The New York Times Book Review
An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoirby Robert Lipsyte
Celebrated sports journalist Robert Lipsyte—the New York Times’ longtime lead sports columnist—mines pure gold from his long and very eventful career to bring readers a memoir like no other. An enthralling book, as much about personal relationships and the culture of sports as the athletes and teams themselves, An Accidental Sportswriter interweaves stories from Lipsyte’s life and the events he covered to explore the connections between the games we play and the lives we lead. Robert Lipsyte has been there—from the Mets’ first Spring Training to the fight that made Muhammad Ali an international icon to the current steroids scandals that rewired our view of sports—and in An Accidental Sportswriter he offers a fresh and refreshing view of the world of professional athletes as seen through the eyes of a journalist who always managed to remain independent of our jock-obsessed culture.
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An Accidental SportswriterA Memoir
By Robert Lipsyte
EccoCopyright © 2011 Robert Lipsyte
All right reserved.
Sixty years later, we still meet a few times a year. I'm in the third row, seventh from the left.
At Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School 157 in Rego Park,
Queens, New York City, I belonged to a group that was a
bully magnet. We were members of the Special Progress
(S.P.) class, selected for our above-average IQ scores (120 was supposedly
the threshold), a fact we flaunted like a varsity letter. Not only
were we smarter, but we were too cool for this school; we would leave
for high school after completing the three-year curriculum in two.
There were some good athletes among us, but we were clearly nerds.
We were easy to spot. We moved from class to class in a clump
and were individually identified by heavy brown leather briefcases
filled with books. The non-S.P. boys called our briefcases "fag bags"
and tried to kick them out of our hands. They also shouldered us in
the halls and pushed us around on the streets.
There were ways to minimize the damage. Most S.P. boys kept
their mouths shut and heads down when the bullies called them
"fag." I thought that was giving in to them. You could also join them.
One of my S.P. classmates was notorious for holding their jackets
while they beat us up. He went on to become a famous television
executive. (Twenty-five years later, when I worked on a show under
his supervision, he turned away when he reached me in a group waiting
to shake his hand. I had his number, which did me no good.)
I became a particular target of the bullies because I compulsively
talked back and was too fat to run away afterward. My weight has
always been higher than my IQ.
I hated getting beaten up, hated having friends, especially the
girls, be sorry for me, hated feeling my scabs harden and my insides
shrivel, but it seemed preferable to giving in or sucking up or hiding.
I don't think I was principled. I just couldn't help myself from
sneering back at them when they kicked my bag or pushed me down or
called me "Lippy" or "Lippo the Hippo." I couldn't stop myself from
making some asinine retort and then trying ineffectually to defend
myself. What a fag!
Though the school tended to separate us from the general
student population, it didn't protect us. The principal of the school, Dr.
Nussey, who taught Latin to the S.P. class and ran the school wide
softball tournament, apparently believed in survival of the fittest. He
would allow a little roughhouse as long as his own authority wasn't
challenged. Boys will be boys.
Our S.P. homeroom teacher, Mrs. McDermott, made an effort
to stop fights before we were hurt, but she couldn't be everywhere.
The school enforcers, the beefy gym and shop teachers, would wait
until the fight was nearly over, then peel the bullies off their victims
and boot them down the street in a tough, humorous way that did
nothing to condemn the ritualin fact, probably reinforced it. The
bullies loved the attention, the contact with bully teachers. They
would posture while we slunk away.
The conventional wisdom in those days, dispensed by older
friends and relatives, was that bullies would back down if you stood
up to them, that they were basically cowards. This was not true. I
think I sensed even then that fighting back was about finding out
that the beating was bearable, that bullies couldn't kill you. Simply
by standing up to them and surviving, you won a small victory that
would give you the courage to keep challenging, to keep standing up,
until they eventually left you alone and went after easier prey. Or,
less likely but always possible, you could actually win.
Nowadays, when a bully may be packing a gun or a knife (or
crouched in ambush behind a computer), the conventional wisdom
is very different. Run, or return to school with an AK-47 and wipe
out the cafeteria. I wrote a Times column suggesting that the
arrogant, entitled behavior of high school athletes, encouraged by the
adults who lived vicariously through their over hyped deeds, had
created an everlasting divide between bullies and victims, often jocks
The response was overwhelming, thoughtful, and sometimes
emotional, mostly from middle-aged men who remembered high
school with pain and in some cases guilt. There were hundreds of
letters, calls, and e-mails. Two typical examples:
When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from
being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives,
I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge
on the Italian and Irish white bastard jocks who dominated
the school and made those 4 years miserable for me. After high
school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks
had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses,
or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As
for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
We really did get special attention both from the students, and
from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I
have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking
forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.
In the late 1940s and early '50s, the Halsey bullies, whom we
called "hoods," affected outlaw garb such as dungarees, muscle
T-shirts, and leather jackets, but in our striver neighborhood they
weren't even petty criminals. They tended to be the better schoolyard
athletesbigger, stronger, quicker, more aggressive, more excited by
the chance to intimidate. Those who went on to organized contact
sports would be encouraged in those traits. That never changed.
Nor did the tone of language. In Halsey days, the killer word
"fag" had less of a homosexual connotation than one of "sissy" or,
worse, "girl." As we were taught to believe in the fifties, most women
had no consequential professional futures; they might become teachers
or even writers, but they would never get to do genuine men's
work such as fly fighter planes, build bridges, kill bad guys, throw
touchdowns. Fags wouldn't get that chance either.
That wasn't merely schoolyard talk. A book published in 1939,
You and Heredity, by Amram Scheinfeld, had a chart that measured
masculinity by your line of work. The top of the chart drummed
with test pilots, engineers, explorers, pro athletes. On the bottom,
clearly my future neighborhood, were clergymen, teachers,
librarians, and writers.
By the time I found that chart, I knew I was going to be a writer
because a writer could sit alone in a corner and control his universe,
create his universe, by making up stories. In the stories I wrote in
junior high school, skinny kids tended to die horribly. My dream was
to publish a story in Forest Trails, Halsey's mimeographed literary
magazine. The girl I adored from afar, Myriam, was the editor. She
was brilliant and beautiful and had a French accent; I knew my only
chance with girls like her would be as a star writer.
But writers, according to You and Heredity, were at the bottom of
the masculinity chart.
I had found the book on one of the biweekly trips I took with
Dad to the big Queens regional library. Dad and I, and later my
sister, Gale, who is seven years younger than I, went to libraries the
way other kids and their dads went to ball games. Dad never
censored our choices, and he allowed us to check out as many books as
we could carry. I'd been snooping in the Science section for a book
with pictures of naked women and found instead that masculinity
chart. I couldn't even discuss the chart with Dad because he was a
schoolteacher. I didn't want to make him feel bad.
Now, of course, I wish I had. He could have taken it. I would
have learned something. Maybe I was less concerned about his
feelings than about appearing soft and weak to him. I saw Dad as a
tough guy. He may have loved to read philosophy, but his career
from middle school English teacher through principal to director
of the city's several dozen schools for troubled kidshad been in
rough neighborhoods bristling with switchblades and zip guns. He
usually worked several jobs at a time. That's how he managed to
get us to an apartment in a comfortable, safe Queens neighbor-
hood, afford a weekend house in upstate New York, and send me to
Columbia University and my sister to the University of Wisconsin.
My mother was a teacher and guidance counselor, but she
subordinated her own career to his. For years she was a stay-at-home mom,
which was conventional then, but she still chafed at the role. They
had met in the early thirties as lab partners while taking master's
degrees in psychology at Columbia. Both of them harbored literary
ambitions. The house was crammed with books. They read
voraciously and encouraged me to read and write.
For such a bookish boy, You and Heredity was a psychic land
mine. It blew me sideways. Years later, from photos and eyewitness
accounts, I figured out I was nowhere near as fat as I thought I was.
But that book was there, and so were the bullies.
