Jerry Izenberg: A Legendary Jersey Newspaperman With Legendary Friends

Jerry Izenberg and Muhammad Ali
Jerry Izenberg and Muhammad Ali /

Jerry Izenberg is a newspaperman. For the longtime Star-Ledger columnist, that meant a life intertwined with what seems like every major boxing figure of the last century. At 90 years-old, those experiences have made him more than a writer. Spending an hour talking to Izenberg is like getting lost on Wikipedia as you end up following him down the most fascinating, unexpected rabbit holes.

Izenberg’s job as a newspaperman was to transport readers. Anywhere from Muhammad Ali’s training camp, to the stands at a minor-league baseball game in the '40’s, to watching the Olympics with Nelson Mandela. If there was a good story, Izenberg was there to live it and share it.

His 2017 book, “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing” will be re-released in paperback on May 11 with a new foreword from Manny Pacquiao, whom Izenberg was happy to report sent him an email on his birthday. For Izenberg, it is another opportunity to relive the experiences and friendships he shared with legends like Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston. It’s also an opportunity to share incredible stories from his life and career.

To say Izenberg has seen it all is an undersell. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1930, Izenberg grew up a baseball fan. He has fond memories of the 1937 Newark Bears, one of the greatest minor league teams ever. His father played low-level professional baseball and dreamed of playing for the Giants. Izenberg remembers him sitting on the porch on summer nights, listening to the games and smashing the Bilko radio when they hit into a double-play.

By 11-years-old, Izenberg had learned how to sneak into the Ruppert Stadium (demolished in 1967) to watch the Bears. Back in those days, they didn’t care if kids snuck in as long as they stayed in the bleachers and away from the grandstand.

“I missed a lot of grammar school,” he says. “In fact, I got expelled from grammar school for three weeks, because they caught me, but that was because we went to the burlesque.” One day Izenberg found a scorecard in the grandstand and decided to get it autographed. So he took it to the third baseline where he tried to flag down players. One player told him not today. Izenberg kept pushing until the player tore up the scorecard. Looking back he says, “I was such a jerk. These are real people. These are real frickin’ people. They have the problems that all people have.” But at the time, Izenberg was devastated.

While he was biting his lip so he wouldn’t cry, a woman came over to him. She didn’t like the way the kid had been treated so she got a ball autographed by the entire team. That woman turned out to be Jayne, the wife of Snuffy Stirnweiss, who went on to lead MLB in hits, runs, triples and stolen bases twice. He would win three World Series with the Yankees, but for now he was a member of the Bears. Two decades later he died in a train derailment, which prompted Izenberg to write a column about that fateful summer day in the early 1940’s and his “baseball goddess.”

Two weeks later he got a letter from Mrs. Stirnweiss and a note from her nurse saying that “Mrs. Stirnweiss had always remembered the boy with the baseball.” Decades later, while working on an autobiography, “Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey,” Izenberg wanted to fact-check part of a story about the couple. He ended up tracking down their daughter at a local bar. The first time they spoke she said, “At last! The little boy with the baseball. My mother told me that story a thousand times.” Fifty years had passed since that day he snuck into the park.

That incredible story may have ended at Ruppert Stadium all those years ago if Izenberg’s father hadn’t made him go to college. With some help from his sister he enrolled at Newark-Rutgers. He worked 40-hour weeks at night while attending class during the day to pay for school. First at a chemical plant that exploded on his day off. Then as a short-order cook. That ended about as well as the previous job.

“I was terrible,” Izenberg says. “After three weeks the guy said ‘I’m firing you. Here’s $12 severance and don’t come back because I’m going to go to jail. You’re going to break every sanitary law and code in the kitchen. I can’t afford you.’”

That’s when he started at the Star-Ledger, making $6 per night as a copy boy in 1951 while he was still in school. He wasted no time making himself at home. Within two months he was a writer.

“I was a good, young obnoxious sportswriter when I was young,” he says. “I think at 32 I was the youngest columnist at a major paper.”

He developed his own style, which he says editors hated. That was the point.

