The Sportswriters Speak
To my knowledge, few sportswriters have written memoirs. Most times a writer taking a victory lap will release a best-of collection that includes an introduction. That’s about it. Many don’t have the stature or the influence to warrant publishing a life story. Others don’t get around to it. Red Smith, the iconic sports columnist, was still working four days before his death.
Robert Lipsyte, formerly of the New York Times, is an exception. He is a politically minded, socially conscious sports columnist who refuses to revel in mythology and manufactured drama. Lipsyte worries about the “Jock Culture” that has infiltrated society with good qualities (bravery, hard work) and bad ones (domination, intimidation). The desire to look beyond sports—Lipsyte only had a passing interest in them as a youngster—has led to some glorious opportunities: television work, books of all types (including co-writing Dick Gregory’s famous Nigger), even a brief stint as a city columnist for The New York Post during the Son of Sam days.
I expected Lipsyte’s memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, to detail a life. Instead, it’s about a life hijacked. “Covering sports, particularly on deadline, can offer a similar rush [to athletic competition], and during the absorption of chasing a story it’s easy to justify not fulfilling the obligations of a relationship, of a family,” Lipsyte writes. “Maybe I’ll get to the next Thanksgiving with the in-laws, the next school play or teacher meeting, the next meltdown, drug scare, college application. Can’t make this one, I’ve got to file my story.”
Lipsyte’s decision to forgo a traditional template is refreshing, but unfortunate, contributing to a fragmented, incomplete work. Throughout An Accidental Sportswriter, the author references events that beg for elaboration: his lengthy battle with testicular cancer, marriages and divorces, a transition from newspapers to freelance writing to television. Those stories get neglected for a series of recollections on Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, and others who cut through sports’ pageantry. The chapters are thoughtful and eloquent—it is nice to see Ali not deified and Billie Jean King properly recognized as a hero—but they read like profiles from another book.
And they relegate Lipsyte to a minor role. His tales from childhood and early adulthood, sweet and honest, help the book get off to a strong start. An overweight, easily teased Lipsyte finds books and writing to be his salvation. The nineteen-year-old Columbia graduate applies to the Times, where he is improbably hired. The youngster learns to love the rhythms of a newsroom and finds a mentor in a well-dressed, rebellious young reporter named Gay Talese. But when Lipsyte, a talented, feisty writer, starts mixing stories on his sneaker-wearing muses with autobiography, the book never recovers. We’re not sure if the book is about his life, the perils of sports reporting, or the search for a hero to transcend sports. It’s good material that breathes easy in three books, but gasps for air when shoved into one.
Like Lipsyte, sportswriting was a significant aspect of Roger Ebert’s life. Ebert’s first writing job was covering high school sports for his hometown paper, Illinois’ The News-Gazette. It’s where the teenager, losing a battle with his typewriter, received “the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer,” courtesy of colleague Bill Lyon: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?”
Now the world’s most beloved film critic—no one else comes close—Ebert recalls those early newspaper days fondly in Life Itself, his eagerly anticipated, well-timed memoir. As most people know, thanks to Chris Jones’ exquisite profile in Esquire and a subsequent appearance on Oprah, salivary cancer and a series of failed operations have left Ebert voiceless and mortal. A poignant pall hangs over every page: he could leave us any time. The book represents the last, great chance to tell his story.
Life Itself features the expected film-related anecdotes regarding Gene Siskel and screen legends like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, but they don’t dominate. Ebert is determined to define himself as a person, not as a sweeps-week storyline or as the jovial movie expert that millions adored. So, over fifty-five chapters, he writes about everything: Growing up in Urbana, IL; his frequently combative relationship with his devoutly Catholic mother (she wanted him to become a priest); his sexual education (a South African prostitute provided a lesson or two); old friends, and tons more. Ebert’s writing style is so clearly intelligent, so devoid of frills and posturing, that the book entrances you with its directness. It becomes a conversational epic, a step-by-step walk through a flawed, fortunate life. “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state,” Ebert writes. “…My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”
Ebert’s reviews have always shown a connection to the outside world, a deeper understanding that great writing isn’t about a writer hopelessly immersing himself in a subject. In An Accidental Sportswriter, Lipsyte boasts about how he strove to see beyond the games he covered, but his memoir brands him as a sports curmudgeon, albeit an eloquent one. In the wonderful Life Itself, Ebert frees himself from his professional designation, his TV alter ego. He becomes human.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.