By Ken Stone
At 83, George Mitrovich kept up a nearly daily patter of baseball musings, shared with his more than 1,000 friends and family members on Facebook. But his last posting was July 8 — noting two home runs by “20-year-old wiz kid” Fernando Tatis Jr.
His silence was soon explained.
The San Diego native and democratic civic legend was being treated for metastatic cancer — melanoma having spread to his brain.
On Wednesday, Mitrovich died at Sharp Hospice at Sharp Memorial Hospital, a friend told Times of San Diego.
The news prompted a flood of memories from people across the country who found connections with him via politics, baseball or his public forums, including the 1975-founded City Club of San Diego.
“This country lost one of its finest citizens,” wrote Tim Peeler of North Carolina. “A kind man, generous with his time and the enormous gift of his friendship.”
Peeler recalled having breakfast with him several years ago in Boston, where he “chatted up our waitress, a foreign student, studying at one of the local universities. She was excited because she was going to Washington, D.C., for the weekend.”
Then came what he called a Mitrovich Moment: “Before the meal was done, George had made a phone call and arranged for her to tour the Senate chambers.”
Shawn VanDiver, director of the Truman National Security Project’s San Diego chapter, called him one of San Diego’s greatest men who dedicated his life to public discourse.
“When I was leaving the Navy, George gave me office space and a home base downtown,” VanDiver said on Facebook. “He helped me understand San Diego and provided a lot of wonderful color commentary. He introduced me to some of my dearest friends and he is an institution.”
Mitrovich served on dozens of public boards and commissions that helped reshape San Diego, most notably as chairman of the Committee on Charter Reform, whose proposal for changing city government from council manager to mayor council was adopted by voters in 2004, noted an obituary prepared by former Union-Tribune sportswriter John Freeman.
In addition, he chaired the Committee of 2000, a citizens group that successfully supported the building of Petco Park, the city’s downtown ballpark. The measure passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Freeman says he met Mitrovich through the City Club and in recent years had breakfast with him on a regular basis “as he did with so many friends.”
He quoted Mitrovich from last year: “I am 83. I dare anyone, anyone, to tell me I’m too old to be running four public forums in four different American cities; too old to keep up with six emails: too old to write, on average, 1,500 words a day; too old to grocery shop and plan dinners most nights; too old to be as active as I am — which is mostly the same degree of activity I had 20 or 40 years ago.”
As noted in his HuffPost profile, where he blogged, Mitrovich also was president of the Denver Forum and chaired the Boston Red Sox The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, as well as chairing the team’s annual birthday tribute to Jackie Robinson.
“A writer and contributor to leading North American newspapers, he is also a public speaker of note, with four speeches published in Vital Speeches of the Day — a distinction held by few Americans,” said the profile.
A former press aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in the presidential campaign of 1968, Mitrovich also was press secretary for Sens. Charles Goodell of New York and Harold Hughes of Iowa, worked with two House members and later served as president of the San Diego County Ecumenical Council of 125 Christian churches.
Freeman, in his obituary posted on Facebook, recalled how Mitrovich founded The City Club of San Diego as a nonpartisan public forum.
“Above all, he was a crusader for the enduring tenets of democracy, civility and kindness, given freely to friends and strangers alike. His self-selected slogan for the City Club … that over the decades attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands of prominent speakers, was ‘Dedicated to the Dialogue of Democracy.’”
Chatting with NBC San Diego’s Gene Cubbison in a June 2015 appearance on “Politically Speaking,” Mitrovich said: “We need to be doing good things and right things and we need to be our brother’s keeper.”
He also said: “Stop telling me (San Diego) is America’s Finest City,” pointing to another home, Denver, as most accomplished.
Reporter and author Jamie Reno, a cancer survivor and advocate, called Mitrovich a dear friend.
“George was a man of substance, of gravitas, of decency and class and kindness,” Reno wrote on Facebook. “He challenged people to be their best selves. And yes, he could also be a major pain in the ass. 🙂 He had very strong opinions and entrenched values, and I loved him for it.”
Reno said he was honored to be a part of the legendary Mitrovich Family softball games — as well a teammate for many years on the Marston Mets.
“He was indefatigable!” Reno said. “And listening to George speak was uplifting. … George always asked about my family, and vice versa. This is a tough one, folks. I’ll miss you, my friend, profoundly and always.”
Freeman called Mitrovich a man of “surpassing intellect, opinions, passions and pursuits, including but hardly limited to the vagaries of politics, civics and, of course, baseball. Mitrovich was an immutable force in San Diego’s civic fabric for more than a half-century and perhaps longer.”
