Looking back at growing up

Looking back at growing up

Clear-eyed journalist describes a long career — and a good life

What’s the old saying? You can take the boy out of Newark, but you can’t take Newark out of the boy.

Let’s push that chestnut just a bit further: You can take the smart-aleck, brash, defiant Jewish boy out of Newark but you can’t take the smart-aleck, brash defiance out of the Jewish boy. Perhaps over the years these traits can be toned down and channeled, but they always lurk beneath the surface, under the more adult guises of challenging conventional wisdom, the status quo, and people in authority.

In this case the boy happens to be approaching his 93rd birthday in September and lives not in Newark but in Henderson, Nevada, one of those instant communities that have sprung up on the fringes of Las Vegas, where the air is dry, even crisp at night, the houses are stucco and tile roofed, and the keening of slot machines is just beyond hearing range (but maybe not temptation’s).

The well-tended streets of Henderson are separated by a few warps in time from the grittier streets of Newark, specifically Shanley Avenue at the edge of the Weequahic section in what is known as Clinton Hill. Even more specifically, 80 Shanley Ave., just up the block from the imposing, former home of Temple B’nai Abraham (now in Livingston).

A young Jerry Izenberg with his father as catcher.

Both of these disparate settings have bracketed (maybe bookended is a better term) the long, productive, iconoclastic life of Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist, novelist, TV documentarian, civil rights activist, and tummler for all progressive causes ranging from issues within sports to symphony orchestras.

And, no, the nonagenarian hasn’t necessarily mellowed, but his writing, if anything, is even sharper, though softer around the edges, as evidenced by his latest book, “Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs: Growing Up Jewish in the 1930s in Newark.” Essentially, it’s a valentine to his dad, Harry, and a gift to the legions of Jersey readers who have followed him for more than three generations.

Jerry’s staggering volume of awards, honors, firsts in his field, and philanthropic achievements are too numerous to cite here, and probably would cover the walls of more than one large den or mancave. But that’s the well-earned baggage of seven decades spent meeting deadlines with distinction, a feat matched by only a few of his peers in the new wave of sportswriters who came to prominence during the 1960s.

Even in this select fraternity, Jerry stands at the head of the class (something he rarely did in the real scholastic world). He and his contemporaries were much less worshipful of past sports idols or protective of their foibles and prejudices. They chronicled new and flawed heroes named Ali, Namath, Seaver, Mantle, Reed, and Nicklaus and dared to attack the racism of the Olympics with sharper, leaner prose, upending the sentimentality of the Damon Runyons, Paul Gallicos, and Grantland Rices of an earlier era. And their political sensibilities bent more toward reporting the civil, labor, and human rights issues surrounding the players and times than it did to hyping events for the benefit of management and owners, who were no longer allowed to pay for their transportation and lodgings as had been done in the bad, old days.

I was fortunate enough to observe Jerry’s comings and goings at the Newark Star-Ledger for nearly 40 years. That doesn’t mean I actually got to know him well as a colleague, but from my vantage point at the copy desk, I did get to see him swoop into the cavernous newsroom between assignments, confer with the sports editor and a few others, and then just as quickly scoot out.

Jerry hugs Monte Irvin, who grew up in Orange, was a star of the Negro Leagues, and played for the N.Y. Giants. He was one of the first African Americans in the majors and Willie Mays’ mentor.

In the fall of 1969, however, there came a Sunday when I was able to spend the better part an afternoon with him, in the company of fellow sports columnist Hy Goldberg of the Newark News and Herb Jaffe, the Star-Ledger’s chief investigative reporter, Jerry’s best friend, who now also lives in Henderson. The four of us drove to Shea Stadium to watch the Jets in the divisional playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs. (K.C. beat them and would go on to win the Super Bowl that year.)

For Jerry and Hy, it was just another workday; for Herb and me, it was a chance to soak up the crowd’s energy on a bracing, beautiful afternoon.

By the time we made our way back to the press room, Jerry and Hy already had finished their columns and filed them with the teletype operators. When I read their pieces in print the next day, I saw that each reported and analyzed the game through different generational lenses and offered insights that both Herb and I missed completely. Neither’s copy gave the slightest hint of being written under pressure.

That was the last time I spoke at any length with Jerry until our recent phone conversation about “Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs,” the 15th book of his storied career. The previous subjects have been as diverse as “After the Fire,” a novel written in the context of the Newark riots; a biography of Pete Roselle, the NFL commissioner who set the league on its course to dominance; and “The Proud People,” about the role of Latin athletes in America. And that doesn’t count the thousands of columns and stories he’s filed from around the world.

Jerry Izenberg interviews boxer Leon Spinks.

