Book excerpt: Wallace Matthews on Jerry Izenberg’s one-of-a-kind career and their friendship

From my forthcoming book on legendary sports columnist Jerry Izenberg’s career and legacy, Wallace Matthews reflects on why Jerry’s work matters and continues to resonate with him, their decades-long friendship and much more.

“He would often tell you a story within the story.”
-Wallace Matthews

By Ed Odeven

Decades before the ubiquitous presence of game highlights on 24-hour cable sport networks, there was a wise, distinguished pundit named Jerry Izenberg delivering thoughtful commentary on a Sunday night TV program in Gotham.

He was a unique voice in New York-area sports then. And now, he is a link to the Big Apple’s rich sports history and one of its most influential media pioneers. But he’s still pounding away on the keyboard, even though he’s not on TV as often these days.

Wallace Matthews recognizes how impressive Izenberg’s career has been. Just ask him. You won’t — you can’t — get a 20-second summary of his admiration for Jerry.

So pull up a seat, relax and get ready for the full story…

One of the premier voices in NYC sports journalism over the past few decades, Matthews has developed a large following during stops at the New York Post and Newsday, ESPN and the New York Sun. In 2018, his byline can be found in The New York Times and Forbes.com, among other places. He considers Izenberg and important mentor, a key role model and a dear friend.

To support his friend, Matthews attended Izenberg’s book-signing event for “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing” at Barnes and Noble in Staten Island, New York, in mid-March 2017.

It was an appropriate gesture.

Matthews’ ties to Izenberg connect his youth to his longtime profession. That link is sports.

For most of his life, the native New Yorker has paid attention to Izenberg’s work, starting out with what he said on TV.

“I became aware of him back in the ’70s when he was doing the TV show called ‘Sports Extra,’ on Channel 5 (WNEW) here, Fox in New York,” Matthews said in an interview. “Versatile Bill Mazer co-hosted the program as part of his 20-year run at the station.”

Matthews called the show “a forerunner of the sports wrap-up show.”

In the early-to-mid-1970s, while in high school, Matthews recalled, “it was the last thing I’d watch before I go to bed, because the next day would be a school day, and it was the forerunner of (ESPN’s) ‘SportsCenter.’ … It basically wrapped up the whole week because it was on Sunday. … And at the very end they bring on this guy who comes on and does like an on-camera essay, and it was Jerry.

“And I loved him because he was just a different-looking guy. He had a goatee back then when nobody had one. To me, he was like a jazz musician or something. He had wire-rimmed glasses, he had the goatee, and he talked in this gruff New York voice, and it sounded like a guy who didn’t take any shit from anybody. And I used to look forward to the end; that was to me the highlight of the show, when Jerry would come on.

“I used to always look forward to him talking about boxing, because I was a big boxing fan. That was my thing.”

Matthews recalled boxing, football and horse racing being staples of Jerry’s Sports Extra essays.

“The best memories I’ll have of becoming a journalist, and I’ve told this to my kids, is that, it’s funny, the people that you admire as a kid somehow become your colleagues and your friends,” Matthews said. “I couldn’t believe that later on I became friends with Jerry Izenberg. I used to watch this guy on TV.

“He’s been a cherished friend. We’ve been together on a lot of events and two in particular, one because of a personal incident.”

He continued: “We were at the Belmont Stakes and I guess this was in the ’90s and the horse was going for the Triple Crown, either Silver Charm or Real Quiet, in 1998 or ’99, I think, because my son had just been born and he was like a year-and-a-half old and Jerry insisted that he had to buy my newborn son a T-shirt, a Belmont Stakes T-shirt, and we still have that 20 years later. That was such a cool thing.”

Matthews graduated from high school in 1975.

So when did he first meet his newspaper idol?

At the Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns middleweight title fight on April 15, 1985, at Caesars Palace, “because that was the first major fight that I did in Las Vegas and all the guys were there, all the major boxing writers were there.”

Matthews became part of that fraternity by being around the action, inside and outside the ring.

“I knew by the time I covered the Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks, which was in 1985, I knew Jerry because we were part of a group that walked out on Larry Holmes when he had Dick Young thrown out of a workout just before the fight,” Matthews said. “And Jerry was one of them.”

