Bill Plaschke’s journalism career ironically began as a way to deal with his stutter. When the Louisville native was a freshman at a high school where he didn’t know anybody, Plaschke used his love of sports to make an impression on his fellow students by writing a story about the beloved 12th man on the basketball team, a fellow freshman named Earl.
“I couldn’t really communicate except through writing back then,” Plaschke said. “People came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for telling us about Earl, we heard people cheering for him and we didn’t know about him.’ I realized that by bringing this guy out of the shadows and into people’s lives, I was able to make a difference.”
Plaschke’s career is full of accolades — he has been recognized as the Associated Press columnist of the year seven times for his work at the Los Angeles Times — but he still carries with him a love for telling the stories of forgotten members of society. He attained this penchant during his time as a student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, where he lived in a church basement next to an oil refinery because he had so little money.
“People wonder why I do so many human interest stories about off-beat sports — that’s all we had,” Plaschke said, referencing stories he wrote about a foreign javelin thrower and a pregnant homecoming queen. “That type of humanity, that’s what SIU-Edwardsville was all about.”
Arash Markazi, a fellow L.A. Times sports columnist who grew up reading Plaschke, noted the humanity of Plaschke’s work.
“There are times where sports are a way into telling a story about life,” Markazi said. “Bill does a great job of not just giving his opinion on what’s happening, but also showing the human side of the game as well.”
Plaschke’s love for people’s stories grew when he moved to Los Angeles. Since joining the Times to cover the Dodgers in 1987, Plaschke has become a spokesman of sorts for the city, holding any sports figure accountable when he feels they have disrespected the City of Angels.
“I love when people say they want to be the voice of a city,” Plaschke said. “People misinterpret when I’m ripping on the Dodgers or Lakers, saying ‘Oh, you’re an L.A. hater.’ No, I’m an L.A. lover, and they’re making the city look bad.”
Markazi added that Plaschke’s presence in the city can transcend the topic of sports.
“His column is not just on the front page of the sports section, it’s on the front page of the actual paper,” he said. “That speaks to him being here for as long as he has been and cultivating his voice that speaks what Los Angeles is thinking.”
Plaschke often infuses his own emotions into sports stories, which can lead to him taking stances that can be unpopular among his readers. For example, Plaschke referenced his disdain for former Dodger Yasiel Puig as a take for which he received plenty of criticism. But these negative responses can cover up the fact the Plaschke truly wants to write about the positive side of sports.
“Winning is better for the city, obviously, and it’s better for the newspaper,” he said. “People think I thrive on the negative, but it’s just the opposite: I want the positive.”
That being said, Plaschke said he prioritizes the responsibility he feels to the reader to call it how he sees it.
“You have to be honest with the reader because they trust you,” Plaschke said. “That’s what’s so sacred to me in this business. They have to trust that you’re being objective.”
Plaschke added that this relationship with readers is where he derives the most enjoyment from his work.
“The best award I’ve ever won is when someone emails me, texts me, tweets at me and says ‘Hey, thanks for writing this story, you said what I was thinking,’ or ‘My dad and I shared your story today’ or ‘We grew up reading you,’” he said. “Those are the things that really matter to me.”
Plaschke said the ultimate goal of his work is to cause a reaction, whether it be positive or negative.
“If you want to get mad at me, go ahead and get mad at me,” he said. “I love that you feel something. When I’m able to make people feel something I am very blessed, and that’s pretty much my whole reason for doing this.”