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After a distinguished career in journalism that included 26 years at the New York Times, reporter and sports columnist Ira Berkow retired in 2007. A native of Chicago, Berkow, 71, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for “The Minority Quarterback” in the series “How Race Is Lived in America” in the Times. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 1988 for Distinguished Commentary. His work has appeared in “The Best American Sports Writing” anthology and his column “The LaMotta Nuptials” was included in “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.”
Berkow succeeded Red Smith, whose advice he sought as a young writer, at the Times in 1981. He later came full circle with his mentor when he wrote Smith’s obituary and his biography. Berkow is the author of 18 books, including “Full Swing: Hits, Runs, and Errors in a Writer’s Life,” published in 2007. His book “Rockin’ Steady,” with Walt Frazier, has been reissued in a coffe-table version, 36 years after its initial publication. The documentary he wrote, “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” is playing in theaters and film festivals around the country. Berkow spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh for Athlon Sports.
Q. How is the view from your new perspective?
Berkow: It’s good. I left [the Times] with a handful of projects. I wrote the book for a musical called “A Chicago Story — From Daley to Daley,” which is supposed to open in the spring in Chicago. And I’m doing the narrative for a coffee-table book from Harry Abrams on Wrigley Field. The working title is “Wrigley Field: The One and Only.”
Q. You are no longer under a press deadline. Is that a good thing, or do you miss that?
Berkow: It’s good not having the daily pressures. I never really felt those pressures altogether, but an interesting thing has happened since I’ve left. About once a month I have a dream about “Will I make the deadline?” Now, in 45 years of daily journalism essentially, I never missed a deadline. I was close a lot of times (laughing), but I never missed. And so now I have these dreams of “Am I going to make the deadline?” and invariably the dream ends before I know whether I did.
Q. Haunted by a deadline that no longer exists?
Berkow: My last dream was really a crazy one. The letters on the keyboard were jumbled. In other words, the “R” was where the “S” was supposed to be and the “T” was where the “W” was supposed to be. Can you imagine trying to write a story with a jumbled keyboard!
Q. And the clock is ticking.
Berkow: And the clock is ticking! I guess it was all submerged in my subconscious. But I never had dreams like that before – I don’t know if this is helping you in any way (laughing) – and I never really worried so much about meeting the deadline.
Q. Now you wake up in a cold sweat and you don’t have a deadline. I guess you don’t miss that, but what do you miss?
Berkow: Oh, some of the camaraderie of the newspaper. I didn’t go into the office much, but when I went in, it was nice to see guys. I like that part. It’s like ballplayers: They miss the locker room. I have to say that I looked forward to not doing daily journalism, and I hadn’t thought about going in to a lot of other writing projects. I was planning to take some courses and more vacations. When I was a boy in grammar school in Chicago, I had a scholarship to the Art Institute. I dropped drawing and painting when I was in the seventh grade to play sports. I thought I’d go back to that, but I haven’t yet.
Q. So, you weren’t actively searching for work?
Berkow: Projects just sort of came my way. How can I turn down doing the narrative for a picture book on Wrigley Field! I spent a good part of my childhood sneaking into the ballpark.
Q. Do you get out to the park much?
Berkow: I don’t. I go to a ballgame when a friend invites me. I have an honorary baseball writers’ card, so I can sit in the press box all the time without paying. I just feel that when I go to a game and am hanging around the press box, I’m like a dinosaur in some ways. And now I know very few people in the press box. It’s going on four years since I left the Times, but in that period of time there’s been a huge amount of changes. If I go, it’s sort of like I’m hanging on, No. 1. and, No. 2, if there’s a game I want to see, I like watching it on television, sitting in my easy chair and drinking cranberry juice.
Q. One thing I liked about your writing was the contrarian point of view that you sometimes took. You don’t see that so much anymore. There are sycophantic reporters trying to ingratiate themselves and some idiotic questions.
