'Accidental Sportswriter' A Heavyweight Journalist

Robert Lipsyte has spent the past six decades as a print, radio, TV and online journalist. His first big assignment was the boxing championship match between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Lipsyte about his career as a sports columnist and his upcoming memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Robert Lipsyte has spent the past six decades as a print, radio, TV and online journalist. He also writes young-adult fiction. But the lion's share of his career was as a columnist for the New York Times. Lipsyte first worked for the newspaper known as the Gray Lady when he landed a summer job as a copy boy in the sports department.

Robert Lipsyte has just written a memoir, called "An Accidental Sportswriter." It will be published on Tuesday, and he's in our studio in New York. It is so nice to talk to you again.

Mr. ROBERT LIPSYTE (Journalist, Author, "An Accidental Sportswriter"): Yeah. I'm so glad to be back.

HANSEN: Can it really be called accidental? I mean, you applied for the job. You saw an ad in the newspaper and, I mean, what did you think you were getting into?

Mr. LIPSYTE: It was totally accidental. I had just graduated from college. I was on my way to get an advance degree - in probably something important, like romantic English poetry - in California, which was as far as I could imagine myself from Queens. But I needed a little more money. And so I bought the New York Times - never read the paper; I heard it had good classified ads - and it was an ad for something called editorial assistant.

So I go up there, and they kind of are very condescending - you know, there are all sorts of Rhodes Scholars waiting for this job. But while you're here, fill out an application, which I did and went back home to Queens. As I walked in the door, my mother said, Bobby, you got a crank call. Some man called and said if you show up tomorrow night and pass the physical, you can start work at the New York Times immediately. And you know, the physical was showing up.

So that was the first great accident. I figured I'd be there for two months before I sought my fame and fortune in California. And I hated the job, didn't like the people in the sports department - I had never been a sports fan - but I loved the paper. I fell in love with the paper viscerally because at 9 o'clock at night, when the great presses started to roar in the basement, the whole building started to shake.

And up on the third floor where the sports department was, it would come up my legs and into my loins. I guess you had to have been an English major to be that crazy. So that was the first major accident.

The next really big accident was Cassius Clay...

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. LIPSYTE: ...now known to you as Muhammad Ali.

HANSEN: Well, let me ask you about that. I mean, that was your first big assignment - was the heavyweight boxing championship between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. Why was he called Gaseous Cassius at that time?

Mr. LIPSYTE: Well, I think that the more traditional sportswriters were put off by the fact that he never stopped talking. He was the Louisville Lip; he was Gaseous Cassius. You know, the truth is that in any kind of logical succession, he really didn't deserve to fight for the championship at that time. He had not really, you know, beaten the correct contenders on the way up - you know, the one, two, three and four contenders.

But Sonny Liston was considered such a monster that nobody would come pay to see his fights - because he knocked everybody out in the first round - that the only way they felt that they could goose the box office was with this beautiful sacrificial creature, who was really best known - he had, you know, actually the year before, he had been on the cover of Time magazine because he spouted his doggerel, his poetry, in coffeehouses in Greenwich Village. So I mean, he was kind of a wonderful sports character. But he got absolutely no credit, you know, for being a great athlete and a boxer.

And as odd as this may sound, he was even criticized for his lack of traditional approach to ring tactics. At the time, the correct way, if somebody's throwing a punch to you, you slip the punch - which means you move your head from left to right so that it goes harmlessly over your shoulder. He leaned back away from the punch, which everybody said, you know, would lead him into ultimate destruction against the ropes - which it never did.

So he talked too much. He treated the old-time sportswriters with, you know, a certain kind of disrespect. He was funny. He was just wonderful to be around. And I remember that week leading up to the fight, you know, deep in the back of my head thinking, oh, if only he could win, everything in the world would change, including my career. And that's what happened.

HANSEN: Yeah. Gay Talese was a sports columnist at the New York Times when you were the copy boy, right?

Mr. LIPSYTE: Right. He was a reporter.

HANSEN: A reporter.

Mr. LIPSYTE: Yeah.

HANSEN: And you write a lot about him. How did he contribute to you as a writer?

Mr. LIPSYTE: Oh, I mean, he was the reason that I stayed. As I said, I hated being a copy boy at the Times. I kept going to school at the same time. I was always tired. I wasn't really sure I was cut out for this. But going to his desk - he was on night rewrite - and going to his desk, and being in the school of Talese and listening to what he had to say; you know, how you interviewed people, the questions you ask, how you prepare. I kind of loved to go out on cocoa runs for him because I knew I could bring, you know, the hot cocoa back to his desk and stand there as he drank.

He was very generous and kind with his time. And ultimately, when I decided I just couldn't take it anymore - I was going to school from 9 to 5, the job was like, 7 to 3; I was tired; I was not advancing. I was unhappy - he was the first person I told that I was going to quit. And you know, he sipped at his cocoa and looked at me and in his thoughtful way - he kind of forms his sentences - he said, well, I can understand your doing that, although I think it's a great mistake. I think you're just the kind of young man the Times is looking for these days, and I think you'll be very successful here. But let me tell you, if you do decide to leave, I will give you $5,000 against 10 percent of your earnings as a freelance writer because I think you'll do really, very well.

Liane, that's all I ever had to hear. The fact that Gay Talese, you know, believed in me, I was then able to believe in myself. I hung on for a couple of more months, was promoted and by 21, I was a reporter.

I still see Gay. And in writing "An Accidental Sportswriter," I went back to interview him some months ago. And over a course of a couple of days, we talked and talked. And finally, I kind of screwed up my courage to ask the big question. I reminded him about the $5,000. I said, were you serious? Is there any possibility you could have been kidding? And he said, sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh, dear.

Mr. LIPSYTE: Yeah. So another happy accident in my career.

HANSEN: Robert Lipsyte's new memoir will be published this Tuesday. It's called "An Accident Sportswriter." Robert, thanks so much. It's great to talk to you.

Mr. LIPSYTE: Oh, thank you. It's great to talk to you.

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