Lessons of Youth Shape a Writer’s Career
In his memoir, a sportswriter observes his life and times as he delves into issues deserving of journalists’ attention.
The question was well worth asking. Just because someone is a well-known athlete or entertainer, should he be able to sound off to the media about controversial issues in which he has no particular expertise? And do journalists have any obligation to air his views? On that afternoon, I looked around the room at the veteran writers present. As Berkow spoke up, their eyes widened, looking at each other with expressions that said, "The kid is on to something."
He was, and is. After leaving NEA in 1976, freelancing for four years and joining The New York Times in 1981, Berkow was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Commentary in 1988, and in 2001 he shared a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting as a member of the Times's team that did a 15-part series called "How Race Is Lived in America." Now 66, Berkow has published 17 books, written a play about his late friend and colleague Red Smith and the script for the HBO special "Champions of American Sport," and also published fiction.
Now he's written "Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer's Life," a memoir I have long hoped he'd compose. (Disclosure: Berkow has been a good friend of mine since 1967, and we coauthored a book on Casey Stengel.) Not only do his words yield a fine read, but journalistic issues he raises merit attention in newsrooms and classrooms.
His Journey to Journalism
Berkow's early view of life — from a second-floor apartment on the west side of Chicago as the son of a dry cleaner who later oversaw for Cook County the health and safety of its employees — did much to shape his sensibilities as an observer and chronicler. "I don't remember any professional men — lawyers, doctors, accountants [in the neighborhood]," Berkow writes. Instead he lived amidst a miniature United Nations that included African Americans, Italians, Irish, Poles, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, and Jews like Berkow, who is of Russian and Romanian heritage. Referring to blacks, his father, Harold, told Ira, "Their freedom is our freedom." Expanding on the point, he added, "If you're in a room with some people and the black man walks out, and the others start talking negatively about him, rest assured that when you walk out they'll be saying similar things about you."
Besides instilling a passion for justice, his parents bestowed a sense of humor that has been a staple of Berkow's writing. In time, as Harold's job prospects improved, the family moved to the city's more respectable North Side. There, Berkow majored in baseball and basketball at Sullivan High School and eventually began nurturing another talent — writing. In his junior English class, his teacher, Miss Moody, asked students to memorize and recite a poem. Berkow wrote and delivered a 14-line ode to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had won their first World Series. Refusing to believe he'd written the poem, Miss Moody hounded him until he said it was Charles Dickens. When his father gave him "30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary" in the second semester of his senior year, he stunned his jock friends by using words such as loquacious and ubiquitous.
Though he recalls reading just three books in high school, Berkow was busy gathering experience for many more he'd one day write. He sold women's stockings — three pair for a dollar — in Chicago's Maxwell Street bazaar, chanting "Wear 'em once and throw 'em away, and you still got a bargain." Already his persuasive interview style was forming. At 16, he was selling belts on his own and learning never to count his money in public, a metaphor for protecting one's privacy. In these transactions, he listened closely to the pitch of voices, as well as to the words, and learned to gauge quickly what a potential customer's eyes told him.
In a summer job as a garbage collector, he rode a truck with a black, an Italian, and an Irishmen. They constantly bought him sodas at lunch, which Berkow thought was great until the black worker took him aside: "Ira, I'm telling you this because I like you," he said. "You see how Mahoney buys drinks, then Fiori?"
"Yes," Berkow replied.
"You have to carry your weight. You buy when it's your turn."
Berkow describes how this exchange went on to inform his interviewing techniques: "... the way he said it: 'I'm telling you this because I like you.' I was putty in his hands."
One day Ira sat in a polling place with his father and was astounded to hear him accuse a man of breaking his promise to vote the straight Democratic ticket. "Dad, how did you know how he voted?" Ira asked. "You were talking to me and not watching him."
"I saw how he voted out of the corner of my eye."
"You see the curtain? It drops only to the ankles. If you vote the straight ticket, you stand in one place and pull the lever. If you split your ticket, you have to step over to the right. He stepped over to the right."
Even with these early lessons in nuance, observation and humor, it took Berkow some years to emerge as a writer. It wasn't until he'd come and gone from two universities and done a stint in the National Guard that he finally earned his B.A. at Miami of Ohio. There his intellectual curiosity took off, and while writing for the school newspaper, he began a long correspondence with Red Smith, then a syndicated sports columnist with The New York Herald Tribune. Berkow, who must save every letter and memo he receives and story he writes, quotes from Smith's advice about the joy of deletion and the precision of vocabulary. Perhaps it was also from exchanges with Smith, who went on to become a columnist with The New York Times, that Ira absorbed his kindness.
Doing the Job
It is during his time at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism that Berkow's book begins to address issues that he and other journalists confront in their jobs. He recalls the day when a Medill professor told him not to write in "dialect." "What about Stengelese?" — the language used by Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel — he inquires of his readers.
