"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Breast or Bottle?

Stan Isaacs, the acerbic, funny, and bright newspaper columnist, died on Tuesday. He was 83.

Over at ESPN, Bryan Curtis has a wonderful tribute. It’s a must-read (and while you are at it, check out Bryan’s story on the Chipmunks).

Here is an archive (you’ll need to scroll down) of pieces that Isaacs wrote on-line at The Columnists; here is a story he wrote on Mike Burke for Jock.

I met Stan at a session of The New York (baseball) Giants Nostalgia Society in the Bronx close to ten years ago. We exchanged e-mails periodically and he was terse and amusing. I’m proud to offer you, with Stan’s permission, two columns that he wrote in the 1960s. It will give you a small taste of his fine work.

In the meantime, our thoughts go to his family, friends, and colleagues.  May he rest in peace.

“Marvelous Marv”

By Stan Isaacs

(Newsday, 1962)

That’s a love affair flowering between the Met fans and Marv Throneberry. It’s not quite apparent right now because Throneberry is the only Met player the fans at the Polo Grounds boo regularly. The perceptive mind, however, can read beyond mere outward appearances. Just as love and hate are the opposite sides of the same coin, so is this passion for Throneberry building up among Met rooters. At the rate he was booed on the last home stand, he may turn out to be one of the most popular athletes New York ever had.

Right now, the love affair is in the stage where the lovers snap at each other. They already suspect they might be liking each other and that intensifies the bickering—until the whole thing flowers into true love. I have already moved to be one of the first on the bandwagon by forming a press box chapter of the “I Love Marv Throneberry Club.” I am not disturbed that only one other has agreed to join—as membership secretary, because there would be no work. I can see other potential members whose expressions of exasperation with Marv’s work indicate that they are potentially fervent club members.

A prime recruit would be the reporter who used the name, “Marvelous Marv,” by which Throneberry is known in the press box, as a form of scorn throughout a story about a game in which Throneberry figured prominently: Marv forgot to touch third base on a triple and he made a costly interference error.

Met clubhouse man Herb Norman took that as a cue and substituted the sobriquet, “Marvelous Marv,” for “Throneberry” on the namecard above Throneberry’s locker. “Other players might not go for that,” Norman said. “But I can do it with Marv, because he has a good sense of humor.”

Marv appreciated the gag. He even pointed the sign out to the man who wrote the story and told him before a doubleheader: “Hey, I’ve got good news for you—I’m playing in only one of the games today.”

Marv is too big a man to be upset by bad writeups. “You once wrote something bad about me,” he said to the president of his fan club, “but I never said anything, did I?” He didn’t. The piece, which the president is sorry for because it kicked a man when he was down, knocked Throneberry for his seeming lack of spirited movement.

It is that lack of outward hustle and bustle that makes Throneberry a target for boos. Of course, his fielding and hitting failures have helped, but other Mets err and hit badly without becoming such a target. “These are my natural movements,” Throneberry said. “If I were to start dashing about like little Elio Chacon just to look as if I were hustling, it would be phony.”

Marv says, “They’re not going to run me out of New York the way they did Norm Siebern.” He points out that Mickey Mantle used to be booed. He is also able to comfort himself that some of the boos are directed at him because he plays instead of the No. 1 Met love, Gil Hodges.

The other day he even twitted Casey Stengel for going out to the mound to take out pitchers. “Every time you go out there, they start booing you. Are you trying to take away my fans?” Marv promises that one of these days, when the time is right, “I’m going to surprise them; I’m going to doff my cap to them in a big way, the way Stengel does.”

If he does it at the right time, he should wow them. There have been some hints already of what will happen when the love affair does turn into the mad thing it is destined to be. The other day Throneberry ran a long way for a foul pop, then caught it with a deft stab just as he almost hit the field boxes. An ovation followed, and it seemed then that the time was ripe for Marv. All he had to do was make another good play or two, hit a few homers, and he would have them eating out of his glove.

Alas, he missed that chance. Shortly afterward, he not only fumbled a grounder, but then, as the pitcher came to take his toss, he threw an underhanded lob that went over the pitcher’s head. “Gene Conley (a six-foot, eight-inch pitcher) would have had it,” was the remark of one potential member of the fan club. This was the same chap who refused to admit that Marv made a good play on the foul pop-up, saying he had overrun the ball. Which just goes to show how much this bloke is going to love Throneberry when the time comes.

