An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir [NOOK Book]

Overview

A longtime sports columnist for the New York Times interweaves stories from his life and the events he covered to explore the relationships between the games we play and the lives we lead

Growing up, Robert Lipsyte was the smart-aleck fat kid, the bully magnet who went to the library instead of the ballpark. As the perpetual outsider, even into adulthood, Lipsyte's alienation from Jock Culture made him a rarity in the press box: the sportswriter who wasn't a sports fan. This ...

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An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir

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Overview

A longtime sports columnist for the New York Times interweaves stories from his life and the events he covered to explore the relationships between the games we play and the lives we lead

Growing up, Robert Lipsyte was the smart-aleck fat kid, the bully magnet who went to the library instead of the ballpark. As the perpetual outsider, even into adulthood, Lipsyte's alienation from Jock Culture made him a rarity in the press box: the sportswriter who wasn't a sports fan. This feeling of otherness has colored Lipsyte's sports writing for fifty years, much of it spent as a columnist for the New York Times. He didn't follow particular athletes or teams; he wasn't awed by the access afforded by his press pass or his familiarity with the players in the locker room. Between bouts at the Times, he launched a successful career writing young adult fiction, often about sports.

The experience and insight he earned over a half century infuse An Accidental Sportswriter. Going beyond the usual memoir, Lipsyte has written "a memory loop, a circular search for lost or forgotten pieces in the puzzle of a life." In telling his own story, he grapples with American sports and society—from Mickey Mantle to Bill Simmons—arguing that Jock Culture has seeped into our business, politics, and family life, and its definitions have become the standard to measure value. Full of wisdom and an understanding of American sports that contextualizes rather than celebrates athletes, An Accidental Sportswriter is the crowning achievement of a rich career and a book that will speak to us for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

Jay Jennings
What Lipsyte discovers as he “reports” on his father’s life brings together what he has learned in more than 50 years as a writer, and in the end Sidney Lipsyte becomes more memorable in these pages than Muhammad Ali.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
The first time lifelong New Yorker Lipsyte visited Yankee Stadium as a boy in 1951, he was disappointed, finding it to be "less grand than I imagined." His critical eye that rejects the breathless awe of athletes and their environs would later set him apart from most sportswriters, a fraternity he describes as "lodge brothers" guilty of "godding up" sports figures in the masculine world of "Jock Culture." A longtime sports columnist for the New York Times, Lipsyte begins his story in Queens with his grade school victimization by bullies, one of whom he gloriously overcomes. After college, the need for a summer job landed the unathletic, aspiring writer with little interest in sports on the Times sports desk, a job that allowed him to shadow Gay Talese and later cover the emergence of Muhammad Ali, a story that became his "magic carpet ride." Lipsyte writes of his admiration for Ali, Howard Cosell, Billie Jean King, and comedian/activist Dick Gregory; he also explores his feelings about others that were more complicated, notably Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. A defensive thread of bitterness runs through his memoir, most pointedly aimed at Bob Costas, the broadcaster who criticized his "contrarian" approach to sports and whom Lipsyte depicts as walking the line "between journalist and shill." Lipsyte's memoir is at its best when revealing personal anecdotes of his life and the stories he covered, including his surprising late-in-life fascination with NASCAR and a touching concluding chapter about his relationship with his father. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062079268
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/3/2011
  • Sold by: HARPERCOLLINS
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 231,575
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Robert Lipsyte

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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Read an Excerpt

An Accidental Sportswriter

A Memoir
By Robert Lipsyte

Ecco

Copyright © 2011 Robert Lipsyte
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-176913-9


Chapter One

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 ritual—in 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
and nerds.
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
athletes—bigger, 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 kids—had 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 about—at worst a bruise, a little
blood, a pocket torn off a shirt—but 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
with possibility.
When I finally returned The Royal Road to Romance several
months later—I kept renewing it, and it often traveled in my fag
bag—I 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!
Someday.
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 then—was 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
don't bother.
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
ball.
I smile as I write this.

(Continues...)



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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Accidents Happen 1

1 My Bully 13

2 The Piper 23

3 My Center Fielders (Part One) 33

4 Nigger, the Book 47

5 The Onliest (Part One) 61

6 Uncle Howard 79

7 My Muscle Molls 93

8 Jock Liberation 109

9 My Center Fielders (Part Two) 121

10 The Saint Wore Black Leather 133

11 The Faithkeeper 147

12 The Onliest (Part Two) 155

13 Queer Studies 163

14 My Driver 179

15 Shooting Stars 199

16 The Lodge Brothers 213

17 The Man 229

Acknowledgments 245

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