Jimmy Breslin: Columns so good nobody had thought of anything like them

One of the greatest movies ever made features Jimmy Breslin, though the great New York columnist, who died over the weekend aged 88, doesn’t even appear on screen.

Jimmy Breslin in Costello's wine bar 1986. Picture: Michael Brennan

In When Harry Met Sally, Jess (Bruno Kirby), a New York columnist himself, refers to Breslin admiringly. Sally (Meg Ryan) says she doesn’t care for him.

“Well, he’s the reason I became a writer,” says Jess. “But that’s not important.” Breslin had the kind of career, and impact, that seems impossible now beyond a movie bathed in nostalgic sepia.

In the sixties he wrote columns so good, it seemed nobody had ever thought of anything like them at all, such as the famous interview with John F Kennedy’s grave-digger, or the column about an electoral candidate, which was summed up by the title (‘Is Lindsay Too Tall To Be Mayor?’).

By the mid-seventies, he was in correspondence with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer. Even in that pre-internet age Berkowitz’s random killings across New York featured in newspapers here in Ireland, though the almost-quaint term ‘mass murderer’ rather than ‘serial killer’ was in vogue then.

What stuns a lot of us who slave over columns was Breslin’s ability to produce quality over decades: Almost 20 years after the Kennedy column he wrote a staggering column/account of the shooting of John Lennon by talking to the two New York policemen who brought the stricken musician to hospital. The fact that he wrote it against a looming deadline is enough to make you give up.

Like all the best people, though, he served his time in sportswriting. A few years ago Breslin wrote a book about Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, who brought Jackie Robinson, the first African-American into the major leagues, a neat combination of his sporting and political interests.

Breslin, however, made his name with a classic in 1962, when he wrote a book about following the New York Mets baseball team for a season.

“This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough,” was Breslin’s description of the Mets. “It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like.

“And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a t-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married.”

Breslin fixed on the Mets as a subject because they were so bad. They were new to the New York area, home of the perennially successful Yankees, and their early years of struggle tipped into farce more than once; their manager, Casey Stengel, said: “The Mets have shown me more ways to lose than I even knew existed.”

Stengel was the also man who gave Breslin his title, saying: “You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself: ‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’ ”

The fact that the Mets were in a part of the country accustomed to titles and stars and glory made them all the more noticeable. New York’s vast resources had made it a hub of sporting excellence for decades — in boxing, basketball, American football, and baseball — so when the Mets were struggling to find their feet, it was a novel experience for sports fans in the area.

Eventually, they came to love the Mets for their ineptitude, which shows that even in places where excellence is expected, failure can finally morph into entertainment. It doesn’t have to be a passing phase, something that should not be lost on certain parts of this country, perhaps.

Breslin would credit the Mets book with improving his situation generally, and say: “I did more than identify with the Mets after that. I developed the total belief that my fortunes were based on the Mets’ fortunes . . .”

The Mets won the World Series in 1969. Breslin collected the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.

“You always went to the losers’ dressing room,” he said. “That’s where the story was.”

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