Mitrovich graduated from Helix High School in La Mesa, where he played baseball and basketball. He earned his undergraduate degree from Pasadena College, which later became Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
In 2007, the institution awarded him an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters.
“Among countless civic-minded credentials, achievements and accolades, many self-proclaimed in his endearing style of talking about himself, Mr. Mitrovich might have been most proud of his own lengthy career as a ballplayer,” Freeman wrote.
“Indeed, unwilling as he was to willingly yield to time’s inexorable toll, he played and often served as a player/manager for several decades with the Marston Mets of the San Diego Adult Baseball League, 45-and-over division. Let the record show: The Mets won league titles in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013.”
In 2016, on the eve of the San Diego-hosted All-Star Game, Mitrovich noted he had kept a baseball blog five days a week, 24 weeks a year for four years.
“My adoration of America’s Game began on a May night 74 years ago,” he wrote in a U-T column. “My father took me to Lane Field, a ballpark at the foot of Broadway built by the Works Progress Administration.”
The AAA Pacific Coast League Padres were playing the Hollywood Stars, and Ed Vitalich was pitching for the Padres, he wrote.
“My dad wanted me to understand, at age 7, Serbs could play baseball (my paternal grandparents, Stephanie and Velo Mitrovich, had crossed the Atlantic from Yugoslavia to find refuge in America, where they would have nine children, including seven boys, six of whom served in World War II).”
He said he then played the game for 70 years — “through 10-inch ball at McKinley Elementary School, softball at Roosevelt Junior High, three years of high school (Hoover and Helix), American Legion, and winter league baseball, plus 40 years playing 12-inch softball on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer and as player/manager in San Diego’s municipal leagues, with 30 years of Mitrovich 4th of July All-Star Softball Classics, plus over-the-line thrown in, and, now, for the past 15 years with the Marston Mets in the SDABL.”
Freeman said Mitrovich was a whirlwind of interests and expertise on innumerable topics that freely entered his everyday conversations at the slightest provocation.
“His was a world without limits on whatever he deemed intellectually stimulating and worthy of impassioned dialogue and further discussion, his sharp wit and high-pitched laugh never far behind,” he wrote.
Mitrovich’s close ties to Washington and elsewhere were legendary, Freeman wrote.
“It seemed as if he knew everyone who was anyone, not only in San Diego but everywhere else his travels took him. When our friend George said he ‘knew’ someone, it was doubtless true, despite his forgivable tendency to drop more than a few names along the way.”
In recent years he noted that two of the current Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, were personal friends of long standing.
Over four decades, Mitrovich presented more than 2,000 public forums, an average of some 50 every year.
“It was in his Red Sox role that he proudly showed off his diamond-laden 2017 World Series ring to dozens of Alaska Airlines flight attendants, who then were treated to a personal VIP walking tour, and even a game if schedules permitted, at fabled Fenway Park,” Freeman wrote.
A United Methodist layman, he preached in some of America’s leading churches, including Washington’s National Cathedral and Highland Park United Methodist in Dallas, Freeman added.
In addition to public speaking, he wrote extensively for numerous papers, including The New York Times, Boston Globe, Toronto Globe and Mail, Baltimore Sun, Union-Tribune, Denver Post, and Los Angeles Times, as well as faith-based magazines.
His “Baseball Notes” drew a national following in the thousands, including many of the game’s top executives and media hosts such as ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, Freeman said.
Mitrovich also had less savory associations — performing community relations and PR duties for swindler J. David Dominelli during his fabled Ponzi scheme of the 1980s costing people tens of millions of dollars.
“With the help of George Mitrovich, J. David money was spread around the community (such as to the symphony), as Dominelli and [lover Nancy] Hoover went on a spending spree with investor funds,” wrote Don Bauder.
Mitrovich lost no money himself, the U-T noted in Dominelli’s 2009 obituary, “but his reputation was sullied by his association…. Mitrovich described his role as identifying worthwhile causes in San Diego for Dominelli and Hoover’s donations.”
Mitrovich was quoted as saying: “I thought it was a great thing until one found out it wasn’t their money. But at the time, until this thing all came apart, I thought it was a very good place for me to be because I was doing something that I loved doing, which was being involved in constructive ways.”
Mitrovich — born at a downtown San Diego hospital on July 29, 1935 — is survived by his wife, La Verle Ann Sutherland of Spokane, Washington, and their three children: Carolyn, Mark and Tim. Carolyn has a son, Matthew James Mitrovich, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, while Tim and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters, Jessica and Juliette.
Services have yet to be announced.
Updated at 10:55 p.m. July 25, 2019
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: