Newark native and legendary sports writer Jerry Izenberg is already in 16 Halls of Fame but he had never written a novel, until now.
In a Zoom chat from his Henderson, Nevada home, Izenberg spoke to SportsJam host Doug Doyle about his new novel After The Fire: Love and Hate in the Ashes of 1967 (Admission Press) and share some treasured stories about growing up in Newark, watching the Newark Bears play baseball at Ruppert Stadium and the day he surprised Don King during a dispute with the legendary boxing promoter.
Izenberg is internationally known for his 15 non-fiction books and sports columns. The 90-year old is still working for the Star Ledger with the title columnist emeritus.
While deciding to write his first novel, the master storyteller says he took the advice he was given a long time ago.
"I've written 15 books but they're all non-fiction. I've written a play. I've done a little poetry collection. I wanted to do something. I wanted to write a novel, I'm 90-years old, I better do it quick. I remember what my high school english teacher had told me. He was my basketball coach. We played under the rim then so I could play. I was a little short guy. I said you know my old man was a professional ballplayer for years and I think I'd like to be a sportswriter. He looked at me like he was scraping something off the bottom of his shoe. Then he said 'Well if you ever get serious about writing, remember this, write what you know!' That' was no problem writing sports because I knew it. Now I wanted to write a novel, so I said what do I know? I know this city."
There are really four plots in After The Fire: Love and Hate in the Ashes of 1967 as young interracial couple falls in love during the aftermath of the Newark uprising. An Italian-American football star (Junior Frischella) and an African-American teenage girl (Mickey Washington) who went to the same high school but truly talk to each other for the first time at their summer job. The love affair begins during a time when political and social battles for control of the city raged on and the Mafia looked to influence an election.
"Now in 1967 in Newark, New Jersey, now I know some listeners might dispute this but I will insist I know it's true, black guy, white girl walking down the street holding hands five months after the riot, impossible or real trouble. My wife is an Afro-American and we didn't date until eights years later. We had some problems, nothing like these kids (Junior and Mickey) would have had. i don't know if we had the strength to do it, what those kids did. I put it all together and said now I got what I know, now all I've got to do is write it and I did."
While the novel's subject matter lays out many struggles, Izenberg says the book's message is a positive one for Newark.
"It's hope. In the end I show you why these people hope in a very tangible way. And I think hope is turning this city around."
Although After the Fire is not a sports novel, Izenberg says he couldn't resist dropping in names of some of sports stars he knew, like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Joe Namath.
Baseball has been in Izenberg's blood since he was a little boy growing up in Newark. His dad played professional ball for years but never made it to the Majors. Little Jerry would skip class to go and see the Yankees minor league team, The Newark Bears, play their home games.
"I was blessed because when I was nine or ten I learned how to sneak into Ruppert Stadium. I'm the only person you will ever interview that who expelled, suspended and then brought back to grammar school in the eighth grade. I spent a lot of time at Ruppert Stadium."
That passion for sports would just grow and help Izenberg pen books like Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer's 58-Year Journey, No Medals for Trying: A Week in the Life of a Pro Football Team, Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, Rozelle: A Biography, Monmouth Park: The Shore's Greatest Stretch Since 1870 and The Greatest Game Ever Played.
The Hall of Famer is one of only two daily newspaper columnists to have covered the first 53 Super Bowls but he wasn't able to make the big game last February. Izenberg also has covered five decades plus of the Kentucky Derby. He covered it virtually this summer and talked to all the big trainers and owners involved.
No one has covered more of Muhammad Ali's fights than Izenberg, including the 1960 Olympics. He's a five-time winner of the New Jersey Sportswriter of the Year Award.
Izenberg credits a dean at Rutgers-Newark for financially getting him through his senior year of college when he didn't have any money. The Dean of Students, Edwin Durand approached Jerry when he heard the talented junior wasn't coming back for his final year at the college.
"He said let me ask you something. Could you raise enough money for your first semester because it was fairly cheap and I was living at home, if you could do that, the second semester is one me. I don't know to this day where there was some kind of a fund or whether he took it out of his pocket. My heart is with, I call it Newark-Rutgers, they call it Rutgers-Newark. I'm convinced I'd be really, I don' know what I am today, but I'm convinced I would be much if I hadn't gone there. My whole life changed."
Now living in Henderson, Nevada with his wife Aileen, Izenberg just signed another contract with the Star Ledger to produce sports columns and social commentary as columnist emeritus.
Hia novel After the Fire: Love and Hae in the Ashes of 1967 is now available in hardback, paperback and Kindle at Amazon.
Hear more of Jerry Izenberg's stories on SportsJam with Doug Doyle by clicking at the top of the page.