Another vexing question Berkow addresses is whether writers should quote their sources verbatim. In the post-Jayson Blair era, this is sacred ground in journalism; some papers now require reporters to tape every interview and use exact quotes. But when Ira and I talked about this, he was looking for breathing room. "Sometimes you have to help your source," he told me. "You might say, 'Do you mean blah-blah-blah?' You don't want to put words in their mouths, but you want to help make them more succinct, if it doesn't distort their viewpoint."
After Medill and a two-year stint on the sports pages of the Minneapolis Tribune, Berkow settled in for nine years at NEA. There he earned a reputation as a new-breed of sportswriter: He defended Muhammad Ali when it wasn't popular to do so and black athletes, in general, as well as athletes who were in revolt against abusive coaches. Less in evidence was his quirky side, but in 1970 he coauthored "Rockin' Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool" with New York Knick guard Walt Frazier. Frazier was considered so quick on the court it was said he could catch a fly, so an illustration of his fly-catching technique was included. Used in black studies curricula, "Rockin' Steady" includes a five-chapter format based on Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." (In a letter to Berkow, E.B. White complimented him on sentences such as "Sometimes they'll come in and stand real quiet, to listen if I'm still breathing.")
When he became a sports columnist and feature writer at The New York Times, Berkow's writing reached a new and influential audience. (Forced to choose between the two late in his Times career, he left his column and returned to writing features.) When basketball star Isiah Thomas complained that "If [Larry] Bird was black, he'd be just another good guy" rather than be treated as a superstar, Berkow's instinct was to defend Bird, but in a phone conversation with Thomas, he learned more about the genesis of his comment. "What I was referring to," Thomas told him, "was not so much Larry Bird but the perpetuation of stereotypes about blacks. When Bird makes a great play, it's due to his thinking and his work habits. It's all planned out by him. It's not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It's like I came dribbling out of my mother's womb." Colleagues let Berkow know that this story influenced their coverage of black athletes; after this, many sports reporters started paying more attention to these athletes' work ethic and smarts.
Despite never being taught at Medill anything about how to do interviews, Berkow figured out techniques that worked with difficult interviewees, and "Full Swing" is filled with great examples. One of my favorites involves Watergate Judge John Sirica, who wasn't granting interviews during the congressional Watergate hearings. Berkow camped out at Sirica's office and introduced himself when the judge broke for lunch.
"Judge, I have just one question," he said.
"What's that?" said Sirica.
"How did it come about that [late heavyweight champion boxer] Jack Dempsey was the best man at your wedding?"
"Come into my office, young man," Sirica said, and they spoke for almost two hours.
Approaching Barry Bonds, the often-hostile slugger suspected of steroid and human growth hormone abuse, Berkow said, "I covered your father when he was a rookie." Bonds and he talked for 30 minutes.
Adapting a lesson from his days working on the garbage truck, Berkow explained his interviewing technique in a conversation we had: "Try to say something positive without being overly flattering. But it helps to be prepared. I wanted to ask a veteran pitcher something. 'Congratulations on a good season,' I said. 'I'm having a horseshit season,' he replied. I had to gather myself for a second. I said, 'Hey, look, you're in the major leagues. Any season is a good one.'"
Nor does Berkow shrink from talking about the tough times he encountered at the Times. At length, he delves into a dispute about a column he'd written in February 2003. In it he quoted several former college coaches speaking out in opposition to the death penalty — they were much better informed about the issue than Billy Casper had been. Two months later Berkow was named in an editor's note and accused of using two passages "similar in language and concept" to a Chicago Tribune story. He was never asked by editors who prepared the note about his reporting. Had the editors talked with him, Berkow would have told them that his quotations came directly from his interviews. They didn't, and the note was published. As Berkow observes in "Full Swing," to many Times' staffers, this editor's note was an egregious overreaction in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Berkow's exchanges with the paper's top editors about this situation make for instructive and interesting reading.
Since Berkow appreciated Red Smith's nitpicking, here is some of mine: "Disinterested" means neutral, not uninterested. "Save for" seems too stiff; "except for" is better. Except for these few missteps, Berkow's life and times, lessons learned and techniques tried adds up to words well chosen about a journey well worth taking with him.
Jim Kaplan was a Sports Illustrated writer and is the author of 16 books, including "The Gospel According to Casey: Casey Stengel's Inimitable, Instructional, Historical Baseball Book," which he coauthored with Ira Berkow.
It was April 1970 in Augusta, Georgia. The azaleas were in bloom and so was Billy Casper's mouth. An archconservative who would win the Masters golf championship that year, Casper sat in the locker room lecturing writers on religion, morals and public policy. After a while, Ira Berkow, then a 30-year-old columnist for Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a national feature syndicate, spoke up. "Billy," he said, "are you comfortable saying this even if you haven't read widely in the subject, like from The New Republic to the National Review?"