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A relentless reporter and fearless writer who earned respect throughout baseball’s press boxes and clubhouses for his distinctive voice and incisive coverage of the game, Post-Dispatch sports columnist Joe Strauss died early Sunday morning from complications related to a yearlong battle against leukemia. He was 54.

Before becoming a sports columnist at the newspaper in 2012, Strauss spent nearly three decades covering baseball and was widely regarded as one of the finest, sharpest beat writers by his contemporaries. He wrote the first and, in many cases, the lasting words on how Cal Ripken Jr.’s historic Iron Man streak ended; how the Atlanta Braves’ dynasty of the 1990s began; and how Albert Pujols’ career was unlike any the Cardinals had seen in generations. Strauss pushed conventional beat writing forward by injecting analysis and personality into all of his coverage.

He received many national awards for his work, and his ability to craft a game story and his unyielding reporting influenced many who worked beside him or just read him.

“Joe was really the type of person and professional that the more you were around him, the more you got to know him and appreciate everything about him,” said Tony La Russa, a Hall of Famer and manager of the Cardinals for most of Strauss’ time as the beat writer. “His talent. His intelligence. His work ethic. He was very dogged in his approach. Spend time with him and you really came to admire it. … He had to work the rough edges. There is always that tension (with a beat writer). There’s a job both of us had to do. That tension always exists. I think that tension with Joe really developed into a good relationship, one that was built on respect.”

Strauss kept his cancer diagnosis mostly private, returning to write a column at every opportunity and at times hosting his STLtoday.com chat, “Joe Strauss Live!!!,” while at the hospital. His last column for the paper, Nov. 10, came shortly after an aggressive treatment — and he went to the University of Missouri to report from Columbia about the football team’s protest and fall of university leadership.

‘HE JUST KEPT WORKING’

While he went through waves of treatment, the remission and the return of the leukemia, Strauss offered no hint in print of his fight.

“You have to admire how he approached it. He didn’t tell people. He showed strength. He just kept working,” said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. “I think it was his DNA to be a writer. He wanted to write. He wanted to contribute. If he didn’t write, it was like he was waving the white flag. He was going to write because that’s who he was. … I think back to our parallel paths: As my career grew so did his status with St. Louis readers, and we had our ups and downs. But this was always true — he was tough. He earned admiration.”

Strauss was surrounded by family this weekend. He is survived by his wife, Diana Minardi Strauss, and their daughter, Alexis.

Strauss started on the Cardinals beat for the Post-Dispatch in 2002 and quickly put his fingerprints on the paper’s storied baseball coverage. Strauss was the lead writer — the “big chair,” he called it — for one of the most successful eras in Cardinals history. As online content came to define a beat writer’s role, Strauss developed a following on Twitter and hosted the online chat, “JSL!!!”, which he advertised as a weekly “tsunami” of his insider info.

He insisted, with a wry grin, the exclamation points mattered. They set his tone.

‘GLOVES-OFF APPROACH’

“He brought so much personality to it. In one of his chats you got answers, but you also got humor, snark, and a gloves-off approach,” Post-Dispatch sports editor Roger Hensley said. “One of Joe’s defining skills was his ability to dig deep enough to get the story behind the story. A sound bite or a quote was simply not enough. He wanted to know the thinking behind the initial answer. He was a consummate reporter in pushing those he was interviewing for more information.”

A native of Richmond, Va., Joseph Strauss attended the University of Dayton and later graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983, the same year he joined the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

His first newspaper job was with the Gwinnett (Ga.) Daily News, where he served as beat writer for the Braves, Falcons and University of Georgia. Strauss also got in his first licks as a columnist, a role he would strive toward and cherish throughout his career. Strauss worked for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer before vaulting, in 1988, to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Strauss served as a national baseball writer and national writer for the AJC before leaving for The Baltimore Sun and its Orioles beat.

From 1997 through 2001, Strauss blended traditional beat work for the Sun with revealing profiles and a weekly Sunday column that he titled, “Inside the Orioles.” He would expand on that concept in St. Louis with the “Cardinals Insider,” a staple of the Sunday newspaper that set a high standard for a feature that continues today. While in Baltimore, Strauss covered the back stretch of Ripken’s consecutive game streak. He tirelessly worked to assure he would be the reporter to break when and why Ripken would take a seat. He did break it. Of course, he did. When it finally happened as he described it would, Strauss penned a lead that still resonates: “The Streak died last night of natural causes. It was 2,632.”

