On the Field of Fair Play

Robert Lipsyte and Book Cover - “An Accidental Sportswriter”
Robert Lipsyte Sara Krulwich

    The poem from which Robert Lipsyte, a Shelter Islander who began an all-star reporting, writing, and broadcasting career with The New York Times a half-century ago, borrows the last two lines to serve as an epigraph for his memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter,” is Dylan Thomas’s “Should Lanterns Shine,” a poem that while despairing of the heart or the head’s ability to transcend our dreary past, sites hope for new possibilities and reinvention in the quickened pulse.
    The poem ends — and Lipsyte begins — with these lines: “The ball I threw while playing in the park / Has not yet reached the ground.”
    And you can bet that if it did, Lipsyte, whose reflective and very readable book is about struggle — often with various bullies, one of which, testicular cancer, struck him at age 40 — and inspired moments, would throw it up again.
    Not one of sportswriting’s “lodge brothers,” all too inclined to trade access for protection, nor, for that matter, a “ripper,” solely intent on removing the veil from mythic sports heroes, the writer, whose multifaceted career, which began with The Times at 19, has included sports and column writing stints for that paper, book writing (primarily in the young-adult genre), and television journalism, comes across as an engaging truth-teller with a heart.
    It all began with an assignment no one wanted, when The Times’s “toy department” told him to go cover a mouthy young man from Kentucky who everyone thought would be crushed by Sonny Liston in a heavyweight title bout in Miami. Four British mopheads whom no one knew at the time were there too.

“An Accidental

Robert Lipsyte
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    “. . . Suddenly the locker room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much larger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He seemed to glow. He was laughing.”
    “ ‘Hello there, Beatles!’ he roared. ‘We oughta do some road shows together, we’ll get rich.’ ”
    “The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they’d met before and choreographed their routine. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. . . . Then they lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay’s jaw. . . .”
    (There’s a photo taken from that serendipitous encounter in Astro Pizza in Amagansett, by the way, and the whole madcap scene is on YouTube.)
    And so began Lipsyte’s journey into sportsworld, which he quickly realized was not immune to the pressing political and social questions of the day.
    He was there when Ali got his draft notice. He wrote a book, “Nigger,” with Dick Gregory. He was mentored by Gay Talese and Howard Cosell, “the most important sports journalist of my era.” He was once knocked down by the bodyguards of Malcolm X, who later told him that his coverage of Ali had been the fairest. He was once told to go fuck himself by Mickey Mantle. He was treated to a magical treatise on “the outfielder’s sky” by Joe DiMaggio. He was “besotted” by Billie Jean King, “the most important sports figure of the 20th century, one of the smartest athletes I’ve known,” who radiated the joy and possibility that Ali did, and who included him in her aura.
    I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil a book that is well worth the reading.
    Not only is “An Accidental Sportswriter” an engaging anecdotal account of a lively career informed by Lipsyte’s triumphant pummeling of a bully in elementary school, but it is also a reflection on what’s important in life.
    Used to shining a lantern on famous athletes, the writer was often disappointed (see “Should Lanterns Shine”), but he did meet along the way jocks — first and foremost his father, with whom he really began to connect when both were old men — who impressed him with their gritty integrity and abiding interest in fair play.
    “There’s a moral nut in every human being,” the Onondaga chief Oren Lyons (who once played on the same lacrosse team as Jim Brown) tells him. “We have to keep reminding people, we have to keep exposing them to what’s good in themselves. We have to teach the question, the only question. ‘Is it right?’ So simple. But if people don’t want to follow that, the game is up. It’s all over.”
    As a serious reporter, though, Lipsyte had to remain on guard lest he become too much of a fan, someone, say, like Bob Costas, whom he thought tilted too much toward sentiment.
    Costas, in turn, thought Lipsyte was at times overly critical. The writer and the younger sports journalist make an interesting, if somewhat combative, pair. The heart and the head. My wife, who also read this book, said “Should Lanterns Shine” might well be “a poem for Bob Costas.”
    And what of the quickened pulse, of possibility and reinvention? There is some of that too in this book — especially when Lipsyte is driven, and later drives, at speed around a Nascar track.
    “. . . And then we were at speed, the qualifying lap, and I gave myself up to sheer pleasure. My body pressed against the seat on the straightaway, but my mind lifted out of my head, a balloon freed of thought, and I felt an exhilaration so intense it seemed a white light.”
    “. . . I hated to see the checkered flag. I eased into neutral and coasted home. My pit crew was cheering and waving. . . . I felt an overwhelming warmth for them all. They seemed bubbly with gratitude that I was alive. Someone estimated that I had reached about 130 MPH.”
    And the ball he threw while playing in the park that day has not yet reached the ground.