Book Review: “Out of Left Field: A Sportswriter’s Last Word” — Better Than Being an Accountant

By Bill Littlefield

Throughout Out of Left Field, Stan Isaacs revisits events he covered decades earlier, some of them as significant as the World Series, some of them as silly as frog jumping.

Out of Left Field: A Sportswriter’s Last Word by Stan Isaacs, Edited and with an Introduction by Aram Goudsouzian, University of Illinois Press, 252 pages, $22.95 (paper)

Stan Isaacs wrote about a lot of athletes and sports events for a lot of different publications, including The New York Star, The Daily Compass, and Newsday. His column titled “Out of Left Field” provides a sense of his preferred focus. He let other writers cluster around the stars. When Charlie Finley, who owned the Oakland A’s for a time, brought sheep into the outfield to trim the grass, Isaacs went out to talk to the sheep.

In this collection of essays, Isaacs has some fun revisiting subjects he covered over the years, often providing us with details and punch lines he couldn’t have convinced his editors to include. In one of my favorites, Isaacs recounts a conversation between Leo Durocher when he was managing the Dodgers in the late ‘40’s and Lester “Red” Rodney, who wrote for The Daily Worker. Having listened for a while to Rodney’s opinions regarding his players, Durocher said, “You know, for a fucking Communist, you sure know your baseball.”

That story is representative of Isaacs’s consistent willingness to let somebody else have the punch lines in these essays. In one titled “Perfect Games,” Isaacs refers to a conversation in which “somebody” said of Howard Cosell, “he’s his own worst enemy.” According to Isaacs, a Dodgers publicity man named Irving Rudd heard the remark and, without missing a beat, said, “Not while I’m alive.”

The chapter titled “Fighters and Writers” will interest even folks who don’t care for sports, assuming they’re up for a revealing story of one of the more prolific and opinionated writers of the 20th century, Norman Mailer. Issacs looks askance at Mailer’s “drunken buffoonery” during the week preceding the heavyweight championship fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in Chicago. But then expresses his astonishment at the writer’s ability to transcend his boorish behavior and “describe better than anyone else what a fool he’d made of himself.” At another fight years later, Mailer acknowledges to Issacs, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose. You know how it happened. I was half out of my head.” As Isaacs puts it, “The man was a congenital exhibitionist…in certain ways a charlatan and a mountebank. I could abhor him. I don’t. I was in awe of his nonfiction. He may be the most memorable individual I have ever met.”

Throughout Out of Left Field, Isaacs revisits events he covered decades earlier, some of them as significant as the World Series, some of them as silly as frog jumping. Sometimes he revises his views about what mattered. Unlike, for example, Cosell or Mailer, Stan Isaacs never takes himself too seriously, though there is sadness in part of the conclusion of the final essay in this collection, “A Craft and A Life.” Toward the end of that essay, he writes: “Sports is big business. It is rampant commercialism. It is a breeding ground for drug usage. It is a world where billionaire owners vie against millionaire players without much concern for the interests of the paying public. It is frequently discouraging to see how the ideals of sportsmanship are perverted in the willy-nilly pursuit of victory.”

This is not news. Nobody who’s paid attention to the NFL, the NBA, the Olympic Games, FIFA, or any of the other corporate giants of the sports world can have missed the development. And it would be too bad if that was the final pronouncement of Isaacs, who died in 2013. But it isn’t. “A Craft and A Life” ends with the writer’s contention that the career he pursued “was a helluva lot better than working as an accountant.”

Bill Littlefield volunteers with the Emerson Prison Initiative. His most recent novel is Mercy, published by Black Rose Writing.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts