Toiling in the Toy Department

by Alex Beam
An Accidental Sportswriter
By Robert Lipsyte
HarperCollins, 256 pages, $25.99
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Robert Lipsyte’s path to sportswriting was indeed a happy accident. Queens-bred, hard up for summer cash, possessor of a not-exactly door-opening degree in English literature, Lipsyte got a job as a copyboy at the New York Times in 1957. As he explains in his new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, he became a peon among “the invisible line of Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, and PhD candidates waiting for a job.” Lipsyte liked the crusty, ink-stained curmudgeons who sent typewritten stories whooshing through pneumatic tubes to the composing room. But he hated the job, and aimed for the higher reaches of the word-slinging trade by enrolling at Columbia’s journalism school.

By chance, a slightly better job opened up in sports. The rest is history, with a small h. Lipsyte ’57CC, ’59JRN ended up working at the Times, mostly as a columnist, off and on for almost a quarter century.

By his own account, young Lipsyte was “lippy,” talented, and the kind of nonsport sports writer that the Times was looking for in the late 1950s and 1960s. The incumbents — Arthur Daley, Dave Anderson, even the storied Red Smith — always struck me as a passionless lot: tweedy op-ed wheezers rusticated to a part of the paper known in the business as the toy department. Lipsyte is a honey of a writer, and won the columnist’s mantle, it seems clear, to draw readers back to vigorous and opinionated sportswriting.

He’s funny and irreverent, a nice one-two jab. Here is his coy aside about the boxing stories of A. J. Liebling ’25JRN, now enjoying a modest reputational rebound in smart society: “It would be some time before I began to figure out why so many of the boxing trainers and cornermen who seemed all but mute to me were masters of aphorism for him,” writes Lipsyte after a few months on the boxing beat. “Liebling was a superb writer.”

We read of brushes with Rupert Murdoch and with David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer. In 1977, Lipsyte was serving time at Murdoch’s New York Post, where the word came down that “the Boss wants you to lose those poofter boots.” “Aussie homophobic bully!” was Lipsyte’s reaction and, no, he didn’t ditch his Italian suede shoes. On the next page, when Lipsyte met Berkowitz, being held for psychiatric evaluation, the suspect “smiled, relaxed, told me he did have the power to send destructive forces into my home but would not.”

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