This chapter is excerpted from “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg: A Collection Of Interviews With The Legendary Columnist.”
By Ed Odeven
Since the Watergate scandal unfolded in the early 1970s, Bob Woodward’s name has been a permanent fixture in journalism. His Washington Post articles, solo bylines or those written with his tag-team partner Carl Bernstein, guaranteed his importance for decades to come, even before the many books, movies and lecture circuit appearances.
Indeed, Woodward holds a prominent place in American society as a chronicler of the corrupt, monomaniacal Nixon presidency.
But decades earlier, another journalist with the same surname, Stanley Woodward (1895-1964), rose to prominence as a sports editor at the New York Herald Tribune, serving two stints as department boss (1933-48 and 1959-62). Some considered Woodward the best sports editor of all time.
With clarity and passion and wit and incredible details, Jerry Izenberg dished out keen insights on the huge impact that Woodward made on his life.
For starters, a key fact: inimitable columnist Red Smith and Izenberg both worked under Woodward.
In a 2006 column, Izenberg wrote about Woodward’s integrity and moral convictions: “As sports editor of the Herald Tribune in 1947, he got wind that the St. Louis Cardinals had pledged not to take the field against the Dodgers if Jackie Robinson were allowed to play. Stanley, knowing such a strike could spread and derail the integration of baseball, called National League President Ford Frick.
“I am working on a front-page story about how the Cardinals are scheming to strike against Robinson tomorrow and about how you will decline to take action. It will run tomorrow — unless, of course, you get off your bureaucratic ass and stop this thing today, in which case I will tell everyone I meet what a fine fellow and hero you are.
“The Cardinals never struck. Frick got the credit as promised. All Stanley did was change history.”
Izenberg learned a lot about the power of the press from Woodward. He learned how to do the job the right way, and he never forgot the lessons that his mentor taught him.
“I worked for the greatest sports editor and I think the greatest editor who ever lived. His name was Stanley Woodward,” Izenberg declared. “I worked for him in Newark and I worked for him at the Herald Tribune. He went to Amherst College and he studied (a combined) seven years of Latin and Greek, in college. He would read ‘The Odyssey’ in Greek.
“This guy sent me on my first spring training (in 1959) and I’ll never forget it. I went to Arizona and the Giants were there, and after three days he called me up on the phone. He’d say, ‘Listen young man’ — and when he said young man, then I knew I was in trouble. He’d say, ‘Listen young man, I want you in my office in two days. I said, ‘But I’m in Phoenix.’ He said, ‘You’ll be finished if you’re not in my office in two days.’ I don’t know what the hell I did, so I got there.
“And I walked in and he said, ‘Who’s going to play second base for the Giants?’
“I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting question because there’s seven guys at the same position.’
“And he said, ‘I didn’t ask you that; I asked you who’s going to play it.’
“And I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’
“He said, ‘I don’t know anything about it at all. Let me tell you something (about your articles): Stop godding up athletes … and don’t be so full of yourself. I don’t give a shit about the Painted Desert. I don’t give a damn that the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was only a mile and a half away from where (players) were returning. I want to know who the fuck is gonna play second base for the Giants. Now you sit down and you figure it out,’ ” Izenberg recalled his boss telling him.
The young man was in Woodward’s doghouse.
“He took me off all writing assignments,” Izenberg said of the great editor.
“And for two months I sat on that (copy) desk, and he didn’t speak to me … and I was dying.”
“So it’s like (quarterback Phil) Simms once told me, which was why (New York Giants coach Bill) Parcells was such a genius, when football coaches don’t speak to you, you go crazy, trying to wonder whether you did something wrong or not,” Izenberg related. “And it’s the same about editors and writers who care about writing.”
Izenberg’s new routine after being ordered to return from Arizona was “desk, desk, desk” at the Herald Tribune.
