Stan Isaacs was one of a kind
I already miss the "Isaacs Ratings of Esoteric Distinction," the annual April Fool’s appraisal “in areas that are generally ignored by raters” that appeared in Newsday and, after his retirement, in his online column -- because they so neatly summed up Stan Isaacs’ goofiness, wordliness and intelligence. And were fun.
He once ranked TV Remote Buttons: (1) Off; (2) Mute; (3) Return; (4) Exit; (5) Power; (6) Volume; (7) Channels (8) Closed Caption; (9) Menu; (10) Pause.
And Lewis & Clark: (1) Clark; (2) Lewis.
He ranked Yankee-Hating Cities: (1) Boston; (2) Baltimore; (3) Detroit; (4) Chicago; (5) Los Angeles; (6) Cleveland, (7) Kansas City; (8) Washington; (9) New York; (10) Chelm, Neb.
That No. 10 was his inside joke. Convinced, years ago, that only bettors scoured the college basketball scores, Isaacs would add his own invented schools to the results, including Zenith, Excelsior and, his favorite, Chelm University -- named for a town in Yiddish folklore inhabited by people who were good-natured but stupid.
“Chelm is still undefeated,” he told me a few years ago. “Never been beaten.”
A little guy with a sly smile and twinkle in his eye -- and an absolute giant in the sportswriting business -- Isaacs died on Tuesday at 83. His work at Newsday, from 1954 to 1992, provided readers with the perfect meld of serious journalism and whimsy, of thoughtfulness and the kind of giggles he enjoyed by naming his car “Prosperity” early in his marriage to Bobbi, because it was parked “always just around the corner.”
When Bobbi died a year ago, Stan recalled her equal contribution to the Isaacs wit, how he informed her that an emerging young golfer named Tiger Woods was the son of a black father and mother who was Thai, and her immediate response was, “I guess he’ll be invited to a lot of black-tie affairs.”
As a journalist, he took people to task for their knucklehead statements, exposing San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark for a racist comment that black and Latino athletes lacked “mental toughness.” Yet Isaacs never forgot that sports were just sports. When the Mets were born in 1962, and lost their very first game, he wrote, “There is no Santa Claus, the meek shall not inherit the earth and the Mets will not win all their games.”
When I joined the Newsday staff in 1970, Isaacs long ago had become known as a charter member of the so-called Chipmunks -- so christened by grouchy old columnist Jimmy Cannon, who was confused by the younger generation’s fresh, sometimes oddball approach to covering games. Isaacs’ stamp was firmly on a department filled with literate, insightful and humorous writers -- George Vecsey had just gone to the Times, but Steve Jacobson and Joe Gergen perfectly embodied the spirit and new guys Pete Alfano and Tony Kornheiser added to it.
And, when Isaacs briefly served as sports editor in 1972-73, among my assignments was a typical Isaacs’ caper to uncover why the slumping Rangers were struggling to score goals.
He proposed that I stealthily enter the bowels of Madison Square Garden when no hockey was being played, find the goals used for the games and measure them. Perhaps the one at which the Rangers shot in two of the three periods was smaller.
Of course it was a gag. And I never found both goals, and therefore failed to produce an expose. But it helped me think as any worthy Chipmunk should, that sports is not war and peace, and athletes aren’t necessarily to be deified just because they have a certain skill. (It was, by the way, among my greatest honors to be called “Alvin” by Norm Miller of the Daily News -- as close as I got to being a real Chipmunk.)
Isaacs, oddly, grew up a New York Giants baseball fan -- Mel Ott was his favorite player -- in spite of living in Brooklyn. He was forced to switch to the Dodgers when they signed Jackie Robinson, and never forgave Walter O’Malley for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.
In the Haverford, Pa., retirement village where Stan and Bobbi moved in 2006, he hung in his small office photos of colleagues and associates from his career. And, in his bathroom, a picture of Jimmy Cannon.
He claimed that, with the birth of each of his three daughters -- Nancy, Ann and Ellen -- he had politicked for the name “Molly” but was overruled by Bobbi. When my daughter was born in 1979, he gave her her first book, and inscribed it, “To Molly.” (We named her Jordan.) My wife remembers that it was Stan who forced my daughter to take her first steps shortly after her first birthday. We were among a small group at his house for a Super Bowl gathering, and my daughter was pining for a large beach ball across the room. “Go get it,” he ordered her. And she walked!
He once allowed me a guest cameo in his ratings of esoteric distinction. (I ranked high school nicknames -- the Polo Marcos of Illinois, Custer Indians of Milwaukee, Jack Benny Jr. High 39ers of Waukegan, Ill.). I crawled. But it was a start.