Asked about when he recognized Jerry’s talents as a writer and if that came later than when he saw him on TV, Matthews offered this insight: “I was aware of his work. It’s not by accident that I’m in this business. I always read, I devoured the sports (pages) every single day. My family, we had the Daily News delivered to the door in the morning and my dad would come home at the end of the day with the Post under his arm. So I read everything, and Jerry’s stuff (his syndicated column) used to appear in the New York Post.

“I was aware of how good he was for a long time. … I’d read him, I’d read Dick Young. I didn’t read the guys who focused on the NBA or baseball. I wasn’t as into that. I was into boxing, so he was somebody that I always sought out, and guys like Stan Hochman (of the Philadelphia Daily News).”

What trademarks characterized his writing?

“I thought he was more literary than most of them,” Matthew said. “He would often tell you a story within the story, and he does that in conversation, too. If he wants to tell you a story about Muhammad Ali, he’ll start by telling you about the fight between Cain and Abel or something like that.

“He’ll give you the perspective of why it matters, why this parallels to (something else). I always liked that about him, plus I always had the sense that he was a bit of a wise ass and I find out later that he is.

“That came through in his writing, as I said before, he’s the type that didn’t take any shit from anybody. To me, he was like the quintessential New York wise guy …. and that’s what I wanted to be.”

***

Really, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jerry Izenberg and New York Yankees icon Yogi Berra developed — and maintained — a tight bond over the years. (“Jerry and Yogi were very close,” Matthews shared.)

Berra, of course, represented winning as clutch player on the 1940s-60s Yankee dynasty (14 World Series appearances, 10 title-winning teams) and later served as pennant-winning manager for both the Yankees and Mets.

And then when Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner fired him 16 games into the 1985 season, their feud reached epic proportions. Yogi didn’t set foot in Yankee Stadium for an official event for 14 years.

“Yogi said I’m never going back,” Matthews remembered.

Their epic feud ended in January 1999, when Steinbrenner visited the all-time great at Yogi Berra Museum in Litle Falls, New Jersey (on the Montclair State campus) and apologized.

And here’s where Matthews picked up the story. “They’ve had their reconciliation and it’s the day before he’s going to come back to Yankee Stadium. … It was Old Timer’s Day or something and Yogi was going to make his return to Yankee Stadium, and I was talking to Jerry in the Yankee clubhouse.

“He looks at me with a strange face and says, ‘This is what you write. Yogi’s a schmuck. He should never come back. He should tell George Steinbrenner to go f—- himself.’

“So I said, ‘You know what, Jerry, that’s not bad.’

“I just f—– killed Yogi for giving in (to) George. And the next day I saw Jerry and he said, ‘Yogi’s going to kill you.’

“What do you mean?”

“He’s really pissed off about that column.

“I said, ‘You told me to write it!

“I didn’t think you were really going to write it, you schmuck.”

Looking back, “that was a lesson learned, right?” Matthews offered with a laugh. (“It actually wasn’t a bad column but yes, Yogi was pissed off.”)

“I must say this: That Jerry presented the column that that’s what he was going to write. So the next day when I said to him, ‘But you told me this was the column,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t going to write that. What are you crazy?’

“He basically played me.”

And Matthews’ infamous column became a running conversation between Wallace and Jerry.

“Until Yogi died, Jerry would always say to me, ‘Yogi’s looking for you,’ ” Matthews said. “And to me that’s kind of Jerry’s personality in a nutshell right there.”

***

Legacy is a theme that writers like to ponder from time to time, and gathering viewpoints about Izenberg’s legacy is far from boring.

Matthews weighed in, too.

“I think that first of all he’s one of the few guys in this business that’s universally respected,” Matthews said. “I’ve never heard anybody question his integrity or question his intentions.

“Anybody that’s been able to cover 50 Super Bowls and still get along with the players, the owners and the commissioner is pretty remarkable.

“The other thing is just look at the sheer number of halls of fame that he’s been voted into between the New Jersey Hall of Fame, the International Jewish Sportswriters Hall of Fame, the International Boxing Hall of Fame, I think that obviously says a lot to what his legacy is and how respected he is. And it’s not just a longevity thing. … It’s not that because Jerry had this reputation when I first met him 30 years ago, so it’s not like he needed to hang around to be 86 years old to get this.

