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Tonight the world is a little more safe for mediocrity.
With the death of the great New York sportswriter and media critic Stan Isaacs – to say nothing of the passing of Roger Ebert – the mundane, the repetitive, and especially the reverent, are just that more secure in their universe of passivity.
Still, both men took huge chunks out of that cosmos and Isaacs in particular did so at great personal risk and against the tradition of obedience and obeisance that dictated the sports world well into the 1990’s. For reasons that will soon become evident, I cannot fashion a true obituary for Stan. I recommend you to these from Bryan Curtis of Grantland and Mark Herrmann from Newsday, where Isaacs served as everything from Original 1962 Mets’ beat reporter to Sports Editor to TV and Radio Columnist.
The obits include some of the highlights: the fact that Stan stole the 1955 World Championship Banner from the Dodgers in Los Angeles so it could be properly housed in Brooklyn; that when Yankees’ pitcher Ralph Terry told the cookie-cutter reporters of the day that his wife had been listening to him pitch in the 1962 World Series while feeding their infant Stan asked him “breast or bottle?;” that he helped replace those enabling stenographer knights of the press box by being one of the so-called “chipmunks” – the skeptics of the 1960s.
Isaacs’ Chipmunkism was more than just an inspiration to colleagues and successors to apply occasional doses of journalism and sarcasm as an anecdote to the almost unquestioning, flag-waving sportswriting and tv reporting of the time. It had a direct and practical influence on what you read and hear today and who writes it and says it. George Vecsey, long one of the leading lights of The New York Times, proudly called Stan his mentor. Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and The Washington Post and, once of Isaacs’ Newsday, said he “idolized” Stan. And there were many others.
Stan Isaacs is directly responsible for my television career – and much of how I approached what I’ve said and whom I’ve said it about.
In September of 1980, Sports Illustrated ran a brief piece on how while I was working for the radio network of United Press International I was collecting and rating audio clips in which athletes used the insufferable verbal crutch “you know.” Within weeks, Stan had heard a startling string of “you knows” from a New York Rangers player named Mike Allison and called me out of the blue for a ruling on where Allison stood in the competition. A few months after that Stan called again. “There’s been a lot of reaction to that ‘you know’ thing. I’d like to meet a kid who has the nuts to bring that up on radio. Maybe I can make you into a column.”
By then I was working for Charley Steiner at the RKO Radio Network. Television was my aspiration but I’d struck out twice in efforts just to get in the front door, once at a local New York station, and once at a brand new and not very promising outfit called Cable News Network. For Stan Isaacs – at worst the second or third most influential TV Sports Columnist in the country – to possibly “make me into a column” was a possible game-changer.
We met at the radio network, he listened to a few tapes of sportscasts, we had a little lunch, and we sat down in Newsday’s dank, almost-empty Manhattan “bureau.” His questions were warm and supportive but I could tell he had a reservation. “I got one complaint. You sound too much like…” and here, great disgust overtook his tone, “…an announcer.” I explained I was an announcer. “You’ve got me there. I’ll have to forgive you for that.”
On June 12, 1981, just as baseball careened towards its first disastrous mid-season strike, this appeared in Newsday. I recall that you couldn’t buy the paper in Manhattan then except at Penn Station. I can also recall lugging 20 copies of it back the six blocks up from the train station to the RKO offices on 40th Street.
I am not engaging in speculation nor hyperbole in saying the column got me on television.
In those days Newsday was co-owned by The Washington Post, and in those pre-historic days of “national editions,” the version of the Sunday Post that the world outside the Beltway got to see was printed early on Saturday and physically shipped around the country. To help fill a sports section devoid of anything newer than the earliest-finishing of Saturday afternoon’s ballgames, the Post would print one and only one of the four or five columns Stan Isaacs wrote for its sister publication each week.
That week the one chosen was the column about me.
And so it was that a displaced Washingtonian named Rick Davis who happened to run the sports department at that nascent semi-television outfit at which I had already struck out (Cable News Network, or, as it was only occasionally abbreviated, “CNN”) was thumbing through his national copy of the Post sports section the next Sunday morning while (he would later tell me) he was thinking to himself that his sports newscast had done pretty good with its anchors like Nick Charles and Fred Hickman and some of its reporting but it just didn’t have any life or humor.
That’s when Rick read Stan’s piece.
Weeks later, Rick’s boss Bill MacPhail, the president of CNN Sports, was seated across from me at The Algonquin Hotel and I was being interviewed for a job as a television sports reporter. I had no television experience, precious little reporting experience, and a full beard. A few weeks after that, in August 1981, MacPhail and Davis asked me to spend two weeks filling in for their New York sports reporter Debi Segura (now, coincidentally, Mrs. Lou Dobbs) and by February of the following year I was under contract to CNN.
When some milestone or another in my career would occur – or it would be time for his annual piece on my favorite baseball story, the saga of Fred Merkle – I’d always hear from Stan, with the appropriate congratulations, commiserations, or approbation. I would always answer “it’s all your fault.” Stan always assumed I meant that without the article I’d never have gotten on to television and he continually said that the most he did was accelerate the process and I let him think that was what I meant. But in fact I was saying that he had both facilitated my television career and – just as importantly – lent his stamp of approval to what I did, and how I did it. There were others who did this: every boss who let me live on the proverbial edge, from Stan Sabik to Charley Steiner to Jeff Wald to Norby Williamson to Vince Doria to Dick Ebersol to Traug Keller, to on-air inspirations like the late great Glenn Brenner.
But Stan wrote that about me when I didn’t know enough to take the microphone off after I’d finished doing the stand-up and I’d walk away from the camera and – being still tethered to it – promptly pull it off its pedestal and crashing to the ground.
I would not ever be described as a Chipmunk. But like Stan, I would be called an iconoclast. And also like Stan, I would be damned proud of it.
Stan could also shame me into working harder, and if you read what Vecsey and Kornheiser and those who worked for him when he was their sports editor, I was hardly alone. Once you had earned his acceptance, you wanted more of it. Not ten years ago, he and I were side-by-side in the press box at Yankee Stadium and he was reading aloud from the press guide, tittering all the way at the cliches and meaningless data. Then he came to the part in which the Yanks admitted they had no idea who had preceded their venerable Public Address announcer, Bob Sheppard. “You’re this great researcher/baseball expert/television muckety-muck. Certainly you can find out this perplexing hole in history, Mr. Big Shot. I give you one year.”
I found it. It was Red Patterson, and it had been buried by history because Patterson was also the Yankees’ public relations man at the time and he had wanted his announcing role buried by history. Before I wrote the story up I told Stan.
“Great! Congratulations.” Then came a long pause. “So, Mr. Big Shot, knows Red Patterson preceded Bob Sheppard? Who preceded Red Patterson, huh?”