Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg’s memoir of growing up Jewish in Newark in the 1930s
At 92, sportswriter Jerry Izenberg still has his fastball. Back when people held newspapers, columnists were the rock stars of print. Izenberg, who continues to contribute a column to this day to New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, is firmly in this category.
Now, Izenberg has changed it up a bit and turned inward, delivering an equally funny and poignant memoir of his formative years, Baseball, Nazis & Nedick’s Hot Dogs: Growing Up Jewish In The 1930s In Newark. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel viewers (and perhaps Woody Allen fans) will be right at home here.
Izenberg’s childhood was anything but carefree. He was born into the depression, which was followed by World War 2. His parents, older sister – and antisemitism are constant characters in Baseball…. However, Izenberg’s tone isn’t doom and gloom. Neil Simon, the late playwright would approve of Izenberg’s wonderful, often dry, humor. In one amusing episode of many, Izenberg recounts his attempts at intimacy with a date, but his mother’s vacuum cleaning continually interrupts him.
Throughout, baseball is the bond Izenberg shares with his father, a World War 1 vet who was an undersized, all-hit, no-field second baseman in the minors. Izenberg and his dad play catch religiously, even in blizzards. Izenberg’s mother hollers at them that they’re meshuga. If you’re not familiar with Yiddishisms, be prepared to Google. Izenberg’s dad lives for the Giants, then in New York. Often, he just wants to listen to the game on his radio and tune out the rest of the world, including his loving, often contentious family. Meanwhile, Izenberg closely follows the minor league Newark Bears.
However, it’s very clear from the outset that Izenberg didn’t inherit his father’s athletic gifts. Izenberg eventually turns to music, specifically the clarinet. However, it’s not enough to save him from his parents shipping him off to a military school in Virginia. Izenberg was a bit of a wisenheimer, He once played hooky with a classmate to go a burlesque show.
At military school, Izenberg is the sarcastic Newark Jew in the heart of the old Confederacy, and his story really starts to hum. After the baseball coach catches a glimpse of Izenberg’s glove skills, he promptly becomes the team’s statistician. Izenberg also starts a band and even picks up a paid gig at a University of Virginia fraternity, another fun anecdote. His writing skills get a boost–but not in English class. He strikes up a pen pal relationship with a classmate’s sister, a southern Baptist. All the while, Izenberg has to deal with an antisemitic teacher.
Despite not being mathematically inclined in the slightest, Izenberg manages to graduate. However, he’s still somewhat clueless about his future. With his family’s nudging, he enrolls at Rutgers University- Newark, then just in its infancy, where he immerses himself in the school newspaper and befriends the school’s talented but flawed basketball coach, Hank Bodner, who could be a book unto himself.
Baseball… leaves us on an cliffhanger, with Izenberg about to ship off to military service. Neil Simon followed his semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs up with Biloxi Blues, inspired by his military service. Izenberg’s Baseball… deserves the same treatment.