“He was respected back then. I think he was always considered to be fair. You have to remember how ahead of his time this guy was. I mean you’re talking about a white man, a white, Jewish man from New York in the ’60s supporting Muhammad Ali, supporting Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. …”

And then Wallace Matthews, who’s never shy about expressing his opinion, gave a genuinely Matthews-esque opinion.

“I realize that Howard Cosell gets all the credit for being Ali’s (ally), but f—- Howard Cosell. Jerry Izenberg was ahead of that. Howard Cosell did it for ratings,” Matthews commented. “He realized this guy was great television, but Jerry realized right from wrong. He didn’t see color. He didn’t see the phony patriotism of the Vietnam War era. He saw what was right and what was wrong, and that’s why Ali respected him. They were friends. They were beyond reporter and subject…”

Returning to the aforementioned event at the Barnes and Noble, Matthews tossed out a question during the gathering: “I said, Jerry, what would you pick out as your favorite column that you ever wrote?”

“He said, ‘That’s a really good question.’ ”

Izenberg paused to reflect for a few minutes.

Said Matthews, continuing the story, “He goes, ‘I’ll tell you something,’ and his voice begins to crack, and he actually became emotional. And he says, ‘I won’t say it’s my favorite column, but the one I want to be remembered for was my Muhammad Ali obit, because it was really emotional to me, they told me write as long as I want.’ ”

(That epic column on the global icon was more than 3,100 words. And in an age where tweets are often valued more than quality prose, Izenberg’s work found him trending on Twitter.)

Izenberg’s tough-guy persona couldn’t hide the pain of Ali’s death.

Said Matthews: “It was obvious that it was painful for him to write, that it was something that he didn’t want to write. But he was happy with how it came out. I really thought he was going to cry and I’ve never seen him emotional before.”

***

Despite the ultra-competitive media market of New York City and the surrounding suburbs, Matthews said Izenberg earned the respect of his peers, and the competition to have The Story — to outdo Jerry — wasn’t really there.

“You were never competing with Jerry. You were waiting to see what Jerry wrote, because you knew he was going to kick your ass,” Matthew said, laughing, “whatever it was. But it wasn’t like, ‘I’ve got to match Jerry.’ ”

Instead, he said, “the hope was, what can I learn from Jerry? What did I miss here that he’s going to have, and that maybe next time I’ll remember to do something like that.”

Perhaps Matthews paid the ultimate compliment to Izenberg when he revealed that he remains an avid reader of Jerry’s work.

Or as Mathews eloquently stated, “To this day, and I’ve been reading him for 40 years, he still has the ability to teach me something. He still has the ability to impress me. I can read him and where there’ll be a turn of phrase there, I’ll say, ‘shit, I wish I’d come up with that.’ To me, that’s the biggest compliment because I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m not the new kid on the block anymore; I’m one of the older guys now.

“But to this day, I’ll still read Jerry and he’ll show me something. When you get to a certain point, man and you can’t be shown anything anymore, you’re pretty much done, but he can still show me…”

***

Being around boxing for decades, Matthews has met countless tough guys, plenty of phonies and wannabe ruffians as well. But you can’t accuse Izenberg of being fake. In essence, he has a distinguished personality that takes a bit of time to unravel.

“If it weren’t for the gruff exterior, he’s really a warm guy,” Matthews said. “He’s kind of almost grandfatherly in a way, and he always was. I always felt that way about him way back when in that even when he’s smacking you because you wrote something or thought something or said something that wasn’t quite right, he’s doing it in a way to make you better, not to knock you down.”

He went on: “I always felt like his criticisms were designed to make you better.”

Matthews pointed out that criticism from newspaper editors and colleagues over the years could be summed up this way: “We’re not looking to make you better, we’re looking to make you feel worse.”

To his credit, Izenberg took a different tact.

“He would never be that way,” Matthews said of certain demoralizing editors. “There’s a humanity about him, which I think comes through in his writing. You just can’t hide that. It’s a quality that comes through.”

***

When Matthews was asked if he were assigned to write an in-depth magazine profile of Izenberg, what would be the first thing he’d ask him, the younger journalist provided a curiosity-driven answer.

“How did he formulate his world view?” was the way Matthews responded.

But he didn’t stopped there, of course.

