speak on a subject that isn’t germane to that day’s agenda.
Today, I ask for personal privilege. If my mother hadn’t died of a heart attack at the age of 67—on Mother’s Day, no less—she would have turned 93 today. In a sense, her birthday is no different for me than the other 364 days each year, because I think of her so often. In fact, even now, there are moments when I want to pick up the phone to tell her something or to ask her for advice.
Let me tell you a little about my mother. She was the daughter of Janet Richman, who got her law degree from NYU in 1908 and was a litigator until she had a heart attack at the age of 83. As far as my Uncle Peter (my mom’s younger brother) could tell after doing a fair bit of research, my grandmother was one of the first 10 women in the United States to get a law degree. It’s worth noting that she got it 12 years before women were allowed to vote.
My grandfather, who was her law partner, died when my mom was 11, and my grandmother ran the law firm from that day on while raising her two children. My mom went to Smith, got a Masters degree from Columbia and met and married my father in 1952. She then had three children, went back to school and got her Ph.D. in music history from Columbia. She taught at Columbia and then at George Washington until her death. My brother and I called her “the doc” because she thought it was ridiculous for a PH.D. to refer to him or herself as “Doctor.”
“Doctors,” she would say, “make sick people healthy. Period.”
My parents were bonded by their love of the performing arts. My dad was the first executive director of the Kennedy Center and was later director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera—doing both jobs for many years.
I give you all this background to make it clear that neither of my parents was exactly a jock. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and made extra money finding people parking spots near Ebbets Field, but gave up baseball forever when the Dodgers left Brooklyn and kept up with sports only so he could talk to me—and later, my younger brother. My sister’s knowledge of sports is pretty much summed up by a question she asked me in 1992: “If Christian Laettner is such a great player, why didn’t the Redskins draft him?”
My mom had polio as a child and always walked with a limp. And yet, when I had no one else to play with, she would drag her bad leg onto a tennis court to hit with me. She took up golf in her 40s in order to play with her children and, to this day, one of my proudest possessions is the silver tray she won in 1974 as the Class-D runner-up at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club.
My earliest memories of watching sports date to when I was five. That was when I started getting up early in the morning to try to read the New York Times sports section—I actually learned to read that way. Often, because the Mets were so bad, I’d tell my parents they had won—when they had actually lost. My dad was skeptical enough to check the score and would say to me, “John, the Mets lost.”
Before I could admit the truth, my mom would say, “Oh, Martin, let him enjoy the fantasy for a few minutes.”
In the Mets’ first seven seasons—my first seven seasons following baseball—winning was a fantasy. Then came the miracle year of 1969, when fantasy somehow became reality.
By then, I was old enough to ride the number 7 train to Shea Stadium. Before that, though, it was my mom who took me to games because my dad (like me now) often had to work weekends.
One Saturday afternoon, we sat and watched as the Mets trailed the Pirates 2-0 going into the bottom of the eighth inning. Bob Friend, who won 197 games in his big-league career, was shutting down the Mets with ease. Then, suddenly—stunningly—in the eighth, the Mets got to him. They scored four runs to take a 4-2 lead. I was jumping up and down, screaming and yelling like you would expect a nine-year-old to act, especially when his team has a chance for a rare win. Right next to me was my mom, jumping up and down and screaming and yelling NOT the way you would expect a mother of three to act.
At one point, an usher standing near us walked over and, with a big smile, pointed to the field and said to my mom: “So which one is your husband?”
He figured anyone that enthusiastic had to be married to a player. My mom was married to someone who was at the Metropolitan Opera House that afternoon.
The one sport both my parents followed was tennis. The first time I went to the United States Tennis Championships—this was pre-U.S. Open—mom and I rode the subway to Forest Hills. The first match we saw was between Chuck McKinley—a Texan—and Roger Taylor, a very good British player.
I still remember the scores McKinley won by: 13-11, 9-7, 6-3. This was before tiebreaks and, on several occasions, McKinley got frustrated; at one point tossing his racquet in the direction of his chair after blowing several break points.
“Johnny,” my mother said, “don’t you EVER act like that.”
She was afraid I’d think throwing your racquet was okay if you were a great player. To this day, whenever I lose my temper in any kind of competition, I think about my mom. When I do, I instantly apologize for my misbehavior.
Ironically, mom’s favorite tennis player was John McEnroe. It might have been because McEnroe was from New York, left-handed and had a temper—much like her oldest child. The difference, of course, was that one of us was a great tennis player. The other was great at WATCHING tennis.
But the real reason she liked McEnroe was simple: He never gave a victory speech without thanking his parents and his mom in particular. “Anyone who always remembers to thank his mom, must be okay.”
Mom always understood that sports was always going to be a part of my life—dad, not so much. When I got an internship to work in The Washington Post’s sports section after my senior year of college, mom was thrilled. By then, my parents were living in Washington and she thought it was great that I’d be living there—at least for the summer. My dad wanted me to apply to law school. “You need to start thinking about doing something serious with your life,” he told me.
Maybe someday I will.
Of course, when I was hired after my internship to be the Post’s night police reporter and ended up covering cops and courts on the Metro staff with Bob Woodward as my editor, dad thought that was okay. Mom knew I’d end up back in sports eventually—which I did.
Mom always said it was okay for her to criticize her children, but no one else was allowed—regardless. When Bob Knight attacked me after the publication of “A Season on the Brink,” she was furious. Knight was lucky their paths never crossed.
She read everything I wrote and would often ask me questions if she didn’t understand something. I wish she’d lived to read “A Civil War,” because she would have liked all the boys—she always referred to the athletes I covered as boys—in that book.
When I was still single, she and I had a Monday night tradition of eating Chinese food together at a restaurant near my parents’ house. After I got married, the tradition continued. My wife understood. Mom would often ask me why the Post insisted on taking up so much space covering the NFL football team—especially since I was covering college football and basketball at the time. She watched golf tournaments ever Sunday afternoon and liked to refer to herself as “a golf voyeur.”
When her children—and their spouses—would come to dinner on Sunday evening, we had to be finished by 7 so she could watch Murder She Wrote, or—as she called it—“Jessica.” I never once watched the show while she was alive. Now, I’ve probably seen every episode from all 12 years. My mom was a lot like Jessica: smart, tough, always able to figure things—and people—out.
Once we were married, she frequently reminded my sister and I (and our spouses) that it was time to think about children. On Halloween one year, she pulled two young trick-or-treaters inside the door so that my sister and I—sitting in the kitchen—could see them clearly.
“You see these,” she said. “I want one of THESE.”
She died exactly nine months before her first grandchild—my son Danny—was born. She now has seven grandchildren, all of whom know about her. That they never met her breaks my heart.
So, today is a sad day, but also one that makes me laugh when I cry. My mom never loved sports. But she loved her sons, which is why she knew the words to “Meet the Mets,” by heart and could tell you that, deep down, John McEnroe really was a nice boy.
Happy Birthday, mom.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is “Benchwarmers,” the story of an 11-year-old girl who wants to play on the boys sixth-grade soccer team and has to fight to get the opportunity to compete. His book, “The Prodigy,” about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters, who has to fight off his father, agents and equipment reps who want to make him into a human ATM machine, is now out in paperback. His latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback-Inside The Most Important Position in Professional Sports,”—is also just out in paperback. John’s website is: