This chapter appears in Part 2 of “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg,” which was released in paperback on Dec. 31, 2020.
“Jerry doesn’t have an agenda. He would write in a balanced way, which doesn’t mean that it was a positive way. But he wrote what was there, and he didn’t fictionalize and he wrote with balance.”
By Ed Odeven
The pantheon of sportswriting greats includes Red Smith and Jerry Izenberg and a fellow named Ira Berkow, who wrote a biography of the former and befriended the latter.
Berkow’s “Red: A Biography of Red Smith,” was published in 1986. He and Izenberg were established writers at that time, with Berkow working at The New York Times.
A decade younger than Izenberg, Berkow cited his older colleague as a valuable source while looking back at his Red Smith book. Decades later, Berkow pointed out that his impressions of Izenberg were greatly formed from an interview they did for the book.
“Whatever views I have of Jerry came from that interview, really, and how he started and the advice that Red Smith gave him,” Berkow recalled.
In the book, Berkow highlighted a defining moment in Izenberg’s career: his return to the Newark Star-Ledger in 1962 to become a columnist. From the start, though, his nerves got the best of him. Which is why Red Smith’s words of wisdom calmed his nerves.
Berkow described the significance of that advice this way: “When Jerry Izenberg later began writing a column for the Newark Star-Ledger,” he spoke to Smith about it.
“Izenberg was having ‘a terrible time, everything seemed labored,’ ” he said. “Red’s advice was to ‘take a week and try to go to an event every day. If you write off an event, it’s much easier. Just make your mind like a big wet piece of clay, and then the event makes an impression on you and that’s what you write. You’re trying to make it much more complicated than it is.’ I was a nervous wreck, and that helped. It helped a lot.”
Years later, Izenberg understood his role as a mentor could benefit younger writers.
“I came to New York in 1967 and I started on the book after Red died in 1982,” Berkow remembered in an interview. “I had been in New York for 15 years and writing a column and had been in the press boxes and gotten to know Jerry. And he was always a gentleman and always there to give advice or assistance to a young writer. He was someone you knew that you could go to with a question about work and he would be there and be helpful.”
Among sportswriters with the gravitas and industry knowledge from the Vietnam War era to the present, Berkow has seen Izenberg’s work up close and personal again and again.
This perspective helped Berkow explain why Izenberg mattered greatly to the profession and why his contributions still resonate with those who are really paying attention to quality.
“I’ve always respected him as a writer and as a person,” said Berkow, a reporter and sports columnist for The Times from 1981-2007. “His heart was always in the right place and so was his pen in the days when we used to use pens.”
Berkow’s association with Izenberg began when he started writing a column for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a news syndication company. It gave him the chance to deliver commentary on the World Series, heavyweight title fights, Super Bowls, among other marquee events. By being around the major events of the day, Berkow interacted with Jerry and saw how he handled the demands of the job.
“He was always a pleasure to be around and he had a very good social conscience, which I had hoped that I would have, and he was a concerned writer and a robust writer,” Berkow said.
“I didn’t read the Newark paper a lot, but whenever I had an opportunity to read it Jerry was always displayed prominently and it was always a pleasure to read and informative.”
What’s more, Red Smith’s influence on Izenberg was apparent to Berkow.
“Red Smith was a literary figure in America, not too many sportswriters were, but there were some good sportswriters around. But Red handled the language in an unusual and beautiful way, so he influenced so many of us,” stated Berkow, who cited Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Robert Lipsyte as “important influences” while confirming Izenberg belongs in that category, too.
In Berkow’s view, Izenberg’s work was defined by style and substance.
“He cared about the language and he cared about social issues,” Berkow said in 2016.
In other words, what Izenberg wrote mattered a great deal to him.
“Jerry was a concerned citizen who had a platform and he used it and did not abuse it,” Berkow commented. “Race relations or gender relations, he was at the forefront of social issues, and I admired that and probably learned from it.”
Smith also noticed this. He once called Izenberg “one of the best-informed conscientious writers in sports.”
Throughout the years, Berkow observed Izenberg’s interactions with sources, seeing him cultivate and maintain relationships with players, coaches, managers, team executives and sports industry officials from across the United States and beyond.
“Jerry had a good personality and there was a sense of a strong character with Jerry that was obvious,” Berkow said, “and I think that a source or someone he was interviewing or building a relationship with that besides Jerry having a platform of a column in a major paper there was a sense of strong character that you would respect. That goes a long way toward building a relationship.”
Building relationships is one thing, but maintaining relationships can be even harder to accomplish.
But Izenberg voiced his opinions with conviction and maintained friendships for decades with some of the biggest names in sports, including Muhammad Ali and Pete Rozelle.
“Jerry doesn’t have an agenda,” Berkow insisted. “He would write in a balanced way, which doesn’t mean that it was a positive way. But he wrote what was there, and he didn’t fictionalize and he wrote with balance.
“Sometimes, if he’s going to write negatively about somebody he interviewed, they probably won’t like it, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t true. And surely, it would have been true if Jerry wrote it. Or true in his eyes.”
After composing his Star-Ledger column for decades, Izenberg’s legacy is quite obvious.
Just ask Berkow.
“His legacy is that he was a serious and accomplished journalist,” Berkow concluded. “In our business, we’ve had amateurs and semi-professionals, but Jerry was, as far as I was concerned, an admired professional.”
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