Column: With his latest book, ‘How Life Imitates Sports,’ Ira Berkow shows he’s long been a keen observer of both

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Many years ago, Ira Berkow was sitting on an airplane. Next to him was Muhammad Ali.

They were about to head to Chicago and … well, let Berkow tell the story:

“The flight attendant came by and said to the champ, ‘Mr. Ali, you have to put your seat belt on.’”

“Superman,” Ali said, “don’t need no seat belt.”

“And Superman,” she responded, “don’t need no airplane, either.”

Ali snapped his seat belt shut.

In his lengthy career, Berkow has seen and heard plenty and his past — filled with players and coaches and games and fans — pops off the pages of his latest book, a thick and pleasurable compendium of his decades as one of this country’s premiere sportswriters.

Its title, “How Life Imitates Sports: A Sportswriter Recounts, Relives, and Reckons with 50 Years on the Sports Beat” (Sports Publishing) tells you much, for the book is not merely a gathering of dated and dusty columns but rather, as he writes, “a part of the record of our times over this past half century, in terms of society, in terms of race and gender, in terms of politics, in terms of legal issues, and, perhaps not least, in terms of the fabric of our sports and the human condition, ranging from pathos to humor, from introspection to perception.”

It is impossible to name a notable sports figure of the past 50 years who did not attract Berkow’s attention and the talent of his typewriter. They are all here, from Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, Red Grange to Gale Sayers, Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Billie Jean King to Arthur Ashe, Nadia Comaneci to Tonya Harding, even Donald Trump, first in 1983 when he “had recently become the ownership face of the New Jersey Generals in the new United States Football League” and Berkow found him then “a fine pitchman, and only occasionally believable.”

Chicago’s own are prominent: Grange, Jordan, Sayers, Jerry Krause and others. There is a pleasantly surprising chapter about the letter writing relationship between Alabama University football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer). The coach was devoted reader of her advice column, saying, “I’ll take advice from anyone, if I think it’s good. And anyone who’s been in the business as long as she has, has got to be good.”

Berkow played basketball against Oscar Robertson and Martina Navratilova. He is, in person, a lovely guy and great conversationalist and there is an intimacy to many of his encounters, for they took place in an era before ESPN highlight packages and millionaire athletes more concerned with protecting their brands than sharing their feelings or opinions.

Berkow is a clear-eyes observer, with a great ear and a stylish way with words. That is why he is one of those rare sportswriters who attracted the praise and admiration of literary writers. That’s a tradition that goes back to Ring Lardner who, from 1913-15, wrote hundreds of columns and stories for the Chicago Tribune, influencing a teenage Ernest Hemingway who, writing sports stories for the paper at his Oak Park and River Forest High School, sometimes used the byline “Ring Lardner, Jr.”

A small sampling: “(Berkow) is one of the great American writers, without limitation to the field of sports. His writing is agile, clever, and sparked by observation of perfect detail” (Scott Turow) and “I follow Ira Berkow in the Times with unfailing interest” (Saul Bellow).

That would be the New York Times, where Berkow spent most of his career, after getting a degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and working for the Minneapolis Tribune and the Newspaper Enterprise Association. He came to the New York Times in 1981 and was there until 2007, sharing a Pulitzer Prize along the way and freelancing to this day.

That he never wound up at a Chicago paper is a shame.

“When I graduated from Medill, I applied to 25 papers across the country,” he told me earlier this week. “I did get a nibble from the Sun-Times. They said they’d keep my name on file.”

Of all the boldfaced names nestled in this book, you’ll be happy to meet some less notable, such as a man named Abel Kiviat. When interviewed in 1991, Kiviat was the oldest living Olympic medal winner, having taken a silver medal in the 1,500-meters in 1912. He was 98 years old and expressed to Berkow his desire for a female companion.

He said: “She doesn’t have to have teeth but just has to have a driver’s license.”

Berkow is Chicago born and bred, first in the Lawndale neighborhood before moving north. This connection peppers this book, as in a section about his former high school basketball rival Ron Rubenstein (of Senn High School). Berkow went to Sullivan High School.

“I guarded him for part of the game,” Berkow writes, “and, with my teeth clenched and my eyes blazing with competitive fire, I helped keep him to 30 points as Senn beat us rather handily.”

One of the book’s sections was written a couple of years ago and details a baseball game between the Sullivan Tigers and Lane Tech Indians in 1957 “on a dusty, sunbaked field in Winnemac Park.” Berkow played first base for the Tigers and this story is but one example of why this volume is also something of a memoir. “It is hoped that these pieces not only embrace the reader’s imagination,” he writes, “but also presents each piece as a kind of historical document. … The issues treated here are, in the author’s view, both timely and timeless.”

Something of a workaholic, Berkow has written a couple of dozen books. In 1974 he co-wrote “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball & Cool” (Prentice-Hall) with New York Knicks star and fashion plate Walt “Clyde” Frazier. It was a collaboration that prompted this charming assessment from the great E.B. White: “(The book) has kept me steady for several days, and I have been enjoying it, particularly since I never heard of Clyde (I live a sheltered life).”

One of his previous books is among the best ever written about Chicago, 1977 1/4 u2032s “Maxwell Street: Survival in a Bazaar” (Doubleday). In 2014 he wrote, with current Tribune reporter Josh Noel, “Wrigley Field: An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang).

He has long lived in Manhattan and keeps close tabs on the Cubs and the Bears and, like so many of us, keeps hoping for the best.


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