Monday, April 22, 2024

Review: Out of Left Field (2024)

By Stan Isaacs; edited by Aram Goudsouzian

This is one sports book that starts off with a mystery - and it's one that's difficult to solve.

Stan Isaacs had a nice run during most of the second half of the 20th century as a sportswriter. Most of that time was spent with Newsday, a daily newspaper that served Long Island. Eventually, he retired, and died in 2013.

Now, 11 years later, we have his autobiography, "Out of Left Field." That was the name of his column at Newsday for much of his time there. So ... where has it been? Sitting in a file cabinet or on a computer disk somewhere? There's no apparent explanation either in the book or elsewhere.

What is known is that Aram Goudsouzian did some editing to the manuscript, and convinced the University of Illinois Press to publish it. Now everyone can read "Out of Left Field."

And that's a good thing. Isaacs always wrote with a distinctive voice, and it's good to have a book full of his thoughts on an eventful career. He influenced such people as Tony Kornheiser and Keith Olbermann.

The title gives an indication of the way that Isaacs thought. When an idea comes from "out of left field," it's considered away from the mainstream and unconventional. That's Stan. This is a man who was always on the lookout for different ways of telling a story. 

For example, the Kansas City Athletics one time put sheep on a grassy section of their ballpark just beyond the outfield fence. He went out and watched a game with them one time. For example, Isaacs happened to be near the spot where George Washington allegedly threw a dollar over a river. So he investigated, and found with it probably could have been done with a metal coin and someone with a good arm (which Stan didn't quite have, although he missed by only a few feet). It's a narrow river. 

Isaacs had some company in that part of the sports world. He was part of the relatively famous "Chipmunks" of the early 1960s. This was a group of baseball writers who followed the Yankees at a time when sportswriters were expected to be so thrilled about following such a mighty institution that they didn't write anything critical and were content to consume free food and drink. Leonard Shechter and Larry Merchant were also a main part of that unconventional approach, and they picked up the nickname because of the protruding teeth of one of their fellow writers. Shechter, by the way, became famous as the coauthor of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." 

In his job, Isaacs covered a variety of big events around the world, from league championships to the Olympics. He also encountered a variety of big-name personalities. Did you hear about the time the Beatles met Muhammad Ali? Stan was in the room. And he wasn't above having a little fun along the way. Like the time he made up a trade rumor involving Yogi Berra if only to see if it would come back to him. (It did.) Or the time he "liberated" the championship banner of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers after the team moved to Los Angeles. Isaacs helped return it to its original home, where it hangs in a museum. 

There are some fun stories along the way, too. I particularly liked how someone had the idea of writing a somewhat sexy novel, and enlisted a couple of dozen members of the Newsday staff to write a chapter each. After some editing to eliminate the rough edges, the book was published and sold some copies. Then word came out about the backstory ... and it popped up on the best-seller list. Isaacs and all of the other writers split the proceeds, which came out to be several thousand dollars each. A movie version wasn't quite as successful.  

There are a couple of points that a potential reader should know going in. First of all, Isaacs was an unabashed liberal throughout his life. That occasionally popped up in his work, but it certainly influenced his thinking from childhood (a big fan of both Roosevelts) until the end. For example, he felt a little guilty about posing for a photo in 1969 with President Richard Nixon for decades. If you have trouble with that, you've been warned.

Second, the target audience for a book like this skews old. Some of the fun is hearing about Isaac's impressions of the people he encountered along the way. But those names are going to be ancient history to most people reading now, and the delay in publication probably worsened that issue. Some of the issues have changed too. A chapter on hypocrisy and the Olympics feels dated now. All of the scandals that Isaacs mentions have taken a bit of a toll on the Olympic movement and its popularity, although it's still a very valuable piece of television programming property.

The key point, though, is that Isaacs and his unique approach to sports writing always has been worth reading, and it remains so today. "Out of Left Field" is a brisk look back at an original thinker. Most sports fans will enjoy it on some level, although the older crowd represents the sweet spot of the main demographic.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)  

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