01/09/2009 12:00AM

Funny and thoughtful to his final days


I am Joe Hirsch's second cousin, and along with my brother-in-law Sandy Socolow visited him daily during his recent stay at Katari, a nursing home on Riverside Drive. His closest cousin, Steven Jerski, lives in New Jersey but visited also. Joe grew up in the same West Side neighborhood that he died in.

Up until the last few days of his life, Joe was alert, still thoughtful, continued to read, and continued to be concerned about his friends. Parkinson's disease and a broken hip weakened him, but he never complained. Two days before he died, he tried to say something to me, but his voice was too weak. I said, "Joe, I'll go through the alphabet and tell me when to stop." When I got to B, Joe raised his arm a little. I only got to A the second time, and Joe stopped me. B-A . . . back. "You want the back of the bed raised?" He smiled and nodded.

He asked us to go to the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic last fall to present the trophy, which we were honored to do.

I was 15 years younger than Joe so we didn't know each other well when we were young. His grandmother and my grandfather were two of nine children, so the family was large, but Joe was an only child.

I met him first as an adult at a formal dinner in Palm Beach. I was 22 in the early 1960s and a guest of my new father-in-law. When everyone went around the table introducing themselves, Joe said, "I'm a guest of Mr. Levy's," but Joe pointed at me and said, "That guy over there is my cousin." We kept in touch after that meeting. I had more telephone numbers for Joe than anyone else in the Rolodex.

I knew where he would be in August, or May, and I always knew where to find him in the winter months.

When my son needed a car, Joe gave him his 1989 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, which he had stopped shipping to Florida as his Parkinson's disease advanced. It was an enormous car, and my son would proudly drive it to his school in the Bronx every day. It looked like the Black Maria. Joe said if he ever had an accident in the car, the other car would have the problem. It was more like a tank than a car.

When he was in New York, before his illness, we would visit from time to time or go out for a drink. If it was Jimmy Westin's or any of the other popular bars in Midtown, everyone knew Joe, respected him, and always asked for and valued his opinion.

He was sophisticated without being pretentious. He could talk to his doorman, the jockeys, the owners, or anyone else at the track, and they always respected him.

Joe never complained, even when he was dying. When I left, he always said "God bless."

Joe Namath, his roommate for many years, would call him in the nursing home, and Joe always looked forward to that call. Joe never lost his sense of humor. Recently when I was leaving him we shook hands. I said, "Joe you have a strong handshake." He said with a smile, "Maybe I should run for office!" Another time when he was in the cafeteria at the nursing home, filled mostly with old people, I remarked that the television was very loud. Joe replied, "They know the crowd they are playing to."

Joe was one of the great sportswriters of the 20th century. He will be sorely missed by everyone in racing but also by his family and all those who loved and respected him.