A Memoir - and a Career Manual  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

A Memoir - and a Career Manual   

A Memoir—and a Career Manual Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer’s Life
By Ira Berkow
Ivan R. Dee
304 pages; $26

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Imagine yourself a young sportswriter in the early 1980s. The phone rings. It's the New York Times, seeking a potential successor for a columnist nearing retirement.

The scribe you might be replacing? Red Smith, perhaps the most eminent sportswriter of all time and, as it happens, a generous professional who has been mentoring you for years.

This all happened to Ira Berkow, and in a cyclone he joined the Times in 1981, substituted for an ailing Smith over the next nine months, wrote the legendary columnist's front-page obituary and became a regular Times columnist himself.

"Full Swing" is Berkow's low-key but absorbing memoir. It traces what he calls the "steep climb" from collecting garbage and selling religious items door-to-door on Chicago's West Side, through flunking out of one college and falling in love with writing at another, to the ultimate perch of hobnobbing with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of reading "Full Swing" is looking for the charms and breaks that propel Berkow's career. Like a soccer player who is a half-step faster than rivals or a racehorse whose stretch run is a split-second better timed, Berkow benefits from some special combination of talent and timing.

The book, then, can be read not just as an enjoyable memoir but a career manual of sorts. Here are some of its lessons.

  • Throw deep. As a college junior, Berkow presumptuously sent two articles to his idol, Red Smith, who unexpectedly responded. "If you're for this racket..you've got an eternity of sweat and tears ahead," Smith told him, and he offered crusty critiques and advice for the next two decades.
  • Save the good stuff. Berkow still has clips with Smith's critiques on them. "No! No!" Smith objects when Berkow uses a cliché. "Too strong, look it up," he advises when a fancy word is misused.
  • Take the extra step. Berkow's writing often ranged beyond sports. During Watergate, he hoped to profile the presiding judge in the criminal trials, John J. Sirica, but Sirica's assistant said the judge wasn't granting interviews. Berkow showed up at the judge's office anyway, sat around for two hours, then waylaid Sirica as he left for lunch. "How did it come about," he asked the judge, "that Jack Dempsey was the best man at your wedding?" Impressed that Berkow knew this unusual fact, Sirica invited him in for a two-hour conversation.
  • Learn from the best. "As a writer I also discovered that the best in a field, any field, must have a passion for his work," Berkow writes. He learns from Ted Williams' "pure lust" for baseball excellence, even from bank robber Willie Sutton's compulsion for his craft. "Me looking at a bank," Sutton told him, "was like some other guy looking at a beautiful woman. Irresistible." Berkow's reaction: "Irresistible. I like that. It covers my feeling about writing. Once I started, there was nothing else I wanted to do."
  • Think broadly. Berkow seeks out the preeminent poet Marianne Moore, who had taught the great all-around athlete Jim Thorpe back in 1912; novelist and fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow; and Groucho Marx. Former President Richard Nixon wrote Berkow a note after reading one of his articles, and the two "struck up an acquaintanceship" that included birthday cards and long visits.
  • Stand for something. "I was determined to try — at least try — to have the courage to stand up to injustice," he resolves early in life. Eventually, he would defend Ali, stripped of his boxing crown after refusing to serve in Vietnam; Pete Rose, banned from baseball for gambling ("I have always felt, and written, that Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame"); even figure skater Tonya Harding, linked to an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan ("short of a confession by her or a judgment against her in court, she has earned the right to skate in the Olympics").
Amid these lessons are some sobering ones as well. Berkow endures two failed marriages before a third one works out. Around the time of the Jayson Blair scandal, a Berkow piece becomes the subject of an embarrassing Editor's Note in the Times — a "public flogging" in Berkow's still bitter words — over similar passages between his work and a prior Chicago Tribune article.

Mostly, though, this is a positive report from someone who made it to journalism's majors. Its biggest downside may well be the number of unsolicited letters Berkow is sure to get from wannabes emboldened by his resourcefulness.

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