Berkow: You get a lot of that on television. They’re not prepared. Of course, some of these half-time interviews are pretty banal. In the newspapers, though, I still see some, as we say, hard-nosed reporting. I’m not sure I see a lot of poetry. I’m not sure we ever saw a lot of poetry. But in the best kind of sports writing there was some art to the language, not just reporting the facts. And I see less and less of that. Maybe it’s because they have to write for the web and everything has to be fast and they don’t have the time to craft their sentences. That’s one thing in particular that I miss: the beauty of language. But maybe people just don’t care that much about it, the writers or the readers – and the editors.
Q. Maybe they’re giving the public what it wants, which is not all that much.
Berkow: I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. I grew up with some of the great sportswriters. Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon and Bill Heinz, to name three, were deft with the language. They were spectacular writers. But there’s no reason why we can’t continue to have that kind of thing, unless the attention span of the public is just too small.
Q. Those writers brought literacy and culture, more than just sports, into their columns.
Berkow: Well, I still think the Times does that better than all other papers. But after Twitter and Facebook and so many other things that are of concern to the daily newspaper writer, there’s not the time to be able to do that, and I don’t think they’re being asked to do that. They’re being asked to Twitter and [blog]; if there’s time for good writing, well, O.K., that’s down the line.
Q. David Halberstam said, “There’s a race to get [information] on, not just television and CNN but the world of dot-coms.” He said, “There’s a ferocious, powerful machine out there that’s all primed and never wants to wait. It doesn’t like to idle with its engine in park.”
Berkow: Right. Look, I’m as guilty as many others. I’ll go on the web for the Times to see what the latest news is. Now, of course, that’s not a feature story where you have time to craft something. But it’s a faster-paced world than ever.
Q. Your work brought you into contact not just with sports figures but with political leaders, entertainers, and artists. A lot of creative talent. Do you miss those interactions? Or maybe you still maintain them?
Berkow: Well, I still have friends who are writers and some artists. I still have a circle of people. That’s satisfying to me. And we all get together and complain about the same things. That’s a lot of fun.
Q. With all of the cameras and replays, and all the gadgets and sideline reporters and everything else on display during a broadcast, is there a danger of the sideshows overshadowing the main event?
Berkow: Well, I know that there are people who go to a football game to watch the cheerleaders. The Celtics used to be the quintessence of purity in sports. You know, a minimum of music and none of the cheerleaders and mascots. I don’t know if that’s changed. I don’t think so, and I haven’t noticed that when I watch a Celtics game. I would just as soon do away with all the mascots and all that blaring noise that is such an irksome distraction at games.
Q. Are you following any sports stories more closely than others these days?
Berkow: I follow the NBA and baseball and I follow football a little less.
Q. If you were still at the Times, what would be the subject of your next column?
Berkow: Michael Vick is a fantastic story. You know, has he changed his life? Perhaps. He says all the right things. But for him to be coming back and doing so well and bringing his team along the way he has… this is a real drama. This is a really good story. [F. Scott] Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. But I think there are, and Michael Vick is the prime example of that. And I think more and more people are rooting for him, to give him a second chance, especially when he’s shown remorse.
Q. Anything else?
Berkow: The other compelling story is the Miami Heat/LeBron James. As we speak, they are 8-7. They were supposed to go undefeated (laughing). The first team ever in the NBA to go undefeated! Of course, they haven’t. And so many people are rooting against them because they seem just so arrogant and so stupid about how they went about putting [Chris] Bosh and [Dwayne] Wade and James [together]. And it seemed they were sticking it in opponents’ faces needlessly.
Q. You find fans who might have been neutral before who are rooting against them.
Berkow: Yeah, it was irritating. Just the phrase “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” I like what Paul Pierce said after the Celtics beat the Heat in Miami. He said, “We took our talents to South Beach.” I thought that was a good one.
Q. Is it possible for the Heat to win back some fans, to find redemption?
Berkow: Oh, yeah. If they show some humility, I guess. LeBron James is maybe THE force in the NBA — the closest thing to being unstoppable. Maybe more so even than Kobe, because he’s bigger and younger. He may even be faster and stronger. If they get it together and show some humility and they start playing as a team, again, there will be forgiveness and a second chance for them. But right now I think it’s sort of fun to root against them, and I’m one of those who do.
