His third visit to the Major Leagues was a professional assignment as a reporter for The New York Times, aged 19 in 1957. Lipsyte has always been different, always interested in sports and society as a whole, not sports as a hermetically sealed area of arrested development.
“I thought there was a real connection, and that’s what I thought the basis of my career was. When you write something even faintly controversial, or you inject race or politics into your story, the reaction is pretty speedy and often angry that you’ve punctured the sanctuary, the never-never land people live in about sports.
“In America, if you want to piss people off nowadays, you can point out the connections to the late Joe Paterno (Penn State coach involved in a sex scandal) and the Superbowl.
“In 46 Superbowls there have been at least 41 Penn State players who played for him. There’s an idea of a saintly Joe Paterno who read the Aeneid and left all his money to the university. We won’t even ask where a coach gets four or five million dollars to donate back to his university in the first place, but nobody wants to hear about that, or concussions. The SuperBowl is Glocca Morra, a place where strong men with strong appetites just enjoy the game. That’s fine. I’ll enjoy the game, but there are other connections as well.”
The other major focus in US sport recently has been on Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback whose religious beliefs have polarised gridiron fans.
“I thought that was pretty funny,” says Lipsyte.
“To his credit, Tebow said up front that God doesn’t care who wins the game. He’s what we think we want from a sports hero: a nice-looking kid, clean-living, dedicated to his principles, like Muhammad Ali. Some aspects of his beliefs are controversial here, but here’s a guy who doesn’t have all the tools we think a pro quarterback should have — he can’t throw — but he keeps winning. He’s a great leader and an inspirational player. He’s the guy we’ve been taught we want — better than his talent, tries hard and submissive to authority. So why has he become controversial? To me that’s crazy.”
That mention of Ali is no accident. Lipsyte spotted the boxer’s potential early: “I love him. He made my career, without sounding selfish. Boxing writing really meant something once, and in the 60s, when Cassius Clay started coming up, he wasn’t well regarded as a valid contender. It was felt he’d get knocked out in the first round and The New York Times want to waste its august boxing writer on such a trip.
“The kid on night rewrite, me, got sent there instead to do feature stories.”
Lipsyte’s instructions were to fly to Miami for Clay versus Sonny Liston, rent a car and learn the route from the venue to the nearest hospital: “They didn’t want me to waste time following Clay to intensive care.”
The first time Lipsyte met Clay on that trip, The Beatles were also in the room. “That was the moment when the 60s began,” he laughs. “The five of us, me and the Beatles, meeting Cassius Clay.”
Clay beat Liston, and the next day Lipsyte became the Times’ boxing writer.
“I eventually got a column,” he says, “Because I got so much attention covering him. He was front page.
“I have great affection for him, though I’ve often written critically about him and his flaws. There’s a connection between him and Tebow.”
In the 70s Lipsyte wrote ‘Sportsworld’, a clear-eyed view of American sports that caused a sensation.
He called college football, for instance, ‘a monument to national hypocrisy’. Does he stand over those views?
“I do. My parents were public school teachers and there were no sports in the house, it was all books. I wasn’t that much of a sports fan, so my weakness as a sportswriter, certainly early on, was that I didn’t have the information that a kid who’d been a big sports fan would have. I didn’t know who was who in the batting averages and so on so I tried to make up for it by approaching the thing as a journalist rather than a fan. So I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning out of ignorance. But I think people are coming round to, say, the hypocrisy of college sports in America. Where else in the world do institutions of higher education sponsor semi-commercial sports teams?
“In my time I saw the Olympics go from amateur rules to wide-open sports. In the 50s we knew about steroids, but now we have people saying, ‘I’m shocked’.
“The other thing was that I never thought I’d stay in sports — until I realised how much I loved covering sports. I was hooked. When I started writing in the late 50s, you had total access — you flew in the same planes, you stayed in the same hotels. But the deal was that you didn’t write about certain things, such as the ladies the players might have been involved with. The intrusion of TV, players’ Twitter accounts... it means there’s a real adversarial situation. Everyone’s angry with each other and the only reason not to go on the attack is if you think you’re going to lose access. The journalist and athlete are pitched against each other, unless — like ESPN — there are no boundaries between what’s journalism and what’s selling the game.”
The question, therefore, is this: what is a sportswriter supposed to do?
“I’m 74 and people are still asking me what I’m going to do when I grow up.
“People who are not sports fans don’t understand we’re covering an important aspect of life. But people who are sports fans only want us to beat the drum for their pleasures — ‘give us a little inside information but don’t say anything to disturb us’.
“Are we newsmen or reviewers, critics or commentators? Are we there to help sell the game to help keep our jobs alive? It’s very complicated.”
nAn Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir by Bob Lipsyte (Ecco HarperCollins, $25; €20 approx)