Then, one day, “I looked at the schedule,” he recalled, “and it was desk, desk, desk, Anderson Memorial Golf Tournament. I didn’t know what the hell that was and I went to the slot man, the guy who ran (the sports desk) at night, and I said, what’s this? He said, ‘Jerry, it’s nothing. It’s a society golf tournament that the Tribune feels compelled to cover, and if you write more than a page it’s going in the garbage.’
He continued: “So I go and I found out that the tournament is in Montauk (at the far end of Long Island, New York) and I’m living at that time in Maplewood, New Jersey. It’s like going to the end of the world to get to Montauk. I got to get up at 5:30 in the morning to get up there for the tournament.
“I wander in and I’m the first one in the locker room and there’s a guy shining shoes who says, ‘Who are you? What are you in my locker room for?’
“I said, ‘I’m covering the Anderson.’
“He said, ‘Oh, they’re going to cover that? You’re kidding me.’ ”
About 10 minutes pass, Izenberg is sitting down and a man walks into the room and the small talk in the room, involving this golfer and the shoe-shine man, leads to Izenberg finding out “the man was in an automobile accident and he went through the windshield and he had glass in his eyes, and I think maybe it’s been a month that he’s been playing golf once a week.
“So I said to the guy, ‘Do you mind if I walk around with you today?’
“He said, ‘At this hour, I’ll take anything for protection. … It’s you, the milkman and me apparently.’
“Well, he plays the round and he talks about everything while we’re talking and what it means to see again. It’s coming back.”
That fueled Izenberg’s desire to write an article to the length he decided, not a predetermined length.
“So I said, well, fuck them. I’m writing two pages,” he said. “If they don’t like it, fuck ’em. So I write the two pages, and in those days we still had candy stores on the corner, where they carried the paper and when you’re 12 or 13 you stand outside the store and make up all these sexual stories which aren’t true … that was the role of the candy store. I always maintain by eliminating front stoops and candy stores, public housing in America destroyed the culture.
“But anyway, so I rush out to the corner store and I grab the Tribune and I’m reading it and everything is in there. So I’m off that day and the next day I go to work, and I look at the schedule and it says, Izenberg: college basketball, college basketball, college basketball.”
Now Izenberg was out of Woodward’s doghouse.
“So Stanley looks at me and says, ‘How do you like your new assignment?’ ” Izenberg recalled.
“I said I love it, but there’s one thing.
“He said, ‘What thing?’
“I said, ‘You don’t say what, you just say college basketball.’
“He said, ‘Let me tell you something: Number one, I hire people because they can do the job; if they can’t do the job, I fire ’em. I look with askance at a game where grown men wear short pants and use a ball and they can’t hit each other. So I question the virility of it. So I don’t really care about college basketball, but you better care…’ ”
Izenberg insists that under the legendary editor’s watchful eye he was pushed and challenged more than other writers.
“Well, he was always hardest on me, and I never knew why,” he said of Woodward.
“When he was dying I went up to see him in Connecticut and I hate bird watching and deer watching and shit like that. I’m a city guy, but he loved it. So I’d sit out there for hours with him, and he’d say, that bird is a yellow blah-blah-blah, you know, but he was dying and he meant so much in my life.
“He had really taken over as a surrogate father. My father had died just before Stanley went back to the Tribune (in 1959), so I couldn’t figure out why he was so hard on me.”
Before Woodward passed away he presented a book to Izenberg and included a note in it, “To Jerry Izenberg, the logical successor to (W.O.) McGeehan, (Grantland) Rice and Smith,” Izenberg recalled, “and I was stunned.
“And years later when I was inducted into the National (Sportscasters and) Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame down in North Carolina, I got a letter from Ellen, his daughter, who I’d never met. …
“And she said, ‘Jerry, I’m so sorry. I should’ve written this letter much sooner.’
