Death of a Sportswriter (A Tribute to Stan Isaacs)

I knew Stan Isaacs, the grandfather, long before I knew Stan Isaacs, the sportswriter. His grandson, David, was my best childhood friend. Growing up, I practically lived at Dave’s house, with his mother and his father and his sister Laura and his dog Hershey. As such, I was usually around when his grandparents visited.

Still, a number of years passed before I had an inkling what Stan did for a living. I was young, and I assumed that anyone over 60 had no time or purpose in life for being anything other than a grandparent. Dave and Laura certainly never mentioned that their grandpa was a big-time sportswriter — they weren’t nearly as into sports as I was. Once, when Stan brought Dave into the Mets’ dugout and introduced him to then-manager Dallas Green. Green asked Dave if he wanted an autograph, and not having any idea why he’d want one, Dave replied, “No thanks.”

Though I practically killed Dave when he told me that story the first time, Laura said her grandfather had been proud. Stan didn’t see why someone would covet an athlete’s signature, either. He saw athletes not as gods, but as people — a novel idea today as much as it was then.

I hope Stan would forgive me for attaching sentimental value to his autograph. He inscribed it in a book he gave me — his “Ten Moments That Shook the Sports World.” He wanted me to read it while I was honing my sportswriting skills at UNC. He used to email me his columns, and I would ask him questions. The book was an even better lesson on sportswriting — and the history of sports, of which Stan played more than a minor part.

Something that always struck me about Stan’s work was how much it differed from today’s typical sports journalism fare. Under the current paradigm, most times that we read a sports story, we’ve already watched the game on TV, seen the highlights 10 times, read 15 in-game tweets, and heard it analyzed by talking heads ad nauseam. In Stan’s day, a sportswriter’s words had to tell the whole story. Reading Stan’s writing is like being at a baseball game — it is not always fast-paced and exciting, but there is beauty in the details. Stan told you what color each team wore, which way the wind was blowing, who was still hung over from the team party the night before, and how the players’ wives responded to the rowdy crowd. He told it straight-faced, with an occasional wry wink. He wrote to inform, and to give his readers a sense of the event. His words revealed that which was whimsical and hidden, the elements of the sports world that usually go unnoticed.

Stan’s family knew him in a far different way than his readers did. All three of Stan’s children were girls, and none would be an early pick in gym-class kickball. They and their spouses and children knew him not as a scribe but as a patriarch, and it pleases me to think that they all may now have occasion to revisit his work and gain some new perspective on the man they called “Dad” and “Grandpa.”

As fate would have it, I was futon-crashing at Laura’s Manhattan apartment when  she learned that Stan had passed. I have been present while she has read some of the other memorials written during the past few days, and I have watched her come to see her grandfather in a new light. “I never knew so many people still remembered him,” she said. She forwarded me a Grantland article about him, and a column by Keith Olbermann, who credits Stan with writing the article in 1981 that launched his career on television. I recommend reading both, and Newsday’s tribute by Mark Herrmann, which Dave posted to his Facebook.

One thing about writers is that they hang around even after they’re gone, and I’m thrilled that by reading his work and what others have written, my friends will always be able to spend time with their grandfather.

I’m glad I’ll get to spend time with him as well. It took me a long time to appreciate what Stan meant to sportswriting. Once, while reading Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax, Stan’s name appeared, and I called Dave and Laura’s mother and said, “Nancy, your father’s mentioned in this book I’m reading!” Her lack of surprise made me realize that Stan was a big deal. There are so many writers — I should know — and it’s easy to be overlooked.

But Stan was different: His relationship with Olbermann began when he penned a column about Olbermann keeping track of which professional athlete held the record for saying the most “you knows” during press conferences. Stan’s column went by the running title “Out of Left Field,” and his topics came from way past the fence. He wrote during a revolutionary age in sports news and was one of the pioneering forces behind it. Most sportswriters of his day wanted to be in on the glory — Stan wanted to be in on the joke. His writing has little in common with that of the modern sportswriter, and yet his “Chipmunk” style and critical regard for athletes and coaches has influenced so many who may never know it. When I read his book, I was amazed at the magnitude of the events he’d covered: the Munich Olympics, the Miracle Mets, the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the Jets upsetting the Colts, Ali-Frazier. Stan was there for all of that, and he brought his readers there with him.

When Bobbie, Stan’s beloved wife of 58 years, died last year, it had already been a long time since I’d seen or written him. Based on the reports his family gave me, Bobbie’s passing was a blow from which he never fully recovered. His health and spirits sank, and his last months were unfortunately not happy ones. I dare say he would have wanted things to end differently, but we don’t usually get to choose how we walk off the field.

We don’t get to choose how we say goodbye, either. A few weeks ago, I wanted to write Stan. I wanted to tell him I was sorry about his wife, and that I hoped he was alright. I wanted to, but I didn’t. Laura said she wishes she’d been able to visit him one last time, and I’m sure some of his other family members do as well. As long as people have family members, and as long as those family members pass away, people will wish they’d said this or done that, forgiven X or apologized for Y, and that their final parting left nothing incomplete.

The funny thing is, Stan’s departure reminds me of his columns: Often, they didn’t end neatly and tidily, but abruptly, as if Stan decided he’d hit his word limit and called it a day.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to Stan Isaacs — the sportswriter, the grandfather, the father, the husband, the mentor. But I do get to emulate his style in a farewell column, and his family gets to read it.

I suppose that’s not so bad.

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