Rutgers University–Newark alumnus Jerry Izenberg (SASN ‘52) is at it again.
The legendary Star-Ledger sportswriter and Newark native, who has won countless awards and been inducted into 17 Halls of Fame, shows no signs of slowing down. At age 92 he recently published his 15th nonfiction book, a memoir titled, Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs: Growing Up Jewish in the 1930s in Newark, a touching, sobering and humorous romp through the first 20 years of his life.
As one of the country’s premier sportswriters over the last 60 years, mostly for The Star-Ledger, Izenberg has had a front-row seat to history and brought us along with him, using his incisive style and trademark wit to reveal the people behind the headlines, hold the powerful to account, and tackle racial injustice and other pressing issues of the day.
The journey to that esteemed perch was anything but easy, or pre-ordained.
Izenberg was a small, scrappy Jewish kid raised during the Depression with his older sister, Lois, in the Clinton Hill section of Newark's South Ward, the son of a homemaker mom and workingman father who’d emigrated with his family from Lithuania to Paterson, NJ, as a child to escape the pogroms.
Harry Izenberg, who had bounced around the minor leagues as “good-hit-no-field" second-baseman before shipping off to France to fight in WWI, worked seven days a week at A. Hollander & Son dyeing fur pelts, a job Izenberg says likely killed him. Harry was tough but fair to his son and bound to his Jewish faith, though as Izenberg puts it, he was less a ritualistic than a cultural Jew, shunning synagogue except for the High Holy Days but clinging fiercely to his religious identity and passing it on to his children.
He also passed on another religion: his love of baseball (and sports in general).
And he hated Nazis.
Such is the air that Izenberg breathed growing up at 80 Shanley Ave. in Newark, where as an 8-year-old he caught a flyball in the middle of a snowstorm with his first baseball mitt, pretending to be Jimmy Gleason, making his dad proud, and cementing their shared love of America’s pastime—and where he first learned about the antisemetism and Nazi sympathizers in their midst after seeing graffiti scrawled onto a sidewalk (“All Jews are Kites!”) and asking his father about it.
It was 1938, and the family lived 10 blocks from Irvington, NJ, where the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization, housed its state headquarters in a bar called Neus. Izenberg’s father told him that the graffiti illiterates had gotten it wrong—that “Kite” was a misnomer for “Kike”—before educating him on all the other anti-Semitic slurs he’d soon hear.
I was always looking for trouble, and if I didn’t find it, it would find me.
According to Izenberg, his father followed that with a stern warning: “If a person comes to you and says someone else called you one of these words, it doesn’t count because people will lie. But if they say it to your face, look at them and smile so they relax, then hit them with the best right-hand you can throw, and if you don’t finish with a good left-hook, don’t come home.”
To press the point that Nazism was not only a distant European threat but also a menace on U.S. soil, Harry took his 8-year-old son to the Newark News Reel Theater to see footage of the German American Bund rally that had taken place at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, the week before.
“There were 20,000 sympathizers, big swastikas, a large George Washington cut-out up to the ceiling, and 12,000 of those people were dressed as storm-troopers,” said Izenberg. “My dad insisted that I see this. He was wounded in WWI. And as we came out of the theater, he said, ‘Those mamzers [yiddish for “bastards”]. We stopped them in WWI, and we need to stop them now!’”
They got a Nedick’s hot dog and orange drink afterward to lighten the mood. The illustration on the cover of Izenberg’s new book depicts the two of them emerging from the News Reel Theater that day with the marquis in the background, and Nedick’s features in the book’s title, marking that day as one of the pivotal moments in the sportswriter’s childhood.
In his new memoir, Izenberg emerges as keenly aware of the dangers around him and also a brash and outspoken kid who was a headache for his teachers, so much so that his parents shipped him off to a military-academy high school in Virginia, where he continued to test the limits of decorum. Defiance and poking his finger in the eye of authority came naturally to him.
“I was always looking for trouble, and if I didn’t find it, it would find me,” Izenberg said.
But the younger Izenberg was grounded by his father’s sense of honor and decency, a penchant for rooting for underdogs and outcasts, and the teachings of the family’s rabbi, Jocahim Prinz, who presided over the congregation at Newark’s Temple B’Nai Abraham, and had escaped Nazi Germany in 1937 to go on and become a Civil Rights stalwart and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those early lessons and his outsider identity as a short Jewish kid having to fist-fight his way through childhood stayed with Izenberg as he left for high school in Virginia, returned home to attend RU-N and lead The Observer, and start his career at the Star-Ledger, where for decades he brought depth, color and conscience to the craft of sports journalism.
“I never cared whose eye I stuck my finger in, as long as I was doing the right thing,” Izenberg said.
Having been raised during the Depression, schooled on the streets of Newark, witnessed the 1967 riots that changed the face of his beloved town, and reported on and been deeply invested in national stories and those affecting his local community, Izenberg dedicates his latest book “To the city and the faith that raised me.”
At 92, Izenberg is not done. He has a biography of his friend Larry Doby, the first African American to play in the American League, coming out next March, and several more books in the pipeline. He still writes pieces as columnist emeritus for the Star-Ledger. And he regularly sits down for interviews to discuss all manner of subjects from his home in Henderson, Nev., where he lives with his wife, Aileen.
Izenberg has nearly a century of knowledge, experience and anecdotes to share with appreciative audiences, from his years writing about local sports to tussling with and befriending major sports figures such as Josh Gibson, Muhammed Ali, Bill Parcells and Ted Williams, along the way providing a unique window into the history of Newark and the country at large.
But it all started at 80 Shanley Ave., where his father called him into his bedroom a few months before he would pass due to lingering complications from a lifetime at the dye factory.
Harry told his son to look into his closet and tell him what he saw. The younger (now adult) Izenberg noted some clothes, shoes and nothing more. Harry said, “That’s right. I have nothing to leave you but my good name. So, don’t screw it up.”
“I hope I’ve lived a life he’d approve of,” said Izenberg.
Undoubtedly, many fans would agree.