Tagged: Tony Kornheiser

Stan Isaacs: 1929-2013

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.

Like me.

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.

Imagine getting to read this about yourself, at the age of 22:Stan2

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 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?”

I will miss Stan Isaacs every day.stanley

Not So Big Mac After All

A full week of exhibition games in, and Mark McGwire is clearly not on his way to setting a single-season record for confrontational interviews. Not even TMZ-style ambush. 

Sure, sure, they’re pulling his name off his highway in Missouri and given it to Mark Twain (begging the question: they’re just now getting around to honoring Mark Twain?). But this today, from the local paper in Naples, Florida, seems to be more representative of the overall tone to the start of the McGwire post-steroid, post-I-did-it-for-my-health-interview, era:

“There is a lot of negativity and failure in baseball. It’s nice to talk about how positive it can be. I’m a positive person,” McGwire said.

With that apparently not ironic use of “positive” there, presumably psychiatrists have just upgraded Mac a few notches in preparation for their upcoming Psychology Rotisserie Draft. But we move on.
There are three ways to read the slow start to McGwire Season. Firstly, it’s just that, a slow start. The real tests start Friday when the Cardinals play the Red Sox, and then next Monday as they begin a virtual playoff series with the Mets (also Saturday, a week from Thursday, the 28th, and 30th – should you want to start circling your calendar). The players are irrelevant; the writers mattered. One can infer from giving New York’s Grouchiest five separate shots at Mac, that the schedule was either drawn up long before McGwire’s hiring, or somebody in St. Louis really doesn’t like Mark.
The second theory is that McGwire’s return really is no big deal, positive or negative, and the writers have correctly gauged the spirit of the times. Since the writers only correctly gauge the spirit of the times once every 12.7 years (and when they do, 60 percent of them ignore it and write anyway), I’m not putting a lot of money on this one.
The third one, I think, is the likeliest. Mark McGwire is simply being forgotten to death. The first evidence of this syndrome – a kind of psychological universal asterisk – was apparent when ESPN’s Barry Bonds Reality Show bombed. It did not generate controversy, it was not attacked as exploitive, it wasn’t even criticized as bad TV. It was just that outside the Bay Area and a small circle of other admirers, nobody wanted to hear from or about Barry Bonds, ever again. As if by a collective unspoken will: Barry Bonds hit more home runs, and Henry Aaron is still baseball’s all-time home run leader.
Perhaps this invisible fog is now enveloping McGwire. Nobody’s raising a stink, because nobody takes him seriously. 
Maybe the Missouri Department of Transportation should have re-named the McGwire Highway after another former Cardinals hero: Roger Maris.
Imagine if this had happened a little later in baseball’s history – it wouldn’t have been labeled “trivia.” When the Dodgers played an exhibition against the Braves in Vero Beach on March 11, 1967, two late, one-inning defensive replacements for Los Angeles included first baseman Sadaharu Oh, and third baseman Shigeo Nagashima. There’s even an Associated Press wire photo of one of the Japanese immortals, Nagashima, taking a throw as Atlanta’s Jim Beauchamp slides into third. The photo is not on the net, only in a digitized version of the Chicago Tribune’s hard copy, so it’s tough to be certain but it appears Nagashima is wearing not a Dodgers’ uniform, but his Tokyo Yomiuri Giants’ garb.
Belated thanks to all who have posted comments lately with well wishes for my father, who continues to fight his illness, more than two weeks after he lost wakefulness, and more than six months after he was first hospitalized. Your support is of great value to me (and my thanks to MSNBC for its understanding in this time, and, for that matter, MLB.Com, for providing this oasis where I can immerse myself in the game between trips to his bedside). This is, in fact, what baseball is for.

I’d also like to welcome new reader Bill Simmons, who has been kind enough to tweet about my note here last week already ceding him the dumbest sportswriting award of 2010 for his laugh-out-loud funny argument that the comeback of Tiger Woods (caught having repeated trouble with his putts) will be more difficult than that of Muhammad Ali (persecuted by the federal government for the color of his skin, his stance against the war, and his religious conversion, and effectively banned from his sport for two years).

Mr. Simmons tweets:

I’m furious that my Tiger column distracted America from a detailed and only mildly creepy case for Johnny Orsino’s Hall of Fame candidacy.

via UberTwitter

This is pretty standard stuff for Mr. Simmons. Make a fool of yourself comparing Tiger Woods (loss of advertisers) to Muhammad Ali (loss of income, threatened loss of freedom), so change the topic – to an admittedly trivial column about a trivial moment from a marginal catcher named John Orsino.

Mr. Simmons resumes:

KO, please know the feeling is mutual. You’re my worst case scenario for my career in 12 yrs: a pious, unlikable blowhard who lives alone.

via UberTwitter

This assumes that Mr. Simmons’ career now is where mine was twelve years ago (anchoring SportsCenter, then my own MSNBC political show, anchoring NBC Weekend Nightly News, writing a best-selling sports book, etc). In fact, this assumes that this is Mr. Simmons’ career, which is remarkable. Also, anybody who could write as many words without saying anything of consequence really should throw around the word “blowhard” as frequently as he would a street sewer cover.

Also, I don’t think “pious” necessarily means what he thinks it does.
Having made his point 50% of his words ago, Mr. Simmons still continues. As usual:

I feel bad about saying Olbermann lives alone. I forgot about his cats.

via UberTwitter

Mr. Simmons apparently uses, for factual research, old parody sketches from “Saturday Night Live.” I’m not surprised. That was Ben Affleck. Thanks for playing.
I am surprised, however, to be able to shed some light on something that has been a prominent topic of late around the internet: the prospect that Mr. Simmons is leaving ESPN. Admittedly I am something of an authority on this process. Nonetheless, I was stunned to receive several emails from some of Mr. Simmons’ bosses there, thanking me for pointing out the absurdity of, and the embarrassment to ESPN provided by, the Woods/Ali comparison.
About five years ago, I guess, somebody said Tony Kornheiser was the most uncontrollable, unmanageable talent in the history of ESPN. I was, of course, crushed (although I believe I got honorable mention). When ESPN bosses are writing me for helping them about somebody they claim has now lapped Tony and myself, I am left to conclude only that if Mr. Simmons does leave ESPN, it may not be entirely of his own choosing.
And we now encourage Mr. Simmons to again falme the comments section under various identities, to his heart’s content. This is a managed site, and they can take ’em down. But enjoy yourself.