Journalism is the art distilling greatness onto a page, translating the scale of vast concepts, events and individuals into a palatable format. Jerry Izenberg became a master of that craft like few else in the 20th century. Jerry summaries his approach for me when he says “For a lot of Americans, the preponderance of common unifying memories revolve around sports.” His view of sport is innately historical, his journalism was always meant to add to the cumulative memory of a unified American populace and add to the collective mythology of sport.
In his new book Ed Odeven flips the lense and makes the journalist the subject. In his ‘Collection Of Interviews With The Legendary Columnist’ Jerry goes under the microscope to examine how he covered sports greatest nights.
The first thing that struck me was the exotic cast of characters that have punctuated the life and career of The Newark Star-Ledger legend. We all know about his career covering Muhammad Ali, but in sports he also covered or interviewed the likes of Pele, the greatest football player of all time, Jackie Robinson the baseball icon and more American Football stars than its seemly to mention.
The two names I was not expecting to read about but ended up being the chapters I found the most fascinating pertained to two of the 20th centuries biggest political figures; Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. Izenberg’s voice is conveyed as he finds the humanity in them, and digs deep into their intimate and lifelong relationships with sport. How they affected sport, and how sport affected them. This was an interesting aspect as it places this work against the geopolitical backdrop the protagonist, as well as his subjects were working in.
The main triumph of this book though, is to be the translation of Izenberg’s attitude. A true maverick who’s attitude and voice was so unique that an inaccurate representation of his words would be glaringly obvious and torch the intentions of this work. Odeven though uses his encyclopaedic understanding of his subject to bring him to life on the pages of this book.
This is most well demonstrated when Izenberg and Odeven dissect the intimate relationship he had with the great Muhammad Ali. Izenberg’s honesty always drew the respect of the greatest and their willingness to tease each other created a bond that shines through in this book. One particular anecdote is so personal and heartfelt it will live with me for some time.
One issue this work will face though is it’s specificity. I am a boxing journalism geek, someone who has been a fan of Izenberg’s work for many years, and therefore my enjoyment of the book could be attributed to my being the exact target demographic. When I step back and consider the experience of the general reader I believe this book is so tied to the intricacies of journalism it’s appeal may be limited.
My only other criticism is, from the perspective of a British boxing fan, is there are large swathes of this book dedicated to sports of which I have no knowledge or understanding. Audiences in the United Kingdom will struggle to empathise with the time dedicated to American football and Baseball, and few boxing fans will know much about horse racing Izenberg covered. I understand this is necessary to reflect the career of the subject but again it limits the appeal.
On the whole I found the collection an important work of journalistic history. Izenberg’s life and career was ambitious, incisive and intimately linked to some of the most dazzling sporting figures of all time. Jerry always told it how he saw it, never bowing to pressure or influence. This book oozes the zeal, attitude and honesty that Izenberg spent his life upholding through his Journalism.
Ewan for SimBoxx
In Association with Clint Patricks.