From the first paragraph of Robert Lipsyte’s An Accidental Sportswriter, A Memoir (Ecco), you know you’re in good hands. Direct, confident, funny, charmingly self-deprecating, the style suggests a man of passion and irony who knows how to stage himself in recollection. In An Accidental Sportswriter he recounts with insight and honesty the origin and development of his print and television career and shrewdly assesses the cultural history of sports in the last 50 years, often revising, with unusual candor, earlier impressions of figures and events.
As the title suggests, it all began as an accident. It was 1957. A recent Columbia University graduate, he was bound for California, where he would fulfill his “destiny as a novelist, either starving on the beach because my fiction was too avant-garde or luxuriating by the side of my pool because I had sold out. Both scenarios involved dangerous women. I was an English major.” But young Bobby needed a summer job to get the money to go west, and much against the odds, he landed an advertised position in The New York Times for an “editorial assistant”—a.k.a. gofer/copy boy—in the paper’s sports department. This happenstance wound up changing his life in ways he could not have foreseen. A fat boy nerd, bullied by classmates, he had not even liked sports as a kid.
He never made it to California. What stopped him and kept him at The Times was the presence of Gay Talese, one of several icons who became critical in advancing and altering Lipsyte’s career. Others who loom large as well-known influences include Joe DiMaggio, Dick Gregory, Billy Jean King (“the most important sports figure of the 20th century”), Muhammad Ali (starting when he was Cassius Clay), Mickey Mantle, Lance Armstrong. Most memorable, however, for the way he comes to life here is Howard Cosell, who often spent summers in the Hamptons. Vain, pushy Uncle Howard—one year voted “both the best-liked and most-hated sportscaster”—looked after young Bobbin. Lipsyte had no ambivalence about him. “I loved Howard Cosell.”
An Accidental Sportswriter is indeed a memoir (not an autobiography), a chronological series of selected vignettes and anecdotes that turn on the theme of Jock Culture, “the defining strand in American life…politics, business, family.” Lipsyte looks hard at the role of sports journalism in promoting that culture, particularly in its “godding up” of major sports figures and in its pandering to racism, sexism and homophobia, no longer under the radar by the ‘60s. One of the surprising pleasures of the book is to see Lippy grow from being a smart cookie on the make to become a wise and compassionate skeptic, able to admit his own shortcomings and, belatedly, coming to an appreciation of an inherent humanity in even the most arrogant and off-putting of players and colleagues.
Over the years bouts with testicular cancer and chemo certainly prompted a modification of Lipsyte’s often provocative views (well, maybe not of Rupert Murdoch), as did his widened interests and accomplishments, and marrying Lois Morris, his fourth wife, to whom the book is dedicated. He wrote 12 novels for young adults, hosted television programs, including the PBS nightly public affairs show “The Eleventh Hour” for which he won an Emmy, and is still active online. But surely the death of his father, whom he came late to love and admire as his most significant mentor, caused him to look more deeply into the heart of things. “I never understood until I began writing this book that sports would also reveal my own story to me. And maybe that was what I was looking for all along.” Incidentally, the pictures opening each chapter are terrific.
As, of course, is the prose. Here’s Lipsyte on NASCAR, like George Plimpton, trying it out: “. . .as the car accelerated it became happier and the road was smoother and I was the brain of a gorgeous, howling 630-horsepower machine that lived only to fly on the straightway and knife down through the middle of the turns and clip the green and rocket back up.”
An Accidental Tourist is available locally and online.
Bob Lipsyte lives on Shelter Island, where he pushes himself to bike up the hills. In fact and metaphorically.