“I use punctuation the way I want to use it, not the way they tell you to use it.”

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi - Fordham University- File Photos / Fordham University/Getty Images

It’s the kind of attitude that may annoy editors, but it also gets you unlimited access to Nelson Mandela. Izenberg attended the Olympic boxing event at Barcelona in 1992 and spotted Mandela, sitting alone in the last row of the stadium, attending South Africa’s first Olympic games in three decades. Izenberg introduced himself and ended up spending the day with Mandela.

There is just something that draws people to Izenberg. He had it at 11 when Mrs. Stirnweiss took a shine to him and he had it in his 60’s when he became Mandela’s friend for a day. Then there are all the writers and editors (like Stanley Woodward and Al Laney who both served in World War I) and the Gary Carters and Marv Levys of the world. The list goes on. Being from New Jersey, of course Vince Lombardi makes the list. Lombardi started his coaching career at St. Cecilia High School in Bergen County.

Izenberg says New Jersey claimed Lombardi, but “he was born in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.” Lombardi held multiple positions at St. Cecilia’s. “One year he coached basketball and won a state title. He was the dean of discipline. Physics, chemistry and world history.” He was also a great recruiter who “broke every rule.” According to Izenberg, Lombardi sold it as a great Catholic education a kid could benefit from “if he was six-foot-five and weighed 210 pounds.”

Every year on Thanksgiving, St. Cecilia’s would play and beat the much bigger Englewood. The victory party was held at Lombardi’s mother’s house where his brother Joe, a player for St. Cecilia’s, lived.

Izenberg: “He had a rule. No matter what the game was, everybody’s in bed by 10 o’clock. And he went to every house. And by the way, they didn’t have a lot of players. They were a small little school. He went to every house and made sure they’re keeping the curfew. He comes to his mother’s house and sees Joey. Joey’s mopping the kitchen floor. He says, ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing? Do you think you get an advantage by being my brother? Why aren’t you in bed?”

Vince Lombardi then threatened to sit his own brother during an important game for breaking curfew on Thanksgiving eve to mop his mother’s floor to help clean for his own party. "That was Vincent.”

“Vincent and I once had the dumbest fucking argument I’ve ever had in my life.” The argument? Lombardi said Izenberg’s book, “The Rivals” (1968), was a great book. Izenberg said it was a good book. Lombardi was convinced he was right because he had read it. Izenberg was convinced he was right because he had written it.

Who gets into an argument like that with Vince Lombardi? Or Jerry Izenberg for that matter. Somehow confrontation seemed to work out for Izenberg. Even if it involves the scariest man on the planet.

Ahead of Mike Tyson's fight with Michael Spinks in 1988, Tyson’s manager told Izenberg that Tyson didn’t feel the press was being fair to him. “I said the press does not have one head, two arms and two legs" He ended the conversation by saying, “If you don’t want to talk to me, tell him I said fuck him.”

Izenberg makes it clear he said this to Tyson’s manager and not Tyson himself.

“I’m not that brave.”

The manager called back five minutes later and said Tyson would give him all the time he wanted if he came to Atlantic City.

Izenberg asked Tyson what he thought about when he was doing road work. Tyson mentioned his former father figure and trainer Cus D’Amato and manager Jimmy Jacobs, who had just died. Minutes later, Tyson was crying on Izenberg’s shoulder. When the interview was over, Izenberg had to change his shirt.

Muhammad Ali
Ali In Training / Harry Benson/Getty Images

Tyson was far from the first heavyweight to confide in Izenberg. Above them all is Ali, who Izenberg called a friend for half a century.

Izenberg’s home is full of memorabilia collected over decades covering the giant. Ali passed away in June 2016, 13 days before Izenberg was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It rained that day, and during Izenberg’s acceptance speech it became a downpour.

“I was saying something about him and the sky got black,” Izenberg says. “It started to rain harder and I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you that the heavens are crying for my friend, but I think they are.’”

