For more than half a century, Jerry Izenberg — a product of the Jewish community of Newark’s Clinton Hill — has been widely considered the best sports writer in New Jersey.
Almost since he began reporting at what was then The Newark Star-Ledger in the 1950s, Izenberg has amassed a resume that most others can only dream of.
He has covered all 51 Super Bowls, the past 50 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, dozens of heavyweight boxing championship bouts, and major and minor events in nearly any sport you can think of.
Now in semi-retirement from The Star-Ledger, Izenberg hasn’t slowed down his writing output. He files some 60 stories a year for the newspaper from his home in Henderson, Nev., and has just published his 13th work of nonfiction, “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017). His next book, and first novel, will follow shortly.
Izenberg will return to New Jersey on Thursday, March 16, for a book signing at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at Clifton Commons. With him will be heavyweight fighter Chuck Wepner — nicknamed, in a nod to his hometown, “The Bayonne Bleeder” — who managed to knock down Muhammad Ali in their world title fight in 1975 before Ali defeated him in the 15th round.
Izenberg writes that his 252-page “Giants” covers a time when “in all sports nothing dominated the public eye like a heavyweight championship fight. It’s not the same today.”
“Once there were giants…,” he says, “and I was there to witness it.”
Early on, Izenberg sets the tone for that “golden age” — from 1962 to 1997. It was, he writes, an era in which Jews, Italians, Irishmen, African-Americans, and those representing a host of other ethnicities came together to celebrate their shared passion at ringside. Often alongside the fans were show business celebrities and people from the multiethnic world of organized crime.
Izenberg’s eyewitness accounts of the greats in the ring predate that age. Among the giants he witnessed was Joe Louis, who fought the German Max Schmeling in 1938, when Izenberg was just eight years old. In the Izenberg household, writes the author, Louis — the African-American world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 — was considered to be battling “a Goliath from the land of Nazis.”
In the 1960s, a new phenomenon came along named Cassius Clay, who would arouse excitement in and outside the world of boxing. His reputation was not just as a flamboyant fighter but as an outspoken activist who converted to Islam, becoming Muhammad Ali, and defied the federal government by insisting on his religious right to refuse to fight in Vietnam.
Despite his devotion to sports writing, Izenberg said, he still finds political debate and constitutional issues to be more meaningful. He combined his passions in defense of Ali, notably writing “With Liberty and Justice for All,” a column defending the boxer’s right to defy the draft.
Judging by the reactions from some quarters, “you would think I had committed an atrocity” in supporting Ali, Izenberg told NJJN in a phone interview. “But I believed what I believed.” A few weeks after the article was published, two men used sledgehammers to attack his car in front of his home in Montclair.
Izenberg considered Ali to be “as serious a Muslim as I ever knew” and a man who believed in helping people of all faiths. According to Izenberg, Ali had heard in a television report that a Jewish home for senior citizens in the Bronx was running out of money. So he visited the home, met the rabbi and some of the residents, and asked his manager to write a check for the full six-figure amount of the home’s deficit. “That was Ali,” said the sportswriter. “Old people and little kids he would do anything for.”
Izenberg considers himself to be a proud Jew, but not a religious one. “I was supposed to be bar mitzvahed, but I said to my father, ‘I’ve never seen you in the synagogue, so why do I have to go to Hebrew school?’”
His father, a minor league baseball player, answered by saying he had played in leagues in which he was the only Jew. “You are a Jew, and even if you don’t want to be a Jew, they won’t let you be anything else. So you better damn well know what it’s about,” said father to son.
His family lived down the block from Temple B’nai Abraham on Clinton Avenue (the synagogue is now in Livingston). One day its religious leader, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and leading civil rights activist, came to visit the Izenberg home.
“The rabbi said to my father, ‘Harry, I want you to teach me baseball.’ He said, ‘Rabbi, I didn’t think you liked baseball.’ The rabbi said, ‘I don’t, but I want to teach my two boys so they can grow up American.”
Twelve-year-old Izenberg preferred baseball to bar mitzvah lessons, and when his tutor found him playing second base “he grabbed me by the ear and pulled me onto Seymour Avenue and all the way up to the synagogue. From that time on I went to classes.”
Izenberg began his newspaper career during his junior year at the Newark campus of Rutgers University after a chemical plant — where he worked 40 hours a week “shlepping barrels” — exploded and went out of business.
“I had to make a living,” Izenberg said. So, after becoming editor of his college newspaper, Izenberg was hired as a copy boy at The Newark Star-Ledger. “In those days the paper was the poster child for illiteracy, so they promoted me to the copy desk, and I was making enough money to pay for college.”
Since then, Izenberg’s writing career has more or less paralleled the greatest moments in sports. Asked to name the high points in the roster of events he has covered, he rattled off a staggering list.
It is topped by the first Super Bowl, in 1967, in which the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 35 to 10.
Then there were Ali’s fights against George Foreman and Joe Frazier, pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Rangers’ winning hockey’s Stanley Cup in 1994, and Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax setting strikeout records.
Then there were two lesser known but highly emotional victories that resonated with Izenberg. One was by Jeff Blatnick, a Greco-Roman wrestler who battled cancer and came back to win a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Another was Grete Waitz, who in 1979 became the first woman in history to run the New York City Marathon in under two and a half hours.
Izenberg’s love of sports and his abiding interest in politics and social justice came together at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where he spent a memorable day with Nelson Mandela.
It was two years after the anti-apartheid revolutionary had been released from a South African prison for opposing the previously racist structure of the nation of which he was then president.
Izenberg encountered the leader sitting by himself in a balcony. He said Mandela told him to “sit, sit. I will explain boxing to you because I was a fighter before I was sent to Robben Island Prison.”
“It was unbelievably fascinating,” Izenberg recalled. Mandela said, “‘I will talk to you about anything except Winnie,’” Mandela’s estranged wife. “I said, ‘I don’t care about Winnie.’ He said, ‘Good. Neither do I.’”