The Beatles! Muhammad Ali! And the "Accidental Sportswriter" who saw it all
It's difficult to imagine your heroes and she-roes arriving at greatness in "accidental" fashion. It’s hard to envision Magic Johnson as an "accidental basketball player", who just stumbled into a gym and started zipping no-look passes. No one thinks Adele sings like Adele because she was pushed onstage at a karaoke bar. We are taught that focused, hyper-competitive ambition is a prerequisite to achievement. The reality is often far more pedestrian.
Enter arguably the finest sportswriter above ground: Robert Lipsyte. Lipsyte has chosen to call his new memoir "An Accidental Sportswriter" and title alone raised my eyebrows. He really did come upon this brilliant career accidentally: a dizzying tale of luck, talent, and political acumen merging to create an indelible journalistic mark. His acclaimed New York Times column blazed new trails as an unabashedly progressive exercise in the politics of sports. But as we learn, it didn't rise out of any sort of grand design. Lipsyte had a summer job as an editorial assistant (which meant assisting in getting coffee for the editors) at the "Grey Lady." It was a pit-stop on the way to grad school and he never left. For several years he toiled for little pay at the disrespected corner known as the sports page. Then came a stroke of luck: the Times’s regular boxing writer wanted to cover a horse race rather than travel to Miami to see a blowhard young boxer named Cassius Clay get his behind handed to him by the fearsome champion Sonny Liston. The 26-year-old Lipsyte was dispatched down south to see the 22-year-old Olympian the papers called "Gaseous Cassius." While the older media was somewhat horrified by Clay's antics, Lipsyte's youth and politics allowed him to see what others could not: that the man who would be known as Ali was something special.
Lipsyte has a front row seat when, in one of the great pop cultural collisions, the Beatles visited Clay's training camp.
As he writes:
"As I climbed the splintery stairs, there was a hubbub behind me. Four little guys around my age in matching white terry-cloth cabana jackets were being herded up. Someone said it was that hot new British rock group on their first American tour....A British photographer traveling with the Beatles had tried to pose them with Sonny Liston, but the champ had refused-"Not with them sissies," he was supposed to have said-and now they were settling for a photo op with the challenger. At the top of the stairs, when the Beatles discovered that Clay had not yet arrived, John Lennon said, "Let's get the fuck out of here." But two huge security guards blocked their way and crowded them into an empty dressing room. I allowed myself to be pushed in with them, figuring to get a few funny quotes. Had I understood who those four little guys were, I might have been too shy to become, briefly, the fifth Beatle. But then I was also clueless about Clay. The Beatles were cranky in that damp dressing room, stomping and cursing. I introduced myself, rather importantly, I'm afraid, and they mimicked me. John shook my hand gravely, saying he was Ringo, and introduced me to Paul, who said he was John. I asked for their predictions. They said that Liston would destroy Clay, that silly little overhyped wanker. Then they ignored me to snarl among themselves again. Silly little overhyped wankers, I thought. Suddenly the locker room door burst open, and Cassius Clay filled the doorway. The Beatles and I gasped. He was so much larger than he looked in pictures. He was beautiful. He seemed to glow. He was laughing. "Hello there, Beatles!" he roared. "We oughta do some road shows together, we'll get rich." The Beatles got it right away. They followed Clay out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. You would have thought they'd met before and choreographed their routine. They bounced into the ring, capered, dropped down to pray that Clay would stop hitting them. He picked up Ringo, the bittiest Beatle. They lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes, then jumped up to form a pyramid to get at Clay's jaw. The five of them began laughing so hard their impromptu frolics collapsed. That photo op is a classic (Check YouTube; you might even see me.) After the Fab Four left, Clay jumped rope, shadowboxed, and sparred as his court jester, Drew Bundini Brown, hollered, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble!" Afterward, stretched out on a dressing room table for his rubdown, Clay pretended to fall asleep as reporters asked him what he was going to do after he lost. Finally, a crabby old reporter from Boston said, "This whole act is a con job, isn't it?" and Clay pretended to wake up and he said, "I'm making all this money, the popcorn man making money and the beer man, and you got something to write about. Your papers let you come down to Miami Beach, where it's warm." The Boston reporter shut up. I think that was the moment when I began to wish this kid wasn't going to get his head knocked off, that somehow he would beat Liston and become champion or at least survive and keep boxing. He would have been such a joy to cover, I thought. Too bad he's got no chance. Too bad he's only passing through, a firefly fad like those Beatles. We could all have had a blast."
This is only one gem in a book packed with stories alternately hilarious and moving about Mickey Mantle, Howard Cosell, and people at the gritty grass roots of sports in New York City. While I still don't fully understand Lipsyte's attraction to NASCAR the descriptions of him taking the wheel and burning rubber around the track at over 120 mph made me want to grab a helmet and ride shotgun.
But the book is more than a stroll down memory lane. In the most striking sections, he interrogates his old columns and laments how he would write about great female athletes like Wilma Rudolph or Billie Jean King. He examines his own assumptions about race, class, and gender and charts how they changed from the 1960s to today. Honestly, I've read many books like these and I have never seen a journalist put themselves under this kind of magnifying glass. It's brave and very affecting.
I should say in the name of full disclosure that Bob Lipsyte writes some very kind things about me in the final chapter. I should also say that even if he had chosen to say that I was little more than an oozing boil, this review would read exactly the same.(except I probably would write, “I could have done without the whole ‘Dave Zirin is an oozing boil’ section.)
This is a book to be read, shared, and treasured. It's beach reading. It's classroom reading. It's storytelling at its finest. In other words, it's pure Bob Lipsyte.
Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.