Toiling in the Toy Department

by Alex Beam
An Accidental Sportswriter
By Robert Lipsyte
HarperCollins, 256 pages, $25.99
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Lipsyte is a different kind of cat who is attracted to like-striped felines. He returns perhaps too often to his outsider status in the world of Jock Culture. He eschews the “lodge brothers” of the sportswriting fraternity, who see their task as “godding up” the heroes of the age. (Lipsyte on golf writers: “What a crew of house pets!”) “English major” is a broad metaphor for the kind of people not welcome in the sports scribbling fraternity. Or “puke.” That is what Columbia crew coach Bill Stowe called “anyone in 1968 who wasn’t on his boat, which included hippies, pot smokers, antiwar demonstrators, bearded weirdos, guitar players and, yes, English majors.”

“Sort of puke-ish, I am,” Lipsyte confesses.

He seeks out unusual assignments and champions the men and women he relates to. The first of his 20-odd books is Nigger, coauthored with comedian-activist Dick Gregory. Lipsyte was present at the creation of Muhammad Ali, and sticks with The Champ through fat times and thin, generally admiring, never worshipful. He loves Billie Jean King, whom he calls “the most important sports figure of the 20th century,” and he devotes a chapter of this book to the travails of the few professional athletes who have come out as gay, and to the generally chilly reception they received.

Robert Lipsyte covering a boxing match at Shea Stadium in 1967. / Courtesy Barton Silverman

Lipsyte likes to pass judgment on people, and doesn’t spare himself or conceal the jagged edges of a tough life. He’s gone three rounds with cancer, and has been married four times. He doesn’t dodge unpleasant truths. For instance, he was the rare sportswriter to note that Mickey Mantle had jumped to the head of the liver-transplant line, even though the ailing ballplayer was a poor candidate for the surgery, and died soon after.

That transgression, and others, catches the attention of “the ultimate lodge brother of our time,” the frictionless Bob Costas, who seeks out Lipsyte for a heart-to-heart conversation. “I was flattered that he had taken the time to mentor me — he was 14 years younger — but irritated by his presumption,” Lipsyte writes.

Costas has a useful message for him: Enjoy. Yes, it’s true that sports “has lost almost all its moral cachet,” in Lipsyte’s bitter phrase. But there is real beauty in the sporting life, and Costas worries that Lipsyte, whom he admires, is willfully blinding himself to moments of epiphany. “I wanted you to be less corrosive; skeptical, not cynical,” Costas says.

There is some truth to what Costas says. There are moments, for instance, when Lipsyte is flagellating himself for not reporting more aggressively on the blight of steroids in sports, when I want to say, “Relax, Robert. Let the world turn without you tonight. You’re talented, you’re a mensch, and you’re alive. You are the happy accident.”

Alex Beam is a columnist at the Boston Globe and the author of A Great Idea at The Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.

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