Stan Isaacs wrote for Newsday from 1954 to 1992.

Stan Isaacs wrote for Newsday from 1954 to 1992. Credit: Newsday

OUT OF LEFT FIELD by Stan Isaacs, edited and with an introduction by Aram Goudsouzian (University of Illinois Press, 280 pp., $22.95)

Good news, sports fans. Stan Isaacs, the great Newsday sportswriter who died in 2013 at the age of 83, is back.

"Out of Left Field," Isaacs' just-published memoir, evinces the man in all his glory. Packed with great anecdotes and one-liners, the book preserves in amber a slice of American cultural history filtered through the persona of an archetypal 20th century American journalist (add gentleman, joker, Jew, liberal, anti-racist and all-around mensch) that anybody would enjoy. Long Islanders looking ahead to Father's Day should keep it in mind, though Mom would probably like it, too.

There's plenty of sports, with anecdotes that bring to life so many people that we younguns may only know as names: not just Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth, but Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Casey Stengel, Jim Brown, Jack Nicklaus, and dozens more. Isaacs is always candid in his comments about these big shots, as he is about everything and everyone, including his colleagues in the press box, himself, and the journalistic organization he joined in 1954: "The Newsday sports operation was a backwater affair."

He notes that he was the first Jew in the department but also that he didn't detect even a touch of anti-Semitism. In 1959, he began writing his column, "Out of Left Field," the title of which may have been the inspiration for an abortive FBI investigation, and by the mid-'60s was writing five days a week. He rotated sports coverage with quirky features like an annual edition rating everything from chocolate ice cream to "overrated underrated quarterbacks" to sports numbers themselves (the number 6 topped out.) There was a sports bloopers column, a poetry edition and more, all related in gleeful detail here.

As for things Isaac hated, none receives more venomous ink than the 1972 Olympics in Munich, during which 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists, inspiring Isaacs to rename the five rings: Terrorism, Fanaticism, Hypocrisy, Incompetence and Arrogance.

Along with the sports guys, literary big shots make colorful appearances as well. Isaacs was part of a group who fled Hemingway's house in Cuba when the boozed-up author began gaily punching out his guests. At Jack Kerouac's mother's place, he spent an afternoon playing a fantasy baseball card game the Beat author had invented. A teetotaler himself, Isaacs gives an awestruck account of Norman Mailer's reporting of a prizefight in Vegas. "As stewed to the gills as he was," Mailer remembered every detail and "described better than anybody else what a fool he had made of himself."

He rates Mailer "the most memorable individual I have ever met" — and that's against some real competition. Not many people can claim to having been in the hallway when Muhammad Ali met John Lennon. "You're not as stupid as you look," said Ali. "No, but you are," replied Lennon, "one of the few times Ali met his match in tomfoolery." Isaacs was one of few white public figures who supported Ali in his resistance to the Vietnam draft.

Isaacs loved practical jokes and hoaxes, often orchestrating them with his band of merry men/sportswriter friends, known as the Chipmunks. One he was especially proud of involved stealing the Dodgers' 1955 World Series pennant back from Los Angeles after the team's hated abandonment of Brooklyn. He also participated in what may be one of Newsday's most significant contributions to 20th century literary culture: "Naked Came the Stranger," penned entirely by newspaper staffers as a protest parody of Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls." It ended up on the bestseller list.

The final pages of the memoir include news of Isaacstan, a country he dreamed up during his last years as an online columnist, and which belies a sense of humor about politics that seems to be completely missing today. "There was consternation among the Isaacstanis when they read that the U.S. was offering 25 million for the capture of Osama bin Laden. … 'Hell,' said a wizened shepherd at a town meeting. 'My nephew Looie would go after that bandito for 30 goats and a new tent.' "

What a life it was — the hotels, the trains and planes, the scoops and scandals, the endless wonderful stories. In the final sentence of the book, Isaacs sums it up as only he could. "It was a helluva lot better than working as an accountant."

Correction: The 1972 Olympics were held in Munich. An earlier version of this story had the wrong city.

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