My worst tormentor, my regular bully, was Willie, who had
staked me out in elementary school and followed me to Halsey. At
P.S. 139, teachers had been alert to predatory kids, and because
I lived near school I could waddle home while Willie was being
detained for questioning and then bury my shame in peanut butter
sandwiches, Hydrox cookies, Three Musketeers candy bars, and a
glass of chocolate milk.
But in the laissez-faire atmosphere at Halsey, where Willie
found support among other fag bag kickers, I didn't stand a chance.
At least once a week, he found me and pushed me around. Nothing
that I ever reported or complained aboutat worst a bruise, a little
blood, a pocket torn off a shirtbut plenty to feel bad about. Willie
may have been a pathetic dork who had found a scapegoat for his
unhappiness, but at the time, he was Grendel and I was no Beowulf.
I was a fat kid trapped at the bottom of the masculinity chart.
It was a book, of course, that sprang me loose.
After I returned You and Heredity, I began trolling in sections of
the library I had rarely visited. It was some weeks later in Travel
that I was drawn to the blue cover of The Royal Road to Romance, by
the adventure travel writer Richard Halliburton. The book, a best
seller, was published in 1925, when Halliburton was twenty-five, a
slim little Princeton grad, apparently gay (an authentic fag!), who
disappeared at sea at thirty-nine.
In rereading Halliburton recently, I realized he could be accused
of being an imperialist and Orientalist, condescending toward
women and indigenous folk, not to mention an extreme tall-tale
teller, but when I was twelve, when it mattered, his energy and
enthusiasm lifted my spirit. This was no writer you could keep at the
bottom of your masculinity chart. He climbed mountains, stowed
away on freighters, hunted man-eating tigers. It was easy to imagine
him swimming across crocodile-infested waters with his typewriter
strapped to his back and a knife in his teeth. He'd carve up anything
that tried to stop him. And then he'd write about it.
Even then, I didn't totally buy his stories, and eventually they
seemed as spurious in their way as that masculinity chart. But all I
knew in 1950 and all I needed to know was that his stories filled me
When I finally returned The Royal Road to Romance several
months laterI kept renewing it, and it often traveled in my fag
bagI swaggered past Science and flipped You and Heredity the bird.
Just try to put Richard Halliburton at the bottom of your chart.
He'll carve his way to the top. And I'll be right behind him.
Richard and Bobby are on their way, bullies. Watch out!
And then the day arrived.
It seemed no different from any other day. The S.P. class was
coming out of school at three o'clock with the usual mixed feelings.
School was over, which was supposed to be a liberation, but school
was where most of us found an intellectual arena and a sanctuary
from the less forgiving world of the street.
Outside Halsey, the hoods capered around us, kicking at bags,
calling us names. My bully Willie found me and said something
routinely stupid. As usual, my smart-aleck reply made the other hoods
laugh. Willie pushed me. I stood my ground and sneered at him.
Willie kicked my bag out of my hand.
And thenwas it because Rose and Barbara, two girls
especially liked, were watching, because my hand really hurt this time,
because Richard Halliburton had truly given me hope?I snapped.
I hurled myself at Willie, just launched all that butterfat, double
blubber, right into him. I was a rotund rocket of rage. We both
went down, and, incredibly, I was on top. Had I known the rules of
engagement of the after-school fight, I would have sat on his stomach
and slapped him until he cried uncle or he would have thrown me off
and beat me up yet again.
But how could I, who had never had a fair fight, know the rules?
There were no rules in my mind, just survival and payback. All in or
I jammed my fat knees down into his chest until his lungs were
bursting for air. I grabbed fistfuls of his greasy hair and yanked until
he began screaming, and then I began to bash his brains in. Literally. I
bounced his skull on the cold gray sidewalk as if it were a pink rubber
I smile as I write this.
Excerpted from An Accidental Sportswriter by Robert Lipsyte Copyright © 2011 by Robert Lipsyte. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Lipsyte was an award-winning sportswriter for the New York Times and the Emmy-winning host of the nightly public affairs show The Eleventh Hour. He is the author of twelve acclaimed novels for young adults and is the recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring his lifetime contribution in that genre. He lives in Manhattan and on Shelter Island, New York, with his wife, Lois, and his dog, Milo.
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