Robert Lipsyte: Accidental Sportswriter
By Scott Halasz, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964, it boosted the career of not one, but two people.Clay went on to boxing and entertainment greatness, eventually changing his name to Muhammad Ali. But in addition to launching his stellar career in the ring, he inadvertently helped a wet-behind-the-ears copy boy from Queens named Robert Lipsyte morph from editorial lackey to New York Times boxing writer.
Lipsyte will be in Dayton on Nov. 7 to talk about his new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, as part of the DJCC’s Cultural Arts and Book Festival.
The book is a retrospect of a sports writing career that began, well, by accident.
“I had just graduated (Columbia) and needed a summer job,” Lipsyte said. He answered an ad for an editorial assistant position at the Times, figuring he would save some money then head to California to seek a professional writing career.
“It was a terrible job,” Lipsyte said of his stint as a copy boy. “I was not that much of a sports fan. The hours were 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. (But) I just kind of fell in love with the paper and the idea of journalism.”
And seven years later, when Clay boldly challenged the heavily favored Liston, the Times brass didn’t want to send an actual reporter, figuring the fight would last two hits: Liston hitting Clay and Clay hitting the ground.
“They didn’t want to waste a real reporter’s time,” Lipsyte said. They told him to cover the fight and even suggested that he stay in a hotel close to the local hospital so he could catch Clay being admitted into the intensive care unit.
After Clay’s immense upset, Lipsyte immediately became the Times’ boxing reporter and eventually worked his way up the ranks, becoming a columnist before leaving the paper in 1971, only to return 20 years later.
Lipsyte has written several other books and spent some time in television but couldn’t resist the thrill of sports writing.
“Sports was a kind of a window to every other aspect of life,” he said. “I really came to love being in sports. Everything led out of sports and led back into sports.”
“I didn’t go in with a lot of the background information that a real (sports) fan would have,” Lipsyte said. “I didn’t have that background.”
But that wasn’t necessarily bad, because Lipsyte was able to cover his beat from an idiosyncratic point of view. It also helped that the Times didn’t exactly monitor every word that was printed on the sports page.
“Sports has always been sort of the comics section for the Times,” Lipsyte said. “We had a certain freedom. They were much more worried about the government ripping on them, some foreign dictator shooting their foreign correspondent than they were sports writers writing their version of the truth. They would back us up.”
Lipsyte’s newest literary piece recalls interactions with the likes of Clay, sportscaster Howard Cosell and tennis great Billie Jean King, all trailblazers for whom Lipsyte had great reverence; and some Lipsyte didn’t particularly care for, such as New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle.
But An Accidental Sportswriter isn’t just pages of name dropping. It’s not just a list of what Lipsyte covered. The book contains interactions with and stories of people who mean a lot to Lipsyte, people who helped change and shape him.
Imagine that. A non-sports guy having his life influenced by the sports world.
The DJCC’s Cultural Arts and Book Festival presents Robert Lipsyte on Monday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE. At 8:15 p.m., following Lipsyte’s talk, CBS News National Correspondent Jim Axelrod will discuss his new book, In The Long Run. The cost for both is $5 in advance, $8 at the door. Call Karen Steiger at 853-0372.