Q. That’s got to be a new feeling. Now you can root or boo openly.
Berkow: That’s a certain out-of-the-closet pleasure for a sportswriter. You know, there was no cheering – or booing – in the press box. Now I can root openly for the Cubs. And being a Cubs fan takes you out of the realm of being a sports fan. It’s a whole different genre.
Q. It was interesting to see the college football game last week at Wrigley Field. Because of the dimensions of the field, each team had to move the ball in the same direction on offense.
Berkow: I was reminded as I was watching the game that I had done a piece on a wide receiver named Dick Plasman, who played for the Bears in the 1930s and ’40s. In the early years of pro football, a number of players did not wear helmets. They were bareheaded. He was the last. He retired in 1946 or ’47. And at Wrigley Field, where the outfield wall was so close to the end zone, he caught a pass and rammed right into the wall. He was in a coma for about three weeks. He did return to football, but he wore a helmet. Watching the game last week, I kept thinking of Dick Plasman.
Q. What’s the best thing about sports?
Berkow: When I was working, I always rooted for my story. For the first edition, generally you would write about the pitcher or maybe a hot batter. But as the game goes on, you root for your story. Otherwise, you would root for a good game, a close game. But not too close that it goes into extra innings and you have to sweat your deadline. But now I root for drama.
Q. Do you root for any players in particular now?
Berkow: I look to see the really good team players. A couple of my favorites, in basketball now, are Deron Williams of Utah. I’ve always liked Steve Nash. I like Danilo Gallinari on the Knicks. He should be getting stronger and better and moving to the basket more. I like Landry Fields. I like the Knicks now. I’m having fun watching their games.
Q. What’s going to happen with Derek Jeter and the Yankees?
Berkow: I feel sorry for Jeter. They’re only offering him $45 million (laughing). I think he wants more than A-Rod, whatever A-Rod’s getting. It reminds me of Bill Russell. He always wanted a dollar more than Wilt Chamberlain. It’s not so much the money with these guys as it is the competitiveness. They’re competitive on the field and they’re competitive off the field. But it looks bad for the Yankees to be haggling with him like this. Jeter was the face of the Yankees, and he is so beloved and he’s been such a great player. There had to be another way to handle these negotiations rather than [Brian] Cashman saying well, let him test the free-agency market. There had to be a better way, for both of them.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing sports?
Berkow: I guess it’s pricing people out of seats. The tickets are getting higher and higher. For a family of four, with tickets and parking and hot dogs and so forth, could it cost $1,000 or so? I know there are a lot of complaints about that. It could be that essentially new generations aren’t going to grow up loving these sports. On the other hand, you look around and see that attendance is very good. Television may be somewhat down, but that could be because there are so many other distractions. Some kids won’t get off their cell phones to take time to watch a game.
Q. If you could change one thing in sports, what would it be?
Berkow: I know that a complaint by the writers is less and less access to the players. You go into the locker room and all the players are in the trainer’s room or some other place that’s off limits to the writers. The writers stand around looking at and interviewing each other. Hardly a player comes by. When I broke in, you could take a player to lunch or breakfast, and they would be happy to do it because they weren’t making all that much money and they were happy for you to pick up the tab.
That’s something that is missing now.
Q. What would you like to change about that?
Berkow: I would change the inane interviews of the managers and the coaches or the players at half-time and between innings. No one ever says anything. I would rather have some good insight by some reporter having gone and done some digging beforehand, because the managers are not going to say anything, and they don’t. It’s just a total bore. And then after the game, the dumb questions asked by these sideline reporters. There should be better reporting.
Q. So, the reporters who need the access can’t get it, and the broadcasters who have it don’t ask anything worth listening to?
Berkow: That’s right. That’s good. You can say I said that (laughing).
Q. What are you reading these days?
Berkow: I just finished “War,” by Sebastian Junger. He was embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan and he gave you the greatest insight into who these soldiers are and why they’re fighting. In many instances they’re not fighting for democracy. They’re just fighting because they’re there and because their job is to shoot people and to avoid being shot. It was spellbinding.