By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 30, 2018)
Editor’s note: This column is part of a section from an upcoming ebook on Jerry Izenberg, who is attending his 52nd Super Bowl on Feb. 4.
“He was a thought leader in the world of sports journalism.”
-Jeremy Schaap on Jerry Izenberg
For nearly his entire life, Jeremy Schaap has been aware of Jerry Izenberg’s career. It goes with the territory.
“Obviously my dad knew a lot of the same people,” Schaap acknowledged in 2016.
He followed his famous father Dick’s footsteps into sports broadcasting, which over the years has given him an insider’s look at what makes Jerry tick.
The elder Schaap, a legendary newspaper/magazine reporter, columnist and editor, author and TV broadcaster, passed away in December 2001. Since his passing, Jeremy has continued to establish himself as one of the most thoughtful and resourceful journalists under the ESPN umbrella.
Now 48, Schaap was recently asked to look back on his awareness of Izenberg’s career before his own rise to prominence in the business. In doing so, he also took time to reflect on Izenberg’s place within the pantheon of prominent sportswriters.
“I didn’t grow up reading him on a daily basis,” Schaap admitted in a phone interview. “But I knew his work and then I had the opportunity to work with him side by side for a few years as we did this show called ‘Classic Sports Reporters’ (on ESPN Classic) and we got to spend a lot of time together and it was a privilege in working with Jerry at that time, which was about 15, 16 years ago, late ’90s, early 2000s.
“I came to understand the significance of his work, and Jerry is one of those rare guys who is both a terrific writer and a helluva reporter … and they are not mutually exclusive, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.”
So what makes Izenberg a significant figure in sports media?
“I think Jerry’s important in a lot of ways, but the most important thing about Jerry is that before it was popular to be for most of the sportswriting community had reconsidered its retrograde or reactionary opinions of things Jerry was kind of a trailblazer,” declared Schaap, who has written “Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History” and “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics.”
“Well, when I think of Jerry,” Schaap added, “I think of the way he championed blacks in baseball who did not get the opportunities that whites got, in particular his close friend Larry Doby.”
Schaap recognized that Izenberg remained a persistent voice calling out for racial and social justice for decades. Clearly, that impressed him.
“The dearth of black managers was one of the things, I think, that Jerry wrote about, the mistreatment of the black athlete,” Schaap said. “And he was someone who perceived these things, which now seem obvious, before most of his fellow sportswriters did.
“It’s a different world now. A lot of sportswriters now are guys with liberal arts degrees and they come at things from a more left-of-center orientation. It wasn’t that way generations ago. It was more of a trade and there were fewer guys who were socially aware, racially aware, and Jerry was really in the vanguard, and I think that’s to his eternal credit.”
Dick Schaap edited Sport magazine in the 1970s, seeking out distinguished writers and original voices to fill its pages, including Izenberg.
The NYC-based magazine, which printed its final issue in 2000, was impressive in its heyday, according to Izenberg.
“In its glory years, the magazine had great editors who gave writers freedom and a forum to say things that mattered,” Izenberg was quoted as saying in “Thomas Hauser on Sports: Remembering the Journey.”
“It was an authentic voice that brought out the best in us,” Izenberg said of Sport.”
For Jeremy Schaap, that quality resonates to this day.
“Jerry Izenberg was one of those names growing up in the sports-writing business where I always knew Jerry’s name,” Jeremy pointed out. “I’m sure I saw his name in the best sportswriting anthologies and in Sport and around. … Izenberg was one of the big guys, and I can’t pinpoint where I first heard of him, but I can’t really imagine I time when I didn’t know who Jerry was.”
It’s no secret why Izenberg thrived as a columnist in the cut-throat New York metropolitan media market for decades.
In short, he’s a gifted communicator.
“When I think of Jerry I think of somebody who had a way of communicating with athletes so that he got good stuff,” Schaap said. “These were reported columns. They were reported, they were written.
“When I think of Jerry’s columns, I think of a guy who went out and did the hard work of column writing. He wasn’t sitting there on Sunday afternoon or Saturday night, thinking, like, ‘Jeez, what the hell am I gonna write about this week?,’ because he had done the work, he had the contacts. His entire life had been building relationships, establishing a viewpoint, and that kind of rich column that is hued with historical perspective, with the actual effort, shoe-leather effort of going out and getting it, and more than anything else a guy who isn’t a cheap-shot artist, who isn’t a sensationalist, is someone with a point of view, but it’s all girded by a sense of humanity.
“That’s what I think of when I think of Jerry is somebody who’s interested in being fair, and also interested in taking a strong opinion, but not for the sake of taking a strong opinion or expressing one.
“He takes his work very seriously, he takes the world of sports very seriously, and he understands the impact that sports can have on society at large, and that’s the space that he occupied.”
Perhaps more than most Schaap understands that Izenberg always saw the big picture: that sports aren’t just games, but a microcosm of society.