“This is a guy liberal at a time when it wasn’t fashionable, racially conscious at a time when most people weren’t, who was literary in an era when sports writing was getting away from that,” Matthews added. “Things were getting more colloquial and he always kept it at a higher level.”

In the spring of 2017, Izenberg’s recollections of his childhood were as strong as ever, and Matthews shared a story that Izenberg told about him and his father and growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

Matthews said, “He said that somebody had written on the sidewalk in front of his house in Newark ‘no kites allowed.’ He said to his dad, ‘What does that mean?’

“And his father said, ‘First of all, it’s not kites. It was kikes. He was saying something (derogatory) about Jews. And if anybody says this word to you, you are supposed to punch him in the mouth, and if you don’t finish with the left hook, don’t come home.’

Matthews’ reaction to that story from decades ago?

“To me, that’s like both sides of Jerry,” he said. “There was an extreme toughness about him, but at the same time he was able to view people compassionately. That’s a pretty rare quality. A lot of times people are one way or the other, and he’s both.”

***

Thinking back to the first Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield heavyweight fight, held in Nevada in November 1996, Matthews recalled a memorable exchange between him and Izenberg, who were sitting next to each other.

“And we both loved Evander,” Matthews admitted of the huge underdog.

“How am I every going to be able to teach my kid right from wrong if the rapist beats this guy?” Matthews recalled thinking. “And I think he’s really going to hurt him and Jerry felt the same way.

“The fight started and Holyfield just kicked the crap out of him in the first round, and I turned to Jerry and we both just looked at each other and we started to laugh. And I said, ‘Jerry, he’s getting knocked down tonight. And he said, ‘You’re right,’ and of course he did.”

Yes, indeed. Holyfield triumphed with an 11-round TKO.

And what was Izenberg’s inscription to Matthews for his copy of “Once They Were Giants”?

“To Wally Matthews, who sat next to me at the Tyson fight and saw into the future.”

“So he remembered that from 20 years ago,” Matthews said.

***

From the days of Sugar Ray Robinson to Sugar Ray Leonard and beyond, Jerry Izenberg has been a gifted chronicler of the sweet science, even though he’s distinguished himself as a columnist who can write about anything and do it well.

“Boxing, I think, is where he shines because he can really get into the humanity of the characters involved,” Matthews declared.

“You could watch a thousand football games, you don’t give a rat’s ass who wins. I don’t care if Tom Brady throws 12 touchdowns or 12 interceptions, there’s no emotional connection.

“But when you cover a fight, you do get to know them as human beings, you also know that what they do is also rooted so deeply in humiliation and pain and sometimes even death. There’s so much more at stake.

“If you lose a football game or baseball game, big deal. You come back and play again tomorrow, and you still get paid. That doesn’t happen in boxing. Jerry’s always been able to bring that out, and I don’t think a lot of boxing writers do. I think a lot of them just look at it as jabs and hooks and they don’t get to see beyond that.

“Jerry’s always been able to communicate that and that’s what I try to communicate. So to me there’s no comparison, that’s where he excels.”

Above all, stellar communication skills, empathy and a real interest in people carried Izenberg to the top in his profession. And he’s been there for decades, spanning generations of sports fans and journalists. Or put another way: Long before a man set foot on the moon, Izenberg had figured out how to write compelling columns and articles that resonated with readers, stories that were both timeless and timely. Witty and thought-provoking.

An appreciation for history — boxing history, for instance — is a big part of what’s made Izenberg succeed.

“I think that you need a deep grasp of history of it (boxing) to really understand it and that’s something that Jerry’s very good at and also obviously through in his storytelling,” Matthews stated.

Sustaining relationships with sources also played a pivotal role in Jerry Izenberg’s ability to write well.

For Wallace Matthews, the prime example was Izenberg and Ali.

“I think they each saw through the outer shell,” Matthews said. “When a lot of white reporters in Jerry’s day saw Ali as a braggart and a draft dodger and a symbol of everything that they were afraid of, black power, Muslims, something that scared the shit out of white Americans. I think Jerry saw through that, and obviously Muhammad saw passed not only the color of Jerry’s skin but his ethnic background and where he came from and his age, because there was a good 10-, 15-year difference in their ages as well.

“So they were two pretty unique individuals who were able to look passed the obvious stereotype and see the real person, and that really helped with both of them.”

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