Encounters with the greatest sportswriter you’ve never heard
Jerry Izenberg, the greatest sportswriter you’ve never heard of, walks into the Grand Cafe at Sunset Station like a cruiserweight entering a ring. He’s loose, confident, on the balls of his feet. Semi-retired, living in Henderson, now 83, he still covers the major sporting events (fewer), kvetches (more) and wears a goatee (grayer). Windbreaker, tan pants, hair doing what it wants.
Forty years ago, on Sunday nights at 10:30, my best friend Dave and I used to sit in his basement, eat Ellio’s frozen pizza, and watch Sports Extra. Izenberg did commentary. He’d sit behind a desk — bemused, annoyed, furious — giving sports a perspective before we knew (or cared) it had one.
“He’ll keep fighting until his beard is grayer than mine,” I remember he once said of Muhammad Ali after Ali beat Foreman in Zaire, foreshadowing his friend’s decay and sadness.
Charles P. Pierce of Esquire once told me, “When I was a baby sportswriter, Jerry was one of the old guys around whom I would, in a relative sense, shut up and listen.”
He started coming to Vegas in 1958 when big fights discovered the place. Here for good since 2007, like everyone he wants his Vegas back.
“I liked the other Las Vegas better. It achieved what it needed to achieve, but then the corporations came in and they don’t know what they want to do except profits for their shareholders, so Las Vegas doesn’t know what the hell it wants to be anymore. These other guys, the old guys, knew. They said, ‘We’ll build this thing in the desert. We’ll come here, we’ll entertain them, we’ll give them broads if they want them, we’ll give them booze, we’ll give them a lot of gambling, and then they’ll go home. If they beat us, it’ll be the best advertising we could hope for.’ These people, they don’t know.”
It’s not all bad, of course.
“I like the hotel sports books and Lucille’s barbecue. I like watching the Las Vegas 51s triple-A club.”
“Sometimes I watch kids playing little league here, until their parents get too offensive and ruin the game. And sometimes I stop by and watch a high school team play.”
He likes baseball on this level. “Nobody’s playing for bonuses, nobody’s got a needle in his ass.”
Talk to Izenberg, sports are never far away, the past isn’t.
“You were the greatest sportswriter I ever read,” I tell him.
“What do you mean was? I’m old, I’m not dead.”
I’m having lunch with the greatest sportswriter you’ve never heard of.
Old Jews like coffee shops.
We sit. He doesn’t need a menu.
“Look,” he tells the waitress, already and inexplicably annoyed, “I want ham and cheese on that bread that’s not really the bread you say it is, but whatever … and a bowl of soup.”
They know him here.
He covered sports for more than 50 years at the New Jersey Star Ledger. He was a newspaperman, he’ll tell you, not a journalist.
“W.C. Heinz, a great sportswriter, told me once, ‘You have to get out, because if you don’t, you’ll always be a ‘seven-inning writer.’ And it was a very profound statement and a prophetic one, because I never got out, and I am a seven-inning writer. In terms of literature, you can’t surpass it writing about a 3-2 ballgame.”
He’s modest. His prose, his voice was literature. He wrote and directed Grambling College: 100 Yards To Glory, in 1968, back when television wasn’t producing documentaries about black athletes, black schools in the Deep South. He showed Eddie Robinson, the school’s longtime coach, cutting the grass and making sandwiches; he filmed the marching band; interviewed Mrs. Davis, the mother of a linebacker, in her home, where chickens walked out when he knocked on the door, and, where, inside, he remembers, was just a bed, a table, a picture of her son and a bible. The mother, looking at the portrait, saying over and over, “I’m just so proud of Henry.”
He put it in the documentary.
It wasn’t just a sport to Izenberg — none of sports are.
When Ali beat Foreman in Kinshasa, he said on Sports Extra, “My head was wrong and my heart was right,” and then, in a column about the fight, described Ali walking along the Congo River, as “the most famous and loneliest man in the world.” Nominated 15 times for a Pulitzer, he’s never won. He’s Susan Lucci. Doesn’t matter, he’ll tell you, because there’s a plaque in his home office, an obvious forgery, that reads The Pulitzer Prize for Commentary … Jerry Izenberg.
On it are also the words …
I don’t care what the committee says. I know more about writing than any committee — signed by Muhammad Ali.
“I have the only one of those,” he says.
He’s only one of two reporters (Jerry Green from the Detroit News is the other) who have covered every Super Bowl since the first in 1967. He also had his wrist broken by a cop at the Democratic Convention in 1968.
His sandwich arrives; Jerry’s not happy.
Old Jews in coffee shops rarely are.
“You know,” he says to me, “in this country, French fries sometimes come with ketchup.”
The waitress returns.
He smiles at her. “What’s missing from this table?”
She smiles back. She brings the ketchup.
“So … Cosell?”
“Howard was Howard. We did the Grambling film; we were co-producers. When he saw a rough cut, he said, ‘I want the band out, I want that woman out of there.’ We argued. Later, I told the film editor, a great guy, Eddie Deigtch, ‘You touch that film, I’ll cut your fingers off.’
“Weeks go by,” Jerry says. “I show him the same film and Howard says, 'Now that’s television.’”
Years later, they’re in a bar in San Francisco.
“Howard was going on about the film, how he saved it, when I said, ‘Look, I didn’t change a frame.’ I got a phone. ‘Here,’ I said, ‘call Deigtch if you don’t believe me,’ and started dialing the number.”