“A lot of guys kind of bemoan the fact like, ‘Uhh, I just want to write about the games. I don’t want to deal with all the social issues and all of that stuff,’ ” Schaap stated. “Jerry thrives and pries at the intersection of society and sports.”
When Muhammad Ali passed away in June 2016, the massive file of columns and broadcast archives (radio and TV) that occupied Izenberg’s time over the decades entered a new place. It became a primary source of Ali’s life and times.
It also helped remind anyone who wasn’t paying attention how vital Izenberg’s career has been in chronicling The Greatest’s career and much, much more.
“People in the business know Jerry,” Schaap said. “People who have an appreciation for history as sportswriting know that Jerry is a big figure in a big market. ”
As they had done at many marquee sports events of the past few decades, Schaap and Izenberg crossed paths in Las Vegas in September 2015 for the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Andre Berto welterweight world title fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The fight, won by Mayweather, provided a recent opportunity for Schaap to observe Izenberg at the top of his game.
“He loves the work. He loves the writing,” Schaap noted. “And to be writing columns for as long as he has, that’s amazing. It’s remarkable and there’s passion for it.”
Earlier in Schaap’s career, before he was a signature name at ESPN and not merely a young up-and-comer with a famous dad, he witnessed the passion that Izenberg brought to every aspect of his work.
Boxing brought that trait under the big spotlight.
“I was always surprised when we did that show Classic Sports Reporters together how passionately Jerry felt things about guys,” Schaap recalled. “We’d get into arguments about, like, Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott vs. Rocky Marciano, and I was like, ‘Jerry, the fight was 50 years ago. Let it go.’ But he still feels things deeply, and that’s the thing, that kind of enthusiasm is very hard to manufacture. It’s either there or it isn’t — that kind of passion for what you’re doing.
“Most guys by the time they reach their early 70s, or late 60s when I was working with Jerry, that enthusiasm has dissipated and they’ve mellowed. And I would say Jerry’s enthusiasm has not dissipated and he has not mellowed.”
Ali’s close friendship with Izenberg, which lasted for most of the boxer’s life, demonstrated again that the latter was truly unique. And to his credit, it showed that Jerry valued Muhammad as a human being and not just as a famous source to fill space in his column, even when Ali was criticized profusely by many for changing his name from Cassius Clay, embracing the Black Muslim faith and for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
“I think when it comes to Ali is that there were Ali champions, there were Ali detractors. Izenberg was somebody again, like he had been on many issues, ahead of the curve,” Schaap said. “And at the time, he might have seemed like an outlier, but eventually history would vindicate him.”
There are parallels in any timeline that charts Howard Cosell’s support for Ali and Izenberg’s. The broadcasting giant, of course, had the bigger forum — and the bombastic personality as well. But that didn’t diminish Izenberg’s moral crusade; in fact, it might’ve kept him more focused in shedding light on the issue with razor-sharp commentary.
“It’s hard to make the same kind of impact writing a column as you do when you’ve got that platform of network television, but I would say that Jerry was on the right side of history again as he was so often,” Schaap said.
“…Certainly it was good for Ali to have champions in the press, to have champions in the white media, but he’s still Muhammad Ali without Howard, and I think he’s still Muhammad Ali without Jerry. But the support was not irrelevant.”
In 2016, Izenberg appeared on Schaap’s ESPN Radio program, “A Sporting Life,” prior to Super Bowl 50. And it was a big reminder of the depth of Jerry’s sporting knowledge and the history connected to the personalities, games, teams and leagues that he’s written about for decades.
“It’s always a win having Jerry on because there’s so much perspective, there’s so much energy,” Schaap said. “I hope when I’m 86 that I have an iota of the passion and the energy and the creativity that Jerry still has. He’s a witness to really the entire second half of the 20th century in sports and of the beginning of the 21st, and he opens this witness for us unto a time when things were very different in many respects and so it’s always fun hearing what he has to say.”
I asked Schaap to state what’s the greatest compliment he can make about Izenberg’s career. Indeed, his answer provided nuance and insight beyond the typical sound bite heard during contemporary political campaigns.
“I would say the best thing you can say about Jerry also happens to be true: that he made an impact,” Schaap said.
“He made an impact because he didn’t follow, but he led. He was a thought leader in the world of sports journalism, and it’s easy to be part of the pack. It’s easy to pile on, and that wasn’t Jerry.
He went on: “Jerry is a fiercely independent thinker and a gifted writer and somebody with a heart and I think all those things that he was able to make an impact in a way that even more prominent writers might not have, because he was concerned with social issues, he was concerned with racial justice issues. He wasn’t the kind of guy despite his age, despite the circumstances of his own life, was going to condemn a (Tommie) Smith and a (John) Carlos as so many did.
“He was somebody because of the circumstances of his own life who also understood the issues facing America, and he was part of that generation, as my father was, who grappled with and wrote about and I think came to understand the significance of the black athlete,” Schaap concluded.