“He was great at developing relationships, he was great at breaking stories, and I think that’s what really drove him,” said Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. “He was tenacious and persistent. When he got onto something he wasn’t going to let go. He knew it was his job. He came up with things over the years that others wouldn’t. There were times I would leave (the office) late because I knew there was something I didn’t want to talk to him about. He would always track me down. Always. He took things head-on. He loved finding out something that no one else knew and writing about it.”

A CONTRARIAN

And the times everyone knew about it, Strauss just wrote it better.

On Oct. 17, 2005, at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, Strauss and the other Post-Dispatch writers were nearing deadline, each writing a coda to a Cardinals’ season that appeared to be over that night in Game 5 of the National League championship series. Less than five minutes before stories were due, Pujols hit a home run reversed the course of the game and held off elimination. A veteran of such hairpin turns on deadline, Strauss coolly scrapped one lead for one of his best leads: “Down to their last strike, their last chance, their last prayer, the Cardinals were rescued Monday night by a 412-foot bolt that ricocheted off Minute Maid Park’s left-field railroad trestle. …. Where this series goes from here is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Pujols brought the Cardinals back to Busch Stadium.”

Strauss referred to Pujols as “El Hombre,” and it was Pujols who, during their shared decade working the Cardinals’ clubhouse, nicknamed Strauss “El Diablo.”

“Joe Strauss was one of the first people to ever write that I had ‘talent,’” Pujols wrote in a Facebook message Sunday. “And for a 20-year-old kid, drafted in the 13th round, that really meant a lot. … He was an old-school journalist who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Joe was knowledgeable about the game and, more importantly, knowledgeable about the men who play the game. He had an amazing gift.”

Comfortable in any arena, Strauss peppered his presence on Twitter and on radio with opinions about football, college basketball, golf and horse racing, a special fondness of his. He got to flaunt that broader knowledge when, after the 2012 Cardinals season, the paper moved him to sports columnist. Strauss often played the role of contrarian. But in truth he celebrated the untold story or the underdog. Through his reporting he sought scoops but also exclusive details only he could convey. He didn’t so much work the clubhouse after a game as mine it, like a panner would a stream – sifting, sifting, sifting for that morsel of gold only he would have.

When he got a hold of a particularly weighty nugget, he would grin and, before putting fingers to keyboard, say: “Shake and stir. Shake and stir.”

“Joe was certainly capable of writing a column that would pull at your heartstrings, and did so on many occasions,” Hensley said. “But when it took a strong voice to deliver something Joe felt the readers and fans needed to hear, he pulled no punches.”

Strauss’ public persona was one of what Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III called “a tough-reporter mentality” but, he continued, “beneath that was Joe the guy, the one we got to know over time.” Strauss lived in the same neighborhood as Mozeliak when he first moved to St. Louis, and each Christmas would stop by with a gift, a token for a professional relationship. This past summer, a close friend took him to the Muny for a musical, and Strauss surrendered to it, grudgingly (for effect) admitting his enjoyment.

“He could be extremely funny,” said Judy Carpenter-Barada, the Cardinals’ director of major league administration who became a family friend. “I saw him as a dad. I saw him as someone who was nuts about his daughter and his wife.”

Strauss’ death comes less than 13 months after the Post-Dispatch lost Bryan Burwell, a distinguished sports columnist, to cancer in December 2014. Through a radio show they co-hosted at WGNU (920 AM), Burwell and Strauss became close friends. Strauss visited Burwell regularly during his battle with cancer, and it was Strauss who, through tears, gave a stirring eulogy for his colleague.

In July, the Post-Dispatch’s film critic Joe Williams was killed in a single-car accident.

“The deaths of Joe Strauss, sports columnist Bryan Burwell and movie critic Joe Williams in a little more than a year have taken an emotional toll on their families and their Post-Dispatch friends,” editor Gilbert Bailon said. “The loss of Joe is devastating to his many friends and colleagues. Joe never shrank from giving his opinions.”

Added Hensley: “Joe didn’t dance around a touchy topic, he hit the hole. When you finished reading a Joe Strauss column, there was no doubt you knew where he stood. A beautiful writer, a hard-nosed reporter, an even-handed columnist, and more than all of that, a great friend. I will miss Joe immensely.”

Memorial services are pending.