Terry Pluto

by David Giffels

Terry Pluto has written more words than any other Northeast Ohio journalist in the past two decades, one finger at a time.

What he lacks in dexterity, he makes up for in sheer force, as a reputed trail of broken and battered computer keyboards attests. Along the way, he has hunted-and-pecked his way through thousands of sports columns and features for the Akron Beacon Journal, added a weekly faith column and online newsletter, and cranked out enough books that I had to call his cell phone to get an up-to-date number.

He was struggling through a Chicago traffic snarl on his way to cover a late-season Indians game.

"Hey, Terry -- how many books have you published?"


"I honestly don't know," he said.

If this seems like a punch line, it will come as no surprise to Pluto. He is teased as often as he is praised for his prolific output. His extensive canon is key to his legend, but it's not often understood. Pluto writes a lot because he loves to write, and has never grown tired of it. He is able to produce so many books in part because his wife of 27 years, Roberta, assists with research, transcription and proofreading. The couple has no children; Pluto possesses uncommon discipline and focus; and sports never stop happening.

For the record (with thanks to Roberta Pluto's more attentive record keeping), Terry Pluto, as author or coauthor, has 21 books to his name.

It should come as no surprise that John Steinbeck was an early favorite of Pluto's. Both writers share a directness of style and a concern for the common, working person. Pluto himself could pass for a Steinbeck character.

His bald head framed by a monkish shag of hair, he's pragmatic and self-effacing, more chronicler than poet. His standard uniform consists of jeans and a rumpled sweatshirt: his wardrobe is defined by his lifestyle, his lifestyle is defined by his work, and his work is defined by his life.
He is in this way pure.

When he was a student at Cleveland Benedictine High School, Pluto worked summers with his father, Tom, who was a warehouse manager for the Fisher-Fazio stores. He stacked boxes alongside men who'd been there 25 years or more, whose workdays were measured between by 15-minute breaks with the sports page and a cigarette. When Pluto became a journalist, he made them his audience.

I began reading Pluto in the mid-1980s, when I was studying English at the University of Akron and he had begun covering the Cavaliers for the Beacon Journal. I took a job one fall unloading UPS trucks on the third shift and, long before I met Pluto or fully understood the life of a writer and his relationship to the world, I recognized that his face was always peeking out from a stack of papers in both the UPS break room and the English department reception area, and that in both places we were alternately arguing with him or agreeing with him -- a stranger who was not a stranger at all. That, I now realize, was an important lesson of journalism.

What is notable about Pluto is not so much the volume of his work, but how often he pierces our attention and imagination. To this day, I hold an image painted by Pluto of the Summit County jail cell where former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter spent a night after being arrested on money-laundering charges. Pluto works in prison ministry, and used that experience to take me and thousands of others to a place no other journalist could take us that day.

"In Hold Cell 4, there is a faint smell of urine and Lysol," Pluto wrote.
"There is a roll of toilet paper on the small shelf near the sink. There are walls that are 7 feet apart on one side, 10 feet on another, walls that seem to close in on you."

I still remember the morning I began to read a Pluto feature about the worst high school football team in Akron, and how that team mattered to me that fall more than my own alma mater. And I remember being drawn in by the first line of an unusual story, written in second person, about the autistic water boy for the Hudson High football team, and being carried weightless by the narrative.

It didn't matter to me how many other stories Pluto wrote in those seasons, or whether he had another book on the way. All that mattered was the progression of sentences before me, hammered by the workman into something solid and memorable.

Part of Pluto's credibility stems from the fact that he is a Cleveland native. He grew up caring about the same teams and sharing the same moments of joy and heartbreak (mostly the latter) as fellow sports fans across the region. After graduating from Cleveland State University, he wrote for the Greensboro Daily News, the Savannah Morning News and the Baltimore Evening Sun before returning home to cover the Cleveland Indians for The Plain Dealer. He joined the Akron Beacon Journal in 1985 as the Cavaliers beat writer.

With 14 years of beat writing under his belt, Pluto became a general sports columnist in 1993, distinguishing his work with special attention to local high school sports. In 2000, he began writing additional columns on faith in everyday life for the religion section. He also writes a weekly e-mail sports newsletter, "Direct From Pluto," distributed through www.ohio.com, the Beacon Journal's online partner.

Among his 21 books are "Loose Balls," an oral history of the American Basketball Association, and "The Curse of Rocky Colavito. After a long association with Simon & Schuster, he has more recently been publishing with Cleveland-based Gray &Company, which has released, among others, "False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail;" "The View From Pluto," a collection of sports journalism; and "Everyday Faith," a collection of spiritual essays.

Among his dozens of journalism awards, Pluto has been named Ohio Sports Writer of the Year eight times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, and has twice been honored as the Associated Press' national Sports Columnist of the Year. His writing on faith has received a national Amy Award. He is also, by his estimation, the worst athlete in the Benedictine High School Hall of Fame.

He lives in Akron with his wife, Roberta. His 22nd book, "Faith and You," will be published by Gray & Company this fall.

(Giffels is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal and co-author of the books “Wheels of Fortune” and “We Are Devo: Are We Not Men?”)