“She said, ‘I’m so thrilled your plaque’s going on the same wall that Papa’s on, but I should have told you this years ago. When he was dying I tried to take his mind off the pain, so I’d sit on the edge of the bed and we’d talk about the two things that he cared about: college football and journalism…”
Woodward’s daughter’s letter continued: “And one day I said to him, ‘Who is the best you ever had? Was it Red Smith, Joe Palmer or maybe Jesse Abramson?’ And he said, I can’t say for sure yet, but I think I could say soon, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be Jerry Izenberg.’ And she told me that in the letter and I was stunned, and I mentioned that in my induction speech.”
How much influence did Woodward have on Izenberg’s career?
“My education under him was incredible,” Izenberg mentioned without hesitation.
“Whatever ethics or integrity I have in journalism came from him. Although I would never use the word journalism in front of him. When I applied for the job — I had been at a paper called the Paterson News (in New Jersey) — I had been at The Star-Ledger before that in college, and when I came back from the service (during the Korean War) I didn’t want to go back. The world wasn’t quite ready for me.
“I wounded up on a weekly paper where I was the photographer, the ad salesman, the sports editor and the editor and on Wednesday nights on a flat-bed press the publisher and I would print the paper, and then I would take it about 3 in the morning, because it always came out on Thursday, to the different drops. And for that I got the next day off and I was earning $62.50 a week.
“And I was desperate. I had one kid already. I got a job at the Paterson News, a low-echelon daily paper in New Jersey, and I wrote a note to Stanley because he had come back and taken over the paper, and he told me to come in but I have no job. But I saw your clips.
“I didn’t know this, but Stanley used to read clips all the time. I think he scouted writers. He brought Red (Smith) in from Philadelphia that way (to the New York Herald Tribune in 1945). So he said to me, ‘I don’t have a job for you now but I’m going to start reading you,’ and he did, because in a month he called me. And the last thing he said, ‘I almost blew the job.’ ”
For Izenberg, that memory remains vivid decades later.
“He said, ‘Why do you want to go into this business?’
“And I said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to be a journalist.’
“He looked at me,” Izenberg went on, “as though I was scraping some dogshit off the bottom of his shoe, and he said, ‘You’re in the wrong building, young man. We don’t have any journalists here. You want to be a journalist, you go to The New York Times, you get a three-piece suit, you rent, steal or buy a Phi Beta Kappa key, and they will send you to Lucerne and Geneva, Switzerland, to cover financial conferences, and then you will be a journalist. In this building, we only have newspaper men.’ ”
Talk about a point that resonated.
“I never forgot it,” Izenber said decades later. “I never thought of myself as anything else, even when I started writing books or directing and writing television shows. I’ve just always been a newspaper man and I’ll die a newspaper man.”
Knowing how to conduct interviews is a vital skill for any journalist.
Which is why Izenberg offered these insights: “Most people know something. It doesn’t matter what it is they know something. Sometimes they don’t know they know it, and in conversation it’s your job to bring it out.”
What else has he learned over the years about the art of interviewing?
“No, there aren’t any bad interviewers other than if he walks away from you,” Izenberg said. “Then it’s a non-interview. There are bad interviewers.
“You’ve got to find that chord, that magical chord where you can share it. It’s hard to find now because of the money the players make, because of the endorsements, because of all the crap, because they are afraid of you now because you are talking about drugs and they might be using ’em, or you might say they are using ’em. All that plays a part.
“I was very lucky, I was in the last era — I say was, I’m still writing but the era’s dead — I was a part of the last era in which you could actually get close to guys who were making that much.
“(Muhammad) Ali was one of my five best friends in the world. (Joe) Frazier) and (George) Foreman were right up there. Same with baseball players, same with all of them. There was a common denominator. The good ones treated you as someone who they could read because you were there. They respected what you wrote or they didn’t, and that determined how the interview went.
“That era’s gone … and besides everything is television now.”
Have some TV interviewers elevated the craft?
“There are some very good interviewers on television, I’m talking about sports only,” he said. “I’m not saying there aren’t but the vast preponderance of them are not.”