A quick introduction to Jerry Izenberg’s life and journalism career would not be complete without some thoughts on one of his recent projects. That book, his first novel (detailed below), was published when he turned 90.
By Ed Odeven
This isn’t just a Q&A anthology, a long-form interview project featuring Jerry Izenberg. There’s much more to share.
To tell his story, to highlight various facets of his life’s work, it was important to reach out to dozens of people who’ve known Jerry and been familiar with his work. In some cases, this stretches back decades (including the late Dave Anderson, Jerry Green, Dave Kindred, John Schulian and Ira Berkow) while other distinguished sources (such as Jeremy Schaap, Wallace Matthews, Kevin Iole and Tom Verducci) gained appreciation for Izenberg’s newspaper gravitas, storytelling skills and sports knowledge later on.
This portion of the book (Part II) shares insights from several dozen individuals who’ve formed opinions about Jerry’s columns, his approach to writing, his passion for telling stories, his lifelong commitment to the craft.
Pick a place, any place, and Izenberg has probably stepped foot into the joint and observed mankind’s competitive fire within the boundaries of the building, or watched up close in American stadiums from coast to coast and during overseas reporting excursions. He revisits many of his favorite sports tales and personalities on and off the field, including newspaper mentors, in the book, too.
In press boxes, boxing gyms, horse tracks, overseas sports venues, restaurants, TV studios, taxi cabs and elsewhere, Part II’s cast of characters has watched Izenberg go about his work and then seen the finished product: polished, thought-provoking columns about an endless array of topics. Columns were always the hallmark of his career, of course, but they’ve watched the TV appearances, heard the delightful sarcasm and rapid-fire knowledge of sports history on the radio and recognized the value of what he brought to the business.
Anecdotal tales of Jerry’s career fill the pages of Part II. What’s more, impressions of how and why he became one of the legends of American sports media are told again and again.
One year, in particular, is a culmination of all those stories.
In 2000, Izenberg received The Associated Press Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award, which is the highest honor given to a print journalist by the organization. In 2000, he was also inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame (now known as the National Sports Media Association).
Writers rave about Izenberg’s never-wavering dedication, his precision in making a point, his unbridled enthusiasm for delivering a message in print and online, even as he approached his 90th birthday on September 10, 2020.
Broadcasters, too, expressed awe in his ability to stay fired up for the game, for championship week, for marquee fights, and for remaining true to his roots every step of the way.
In the section that follows, Izenberg’s peers explain why he’s a quintessential “old school newspaperman.” Others described him as an icon, a gifted pundit, a New Jersey legend, someone who is part of the Mount Rushmore of great sports journalists.
Personal memories from renowned journalists and broadcasters Robert Lipsyte, George Solomon, Bill Dwyre, Charley Steiner, Mark Whicker, Jim Lampley, Dave Sims and Ivan Maisel, among others, reflect on Jerry’s long list of accomplishments. Admirers and critics, they and their contemporaries shine light on what’s made Izenberg so good ー and so relevant ー for so long.
Starting in the fall of 2015, research, interviews and revisions were done over the next several years.
There were times when the project was on hold for several weeks or months and little progress was made, but motivation was always there to keep focused on the task at hand. For me, though, this was one of those ah-ha moments that sparked interest in this project: In the days and weeks after Muhammad Ali’s passing in June 2016, Izenberg’s remarkable memory and gift for storytelling enriched our understanding of The Greatest’s special place as a sports figure and global icon.
On radio and TV appearances, we were reminded once again of Izenberg’s unique place in sports journalism in the 20th and 21st centuries.
His sustained excellence as a journalist has bridged the gap from the old school to the current era, with generations of readers learning the real stories behind the stories.
In 2019, Izenberg, then 89, completed his first novel. It’s a testament to his never-wavering commitment to his craft. Writing matters greatly to him. Telling stories is a gift that he’s shared with readers for decades.
The new book is called “After the Fire.” Izenberg, who was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in the same year, explained the project this way: “(It) is set in Newark, N.J., 1967-68 during and after the Newark Riot (26 dead) and the struggle between the Italians and the Afro-Americans for political control of the city in the wake of what was the first in a chain of civil explosions that long hot summer.
“I grew up in that city. It is where I went to college and where I lived and worked. Like our entire staff I helped cover that riot. Newark is the home of The Star-Ledger to which I returned in 1962 after (four) years at the New York Herald Tribune. It is a city whose neighborhoods I walked and whose people I know and whose urban changes I witnessed.
“The book’s plot is centered around a mayoral election steeped in the emotional wake of the riot, three very real and prominent mafiosos who attempt to fix it ーRichie ‘The Boot’ Boiardo, (Genovese Family ), Carlo Gambino (the family of the same name) and Frank Costello (tied to Gambino). They inject a celebrity into the mix ー a Jersey-born singer named Frank Sinatra.
“The trio of candidates who fuel and feed off the city-wide tensions are the Italo-American who founded the local White Citizens Council in the city’s North Ward, a charismatic Afro-American, who has captured the loyalty of the heavily Afro-American Central Ward, and an outsider who is also black, very wealthy and connected with the city’s financial power structure.
“Against that backdrop of fear, hate and insular desperation, a single ray of hope emerges as a continuing theme ー the love affair between a black college girl and an Italian college boy. In the Newark of 1967-68, they meet in the only place in the city that year where they could ー the main post office with summer jobs.
“In what this Northern blue-collar town became back then they can’t even walk down the street holding hands. They date in secret. But, once revealed, their relationship impacts with every group and every set of parents in what that Newark had become.”
The wide world of sports, of course, is the big canvas on which Izenberg’s words painted vivid pictures about games, personalities and notable subjects, and they’ll be explored in the pages that follow.