One of their earliest bonding moments took place on a trip to Albany to save boxing in New York. The NYS legislature was trying to abolish the sport and Izenberg and Ali where part of a group that took the train from Penn Station together. While they waited for the train, Ali approached miserable businessmen on their commutes and tried to do magic tricks for them. Ali’s motivation? They didn’t look happy and he wanted to change that.

Ali - then Cassius Clay - testified before the State Assembly. Clay testified with Hayward Plumadore, who paid his way through college as a tent fighter at carnivals, questioning him. Clay called himself an, “ordained by God prophet of boxing,” during the hearing. The boxer and the politician went back and forth with Clay earning favorable reviews in the press. The state keeping boxing, which allowed Ali to fight Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden a month later. After testifying, the traveling party had to wait around for a train and Ali slept on Izenberg’s hotel bed while Izenberg wrote about the hearing.

“He used to say, ‘you gave me your bed’” Izenberg recalls. “Twenty years after he was still saying, ‘YOU GAVE ME YOUR BED.’ I said, ‘I thought you were someone else.’”

It’s a good punchline to a story, but it’s the kind of thing you would expect a friend to say.

“I never patronized him,” Izenberg says. “I told him he was full of shit when he was full of shit.” He says he paid a price for being fair to Ali.

“I was the only guy at a major newspaper writing in his defense,” he says. “Cosell came along much later. I had my car windows broken out with sledgehammers, I had feces mailed to me at the office.” Izenberg has also written about bomb threats at the newspaper.

In more peaceful times, Ali met Izenberg’s son Robert and daughter Judy. Izenberg took the kids with him to Deer Lake where he was going to film with Ali. On the drive, seven-year-old Judy said she didn’t like Ali and was rooting for Foreman to, “knock his block off.” She felt Ali bragged too much, something Izenberg told her not to do. “I said, ‘you’re seven years old, what the hell do you have to brag about?’” He then politely requested she keep these opinions to herself and asked her brother to let him know if she didn’t.

After the day of filming was over, Ali asked to meet the children. Ali knew the children had just come to live with Izenberg following his divorce and that he was concerned about how they would handle the new situation. When Izenberg pointed out his son, Ali went over and put his arm around him and said, “Bob, I’ve gotta tell you something. You have come to live with a great man. And if you listen to him you will grow up to be a great man.”

“It was the perfect thing I needed. I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Izenberg says. “Then he says 'where’s your daughter?'”

While Ali, Izenberg and his son were talking, Judy had been watching from a safe distance and thought her father was ratting her out to Ali. When Ali turned his attention to her, she froze, paralyzed with fear.

Izenberg described Ali’s voice getting sterner and sterner until she finally came over. That’s when he swooped her up and held her over his head and said, ”Don’t you lie to me, little girl! That man is not your daddy. That man is ugly. Ugly! And you’re beautiful. Now give me a kiss.” Only Izenberg’s son knows if Ali changed his mind that day, but he definitely did a number on his daughter. By the ride home Judy's rooting interest had changed. She said, “Oh, I hope Muhammad can win the fight.”

Little did she know that Foreman was her father’s friend too. Izenberg says he still talks to Foreman every few weeks. Just one of many “bad guys” he became close with during his career.

As good as Izenberg is with the written word, there’s a way he jumps off the page in person. It’s the only way to explain how he lived his life and had his career. He connects with people. From an 11-year-old kid sneaking into a ballpark to a 90-year-old telling the story. It’s likely that for every story he has about someone, they’re telling a different version about him somewhere else in the world.

It explains why they, the good guys and the bad, opened up to him, called back again, and stayed in touch. All these years later, he makes it sound so simple.

“Bats, balls, hockey pucks don’t play games. People do,” Izenberg says. “I’ve always wanted to know, who is that person? Something always comes out. What is it all about? I’m not trying to get them to like me. I’m trying to understand them and they appreciated that.”

It’s safe to say Izenberg understands. He already has the name plate picked out that will mark his grave. Like Izenberg, it is unfinished, but it will always tell a story. It will say the following:

Jerry Izenberg
A newspaperman.