In the summer of 1957, Robert Lipsyte answered a classified ad. He was an English major who needed some cash, and The New York Times was looking for an editorial assistant. He went to work on the night shift in the sports department, serving as a copyboy for the surly old-timers. He didn’t like sports, and he hated the job. This would be just a brief stop on the path to literary fame, he presumed.
But one assignment followed another at the paper. Along the way, Bob crossed paths with Malcolm X, the Beatles, and the NYPD narcotics detective who would be immortalized as Popeye Doyle. Eventually, by accident, he became a mainstay of the Times sports page. He did end up writing novels, both for adults and young adults, and he earned an Emmy award in television journalism. But it was in sports writing that he made a lasting mark in American journalism—as a reporter covering the saga of young Muhammad Ali, in two stints as the Times sports columnist, and as the author of some of the most trenchant commentaries on sports and contemporary society, most notably his 1975 book SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.
In his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter (Ecco, 2011), Bob unfolds this story with the literary style of an English major and the wry humor of a former fat kid. He tells of his long, sometimes stormy relationship with Ali, his run-ins with Mickey Mantle, tennis lessons with Althea Gibson, admiring friendship with Howard Cosell and friendly disagreements with Bob Costas, and his respect for Billie Jean King, his choice as the most important athlete of the century. Bob does not shy from stating his opinions. But he also does not hesitate to admit when he has been wrong. His memoir makes for an amusing, absorbing, and insightful picture of postwar American culture—and sports. Hopefully, our interview captures just of bit of that.
Bob was also a guest on last year’s Book List episode of the podcast. You can find that episode, which features Bob’s choices for the best sports books of 2011, in the New Books in Sports archive.