Cosell walked out; they barely spoke after that.
I ask the waitress if she’ll take a picture of us. I am — God help me — going to post it on Facebook. I climb into Jerry’s side of the booth. I give him the two books I’ve written. He takes my address, says he’ll send me two of his.
He tells me about the books he’s working on — on the Negro League, Pete Rozelle — and how he bought a house with a big window in Henderson so he could see the mountains that frame his daily life.
In Newark, he didn’t see mountains.
He picks up the check.
The greatest sports writer you’ve never heard of is buying me lunch.
But then he drops the check. Literally. I’m under the table.
He tells me a joke about a Jewish grandmother who tells her son to ring the doorbell with his elbow.
“Why my elbow, grandma?”
“What,” she asks, “you’re coming empty-handed?”
Old Jews like jokes about older Jews.
And with my books in a FedEx envelope, he heads to the sports book.
Heard a story once about Olivier, how, late in his career while he was still doing theater, he would “throw off” decades before walking onstage.
Jerry is throwing off decades.
Days later, there is a package waiting for me, two books inside: one about the New York Giants; the other, his autobiography, Through My Eyes, A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey, with the inscription, “A friend in need is a pain in the ass.”
Lunch Two (about a year later)
Jerry is limping, crooked, in pain. We meet at the same cafe. We hug.
There have been two surgeries, fusions on his back since I last saw him. He now uses a wheelchair to get through airports. A cancer scare in his ear. There’s been a biopsy, then another, then another. His doctor can’t find anything. Jerry points to the scab, an ugly black one. His doctor wants to do a skin graft from Jerry’s elbow.
“I told him, ‘Why don’t you just take it from my ass? Because you don’t know one from the other.’”
We sit in the same booth.
He orders a sandwich he knows he’s not going to like.
It comes. He doesn’t.
“What’s the mustard for?” he asks nobody in particular.
“I’m going to the Kentucky Derby, and in the morning, on race day, when you wake up and you see the infield and the sun coming up, it’s beautiful. It makes you want to be a poet. Luckily, for me, any desire to be one passes in about 10 minutes.”
He talks horses, the Triple Crown — which he’s covering — about long shots.
“This horse, you didn’t bet that it would win; you bet that it would live.”
We talk about Jersey. He was awarded the keys to Newark, New Jersey a few months back. At the award ceremony he said to Mayor Luis Quintana, “Looie, now you give me the key? There’s nothing left to steal.”
He’s working, constantly. His bio of iconic NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle comes out next month. He wants to write another autobiography, an unvarnished one, already titled: Big Cities, Fast Women and Slow Horses.
“Look, I don’t want to be the last angry man, but maybe I am, who knows? I asked Casey (Stengel) once, ‘Who are your best friends?’ and he said, ‘At the present time, all my best friends are dead.’ We have the greatest language in the world, because every day, these people under the age of 40 fight it, eat it up, leave it bloody on the battlefield, and the next day it gets up to fight again.”
This is not a seven-inning guy.
(A few weeks later, I got an email from Pierce, from the Belmont. “There may be better things in journalism than sitting in a racetrack press box with Jerry Izenberg with a Triple Crown on the line, but I can’t think of one right now.”)
I watch him check out the waitress’s ass. He sees me see him.
“I’m old. I’m not dead.”
In the autobiography — the one where he talks of growing up with a Christian Scientist mother and Jewish father and the anti-Semitism, the one that has him on the cover, holding a bat, shirtless, maybe 10, his father, Jacob, behind him in a catcher’s position — he quotes something his old man told him about acceptance and belonging. His father fought in World War I, as Jerry wrote, as “a repayment to a country for a promise he made on a ship crammed with immigrants.” And after his father came home, the son said, “He had a smile the war could not kill.”
“I don’t know exactly how far the ball went,” he would write in the book, “but it left the playground. And what I do know for certain is, at that exact moment, I became an American.”
He sees America now. He is hopeful, barely.
“I’ve lived a long time. Hope to live a lot longer. The one good thing about it: America is changing. Now we take one step back. We used to take three steps back. I mean, look at me and my wife (Aileen, an African-American). When we got married (36 years ago), there were hard stares from both blacks as well as whites.
“The sad part is mostly America is changing for the better, but intellectually it’s changing for the worse. This country has murdered one ingredient of the American dream — intellectual curiosity, and without it, you’re half a person.”
On his injuries now, his fusion, his maybe-cancer, his mortality, Jerry reminds me, “My dad didn’t raise no 12-round fighter," someone who'd give up before the 15th round.
“My father was dying. He knew it. We knew it. I went to his room. He told me to look in the closet. ‘What do you see?’ he asked. ‘Nothing, dad. Some pants, shirts, some shoes.’ ‘That’s what I’m telling you,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve got nothing to leave you except my name. Izenberg. Don’t f--- it up.’”
Jerry tells me about a prayer he wrote on a piece of paper, and having a friend insert it into the crevices of the Wailing Wall, as is the custom.
“What was the prayer?” I ask.
“Two words: ‘Why me?’”
I watch Jerry walk through the casino, again, only this time, he’s bruised, his gait is slower.
I’m old, I’m not dead.
The greatest sportswriter you’ve never heard of has a doctor’s appointment.