GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Sports writer and author Robert Lipsyte, foreground, and television producer and writer Ron Fried during a talk on September 4 at the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport.
For the record, Robert Lipsyte is not and never was a sports fan. That in itself would not be so unusual if he didn’t happen to be acclaimed as one of the greatest sports writers in American history.
A master at his craft? Most definitely.
A sports fan? “Not at all,” he said.
So how does it happen that someone with virtually no sports background rises to the top in the sports writing profession?
Purely by accident, Lipsyte would tell you. And that’s why he called his new memoir, published by HarperCollins, “An Accidental Sportswriter.”
The accidental part of it happened in 1957 after Lipsyte graduated from college and was looking for a summer job. While perusing the classified ads in the New York Times, he saw a help wanted notice for an editorial assistant at the paper. Lipsyte was hired as a copy boy for the sports department.
Lipsyte spent 20 years at the Times, remaining in the sports department the whole time before leaving the paper in 1971 as a sports columnist. (He was replaced at the Times by Red Smith, “probably the finest stylist who ever wrote sports,” said Lipsyte). Later, Lipsyte returned to the Gray Lady, writing a column for the Times from 1991 to 2003.
Between those two stints with the Times, he did television work as a correspondent for CBS and NBC, as well as winning an Emmy as host of WNET/Thirteen’s “The Eleventh Hour” in the late 1980s. Ron Fried, a television producer and writer, called Lipsyte the “hardest-working and most even-tempered host I’ve ever worked for in my life.”
Lipsyte has straddled two writing worlds as a journalist and as a fiction writer. Not counting his latest work, Lipsyte’s website lists 12 young adult novels, seven books for adults, seven young adult nonfiction works, three young adult short stories and seven essays for educators. His writings have brought him numerous awards, including the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary in 1992.
But Lipsyte never really left sports writing. “I always kept coming back,” he said.
Currently, Lipsyte does an op-ed column for USA Today and writes for a website run by The Nation, as well as bleacherreport.com.
Lipsyte, who maintains a residence on Shelter Island with his wife, Lois B. Morris, may be best known for his work in sports writing. It was a career that nearly got sidetracked after it had barely started.
He did not like his initial job as a copy boy at the New York Times. The hours were rough: 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. He had to get coffee for people, sharpen pencils and go into the basement and handle a big vat of paste used for patching together copy paper after editing. He was making $35 a week.
After a year and a half, he confided to Gay Talese, who at the time was a night rewrite reporter, that he had decided to quit.
As Lipsyte recalls it, Talese told him he was making a mistake and urged him to stay with the paper, saying he would make it big.
“Just him saying that changed everything,” Lipsyte said. “Gay Talese believed in me, so I hung in there.”
A couple of months later, Lipsyte was promoted to clerk and, by the time he was 21, he was a reporter.
The thrill of working for one of the world’s great newspapers also kept him there.
“I loved being at the Times,” he said. “I loved the excitement of it. You’d look out and these famous foreign correspondents are walking by. It was a wonderful place to be. I kind of lucked into it. What a place to start.”
Perhaps the second “accident” in Lipsyte’s career path happened in 1964. Cassius Clay was to fight Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in Miami Beach. Many expected Liston to knock Clay out in the first round, so the New York Times editors decided not to send their boxing reporter to Florida. They opted instead to give the assignment to the kid from the night rewrite desk, Lipsyte.
As it turned out, Clay scored a stunning upset and Lipsyte’s story made it onto page 1.
It was around that time in Florida when, before a photo op prior to the fight, Lipsyte found himself in the same room as the members of a British band that was visiting America, the Beatles. “For 15 minutes,” Lipsyte said, “I was the fifth Beatle.”
Lipsyte is critical of sports reporting that pulls punches and overlooks things such as the off-the-field carousing and womanizing of athletes. During a 57-minute presentation to promote his new book in a fundraiser for the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport on a recent Sunday, Lipsyte said sports writers didn’t always write the truth in his time. He said he tried to be an honest reporter and had considered himself “a kind of monk of journalism.”
As with every sports columnist, Lipsyte has opinions:
• He rates Billie Jean King as the most important sports figure of the 20th century. “Billie Jean King opened up sports for half the world,” he said.
• He has so far correctly predicted that golfer Tiger Woods would never win another major tournament following his indiscretions, which have sent his career into a tailspin.
• He said he doesn’t care if pro athletes use steroids.
• He said Pete Rose belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
• He has started a campaign to have Howard Cosell elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Why not?” he said. Lipsyte, who wrote for the ill-fated “Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell” TV program, got along well with Cosell. He told the story of how the two of them were walking in New York City one day when Cosell saw Lipsyte’s new book in a bookstore window. He pulled Lipsyte with him into the store. “I have Bobby Lipsyte, the world’s greatest sports writer,” Cosell, in his famous voice, announced to everyone in the store. “His book is here. If you buy it, I’ll sign it.”
Sports reporting has changed dramatically over the past half-century. Lipsyte said that he has seen changes for the better.
“When I started out — this is late ’50s — sports writers tended not to interview players,” he said. In “Spring training they might talk to coaches or the manager or something like that, but they didn’t rush down [to interview players] after a game.
“So, it was from this Olympian perch that they climbed on that they told the world what happened. Well, in those days, most people had not seen the game, so you could do that. Nowadays you could never get away with that because the fans have seen the game better than you had with instant replay and two former athletes telling you what really happened.”
He continued: “A sports journalist now has a very different position. He or she has to come up with analysis that nobody else has, gossip or investigation that are different, or write from the point of view of the fan. You just can’t be lazy and mediocre anymore.”
Lipsyte, a survivor of two bouts with testicular cancer, said writing the memoir was special for him. It might have given him some insight into how sports has kept the attention of a non-sports fan for all these many years.
“There is something about sports, even though I’m not a sports fan, that really gripped me,” he said. “It took me a long time figuring it out, and I think writing the book helped me figure it out. I think what it is is that there may be no other kind of journalism that is such a window on the whole world. It kind of leads you anywhere you want to go, overseas, psychology, injury, money.”
“I enjoy writing,” he continued. “I love to write. Sports, in a sense, gives you that dramatic structure, [those] vivid personalities under pressure. It’s all kind of right there. It’s exciting.”
And this connection was all by accident?
“There are people who say things like that is fate or that’s what you were meant to be doing or if it was such an accident, why did you stay so long?” he said. “Fifty years, that’s a long accident.”