Jerry’s voice remains firm, feisty, and with the gravelly edge of years ago. The latest photos show his trademark goatee intact, although whiter, and the glasses still perched on his nose. His memory of times, places, and personalities remains uncanny. And although health issues have limited his travel in the last few years, he still covers big events such as the Super Bowl by working the phones or via Zoom, mining his priceless network of sources for information even the writers in attendance can’t ferret out.

Jerry now enjoys emeritus status at the Star-Ledger but still produces pieces that are scathingly humorous or acidly biting. The heading on his former column simply read “Jerry Izenberg – At Large,” and that’s because it was writ large, no matter what the sport, or where an event took place, be it Zaire, Beijing, the Bronx, or Oslo. If he was writing about polo (mercifully, he did it just once, if memory serves), Jerry would make sure readers knew it was played by nabobs and movie stars during the Depression who spent shameful sums of money feeding their ponies while millions of the poor queued up on bread lines.

Other fans have connected with Jerry through his appearances as a TV analyst or commentator or by his writing and producing documentaries such as “A Man Named Lombardi” and “Grambling College — 100 Yards to Glory.” During the Grambling project, he butted heads with Howard Cosell, who wanted to cut scenes of the college’s fabled quick-time marching band. Jerry’s own background playing in the band while attending Virginia’s Augusta Military Academy (he’s always been a rebel, but never, never as a Lost Cause sympathizer) coupled with his lifelong love of jazz, allowed him to prevail over Cosell. (His threat to break some of the sportscaster’s body parts if the scenes were chopped might have helped.)

Jerry’s four years at Augusta, the only really jarring, out-of-sync component of the story, resulted from his behavior as what was euphemistically described in those days as being a handful (and maybe today, too). He would have followed his sister Lois to Weequahic High had his deportment been better, but wound up in Staunton, Virginia, instead after much handwringing by his parents. Fortunately for the reader, the “Brat to Rat” chapter provides telling descriptions of antisemitism, southern style, and how this Jewish cadet from the North dealt with situations in a very alien environment.  (Rat refers to Brother Rat, the designation for all plebes.)

Anyone who plunges into an Izenberg column doesn’t so much absorb it as to become at one with it, either pro or con. Jerry peppers his prose with a torrent of Yiddishisms, witticisms, freewheeling biblical allusions, progressive politics, history, and whatever else suits his muse on a particular day to get across his always unmistakable point of view. His writing meshed perfectly in an era when the games grew harder edged, more mercenary, and openly exploitative, paralleling the intensity of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the surge of feminism.

Aileen and Jerry Izenberg have been married for more than 45 years.

In “Baseball, Nazis & Nedicks,” Jerry’s perspective is mellower but still mischievous. He begins  recounting the trajectory of his life with a hilarious prologue featuring a baby’s-eye view of his  bris, then segues to his mostly Andy Hardy (Jewish version) upbringing in Newark, proceeds through the very un-Jewish wilderness years at Augusta Military Academy, and returns to Newark, where he lives at home again, works in a dye factory, hustles to put himself through Rutgers, catches the journalism bug, falls in love (the book maintains a high-pitch of hormonal flow throughout), and actually tries to move his Army draft date forward so he can fulfill his military service during the Korean War and return to a life of newspapering and what he anticipates will be marital bliss.

When I interviewed Jerry, I asked if “Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs” went beyond a warm and fuzzy memoir/autobiography with its heavy reliance on literary elements of bildungsroman. I did so with premeditation, knowing (a) anything German sounding ruffled his feathers; (b) Jerry didn’t do warm and fuzzy often; and (c) I had been waiting years to use the word bildungsroman. In typical, no-nonsense fashion, he replied, “Call it whatever the hell you want, just know there won’t be a sequel and it was done from memory as a tribute to my father.”

And it does indeed unfold as a remarkably candid, nuanced appraisal of Harry Izenberg, showing how the Lithuanian immigrant followed a meandering, atypical assimilation path by becoming a minor league baseball player, going off to World War I, returning to marry and start a family in middle age, dyeing pelts for a living, listening to Giants games in frustration, and trying to steer a rambunctious, headstrong son toward adulthood with varying degrees of success.

This should not suggest that Jerry marginalizes his mother, the formidable Sadye Weiser Izenberg, who once charmed two IRS agents into forgiveness with her coffee cake, or his older, hovering sister, Lois, in the familial mix. But he does reserve a special niche for his father as the teacher who cultivated their mutual love of baseball and used the bonding moments it brought them for larger life lessons.

Boxing champion Muhammed
Ali stands by as his friend Jerry Izenberg punches him in the nose; later, Ali autographed the photo.

Harry Izenberg arrived in the United States from the Pale of Settlement with members of his large family when he was 7. Although he didn’t speak a word of English, Harry possessed the gift of coaxing a bat into clobbering a baseball for long, lofting hits. He immediately ruled the playground roost and began dreaming of a career as a major leaguer in the nation’s quintessential sport.

Of course, his good hit, no field didn’t get him far, and the barrel-chested, stockily built Harry bounced around the low minors before coming to terms with his limitations. But he did sample the raucous life on the road with other ballplayers of the era, and the rife antisemitism that went with it. Harry even had himself tattooed, discreetly on his hand, but bleached it off with acid before his mother could discover it. No choir boy, he, but certainly a devoted Jewish son.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Harry enlisted and trained with a mortar outfit. During the vicious trench fighting on the Western Front, he was wounded and lost hearing in one ear. Every Veterans Day, Jerry’s bespoke column on his father’s military service, including a cameo shot of Harry in uniform, runs in the Star-Ledger. The piece is pure homage to the elder Izenberg’s love of his new country, its customs, and it being a safe harbor for Jews. As the son writes in “Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs,” Harry “lived in the war, but never let the war live in him.”

His dream of playing in the majors shattered, the elder Izenberg returned stateside, buckled down, and worked as a pelt dyer for years, inhaling the fumes and absorbing the economic shocks that trends in fashion decreed. He wed Sadye, who was born in Massachusetts and never let him forget she descended from Austrian Jewish stock, and the couple had Jerry when Harry was 45. The old man was truly an old man and didn’t have the luxury of a midlife crisis. He devoted his energies to Sadye, Lois, Jerry, the Giants, the pelts, and Hank Greenberg (the pre-Koufax Jewish gift to baseball even though he played for Detroit), not necessarily in that order.

One afternoon, this very secular Jew grudgingly made time for Rabbi Joachim Prinz, his neighbor, who had fled Germany and assumed the pulpit at B’nai Abraham down the street. This is the same Dr. Prinz who later would march for civil rights with Dr. King and address the historic Washington, D.C., rally.

Jerry and his friend, the boxer Joe Frazier, smile for the camera.

Harry was a bit grouchy that day, his son recalls, because a Giants game was in progress, they were losing as usual, and the great Mel Ott was coming to the plate. Harry clutched his battered Philco radio (battered from tossing it in frustration) and listened intently. but Ott flied out. Only then did he grant the rabbi a front-porch audience.

Dr. Prinz referenced Jerry’s spotty attendance at bar mitzvah lessons and then got to the point. He wanted Harry to teach him the game of baseball, not so much to play, but to understand and pass along to his sons. He wanted them to feel American. From then on, the odd couple of Shanley Avenue got along famously.

“Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs” brims with vignettes testifying to the resilience of the Izenberg family as they buy a fixer-upper home, struggle financially, worry as Hitler solidifies his stranglehold on Europe, and listen with growing horror as domestic antisemites spew their poison. Through it all, they remain a high-energy, high-decibel household as part of Newark’s robust Jewish community coming into its own during the turbulent 1930s.

Jerry distills just the right proportions of nostalgia and steely-eyed realism in describing the Newark both he and I knew growing up. His description of Harry taking him to Davega’s sporting goods downtown and buying his first mitt precedes my exact experience by about 12 years. Jerry rode the No. 13 bus, I rode the No. 14. We both attended B’nai Abraham, but my parents soon transferred me to B’nai Jeshurun. We both went to Rutgers, I in New Brunswick, he in Newark. When I had to make up a biology course, I took the class in the same building on McCarter Highway and Rector Street where Jerry had been an undergrad. (It was the former Ballantine’s brewery.)

I knew the streets Jerry frequented, the games he played, and the mischief he got into. His father and my father (both exhausted after long workdays) taught us how to catch and bat and took us to those sacred spaces of the sport, he to the Polo Grounds for the Giants, me to Ebbets Field for the Dodgers.

As my senior by 12 years, Jerry also had the advantage of seeing the spectacular Newark Bears of the late 1930s play at Ruppert Stadium. By the time I was baseball savvy, the Bears were past their prime, the minors were fading, and Ruppert Stadium would soon be razed. But on those golden afternoons, Harry and Jerry would buy Nedick’s hot dogs with orange drinks, and both would enjoy the nectar of the baseball gods as they walked down Wilson Avenue to the stadium in Ironbound.

It didn’t get any better than that.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor with the Jewish Standard/New Jersey Jewish News. He hasn’t owned a baseball mitt in years.

Who: Jerry Izenberg and his old friend and colleague Guy Sterling

What: Will talk about his new book on Zoom

When: On Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m.

Sponsored by: The Newark Public Library

For information and the link: Call (973) 733-7784 or google “Newark Public Library” and “Jerry Izenberg”

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