Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Good Sport

Historian Aram Goudsouzian edits a hilarious memoir by the late sportswriter Stan Isaacs

The “chipmunks” were a loose association of young sportswriters in early 1960s who took their name from a pejorative description of one of them supplied by an older journalist. They hung out in Greenwich Village, hobnobbing with novelists rather than athletes, always looking for the oddball as opposed to the mainstream, even as they covered professional teams and players.

Stan Isaacs, photo courtesy of Ellen Isaacs

They were not only “younger than their predecessors,” according to David Halberstam, but “they were generally better educated, definitely more iconoclastic, certainly more egocentric, and probably less grateful to be covering the New York Yankees.” Aram Goudsouzian, the Bizot Family Professor of History at the University of Memphis, quotes Halberstam and others in his insightful introduction to Out of Left Field: A Sportswriter’s Last Word, by the late chipmunk Stan Isaacs (1929-2013), best known for his “Out of Left Field” column in Newsday. (Isaacs eschewed upper case for the group’s nickname: “I could capitalize the C to make it seem as if we were a heralded team or something, but I desist.”)

While the early and later chapters allow Isaacs to look back on a 50-year career, the bulk of the book comprises previous columns, arranged in a way that allows his life to unfold against the background of his craft and wit. Isaacs writes of his irreverent collective:

Over the years, the term “chipmunk” took on different connotations, Some approved of our attempts to go beyond the details of the game, to show athletes for better or worse. They saw the chipmunks as a new breed. The establishment used the term derisively.

Isaacs and other members of the group constantly sought new ways of seeing and describing sports. In June 1961, restless after a week on the road covering the Yankees, he learned that the owner of the Kansas City Athletics had placed sheep in the tall grass outside the right field fence, but still within the park. Isaacs decided to cover the game from among the sheep. (A photo of him doing this is on the book’s cover.) His lead on the Yankees’ win: “As any of the five sheep on the hill behind right field can testify, Whitey Ford did a nifty job of pulling the wool over the Kansas City batters’ eyes most of last night.” On his way to a record 61 home runs, Roger Maris hit a ball out to the sheep pasture during the game. Isaacs calmy walked over to the spot in the grass where it landed and stuck it in his pocket. He didn’t keep it.

Beyond covering major sports and athletes, Isaacs wrote about the Calaveras County Fair Frog-Jumping Jubilee, marching bands, and the name of Paul Revere’s horse. Around April Fool’s Day, he produced an annual column in Newsday that ranked all kinds of things, from chocolate ice cream to appendages to people from Montana. The column ran for 44 years, from 1960 to 2004. “Chipmunkery wasn’t all tomfoolery,” Isaacs writes. “We were serious young men intent on covering sports as an adult activity with an underside of warts and imperfections like any big business.”

Aram Goudsouzian (Photo: Jana Files)

Each chapter of Out of Left Field allows Isaacs to reflect on different periods in his long career and at the same time share some of his more memorable writing. Among “the warts and imperfections” he revealed was a persistent racism among some professional athletes during the racially charged 1960s, the failure of Democrats in the Johnson administration to oppose the war in Vietnam, the high school and college sports career of Jack Kerouac, and other stories that lent new meaning to the name of his long-running column (and memoir).

Late in the book, Isaacs maintains, “’Out of Left Field’ was an apt name for my column because I frequently went off on tangents beyond the playing arena.” Examples he lists include a column on all the personalities with the initials J.D. (Dempsey, DiMaggio, John Doe), all the celebrities he would invite to a party (after Truman Capote failed to invite Isaacs to his famous party), and a series of short first-person poems assuming the identity of historic sports figures. His editor told him that “probably no other editor in the country” would allow such freedom.

Generations of sportswriters and fans are lucky for that editor, for Aram Goudsouzian as his final editor, and most of all for the creative innovation of Stan Isaacs. Out of Left Field provides a fitting — and highly entertaining — summary of the legacy of not just a great sportswriter but simply a great American writer.

Good Sport

Long before Sports Illustrated stories were generated by AI, Michael Ray Taylor covered such offbeat sports for the magazine as chuckwagon racing, tournament Scrabble, and big wall rappelling.