People react negatively to Marv because they regard him as the prototype of the “losing ballplayer.” Marv has been with the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles so far and hasn’t realized his slugging potential. Aware of the rap against him, Mary says: “So far I have never had a real chance. Wherever I have been, I have played behind an established first baseman. I feel that this is the first time I’m getting a full chance.

“I think I wasn’t nearly ready to play when I first came to the Mets. I had not played in so long, I was defensive at the plate and not sharp in the field. I’m beginning to feel like an offensive hitter now. And I think my fielding will get better as I play more.”

Those of us whose eyes are ready to see the glory of the coming of Marv Throneberry are aware that the marriage of Marvelous Marv and the Met fans was made a long time ago; the initials of Marvin Eugene Throneberry read M-E-T.

“He Made The Mets Fun”

By Stan Isaacs

(Newsday, 1965)

The time of Casey Stengel as manager of the Mets has come to an end. While it lasted, wasn’t that a time? Wasn’t that a wonderful time?

By his own lights, Casey Stengel failed as manager of the Mets. He had hoped to build a young, promising team, leaving a legacy that would soon be translated into stirring deeds on the ball field. He left no such team. At best there are half-a-dozen shining prizes of the youth of America on the team, and greatness is nowhere in sight.

But Stengel, of course, didn’t fail. He brought the greatness of his own spirit to the Mets. He made them something bigger than the ordinary story of the won-lost standings. He made the Mets fun—a slice of the humor of American life.

Stengel, as a baseball figure, has been bigger than life, a man larger than the arena in which he operated. There are only a few people in this world who attain that stature. They say of people like this that they walk with kings. Stengel could walk with kings and give them a wink along the way.

When Winston Churchill died, somebody commented that one of the outstanding things about the man was that he spanned so many eras. Churchill was a dynamic figure in the Boer War at the turn of the century and still right in the thick of things during the post-World War II era. In baseball terms, Stengel was that kind of figure, a man whose phenomenal memory enabled him to talk with the same glibness about the old Washington Park in Brooklyn as he did about new fashions in the cut of baseball uniforms.

In the time that Casey Stengel has been managing baseball teams there have been seven Presidents of the United States. In the time since he broke into baseball in 1910, there have been 10 Presidents.

It was possible to shoot almost any topic at Stengel and be confident he would relate some experience to it. When there was a Maine Day celebration at Shea Stadium for Met pitcher Carl Willey, a Maine native, Stengel reached into his background for entertaining stories about Maine that nobody had ever heard him tell before. He cited a ball player named Chief Sockalexis as a Maine native, and sure enough, everything Stengel said about him was true. He so often astounded people with his recollections it was perhaps inevitable that he would adopt the phrase “You could look it up.”

Casey Stengei is too big for any one essay. There is a need here, though, to say that to be around him has been to bask in him, to experience an exaltation of the spirit. The feeling of joy captured in the last scene of the movie Zorba the Greek—when Anthony Quinn leads the young poet in a dance of exultation on the beach—is the kind of ecstatic warmth generated by Stengel at his best.

I would daresay that if somebody set out to make a good movie about Casey Stengel, Anthony Quinn would be a wonderful person to play this craggy-faced minstrel of joy and unflagging hope. At first, it might seem an unlikely casting, but perhaps not if you chew on it for a moment.

Stengel’s departure at the hotel press conference yesterday was sad. The old man came into the room limping on his cane, nervous and misty-eyed. He brightened later when he could talk about the team and when he could answer questions with a touch of his old finger-pumping belligerence. But it still wasn’t vintage Stengel.

His last press conference as a Yankee, when they fired him, was better. He went out kicking and screaming that day, and you had fair reason to believe he would return someday, if you were inclined to want to reason that way.

When somebody asked him yesterday to select which of his tenures in New York he enjoyed the most (he played for the New York Giants, and managed the Brooklyns, Yankees and Mets) it seemed as if he would have liked to cite the Mets, but couldn’t because he didn’t succeed at what he set out to do with them. “Well, you’d have to say,” he started out, then switched his thought in midsentence by adding, “You couldn’t feel good if you are losing.”

He would rather be remembered for his success as manager of the Yankees, when he won 10 pennants in 12 years and astounded baseball people with his unorthodox moves. Of course, he had the material then—his years with the Mets showed he couldn’t do anything without the material—but he nevertheless made revolutionary moves with the Yanks that influenced the new generation of managers.

Age showed on the thinking of the Connie Macks and Jimmy Dykes and Charley Dressens; Stengel commanded respect of his peers to the end. “He still can beat you from the dugout,” a young lion like Gene Mauch would say.

A comic definition of the difference between a master and a grand master in chess captures for me the Stengel managerial genius.

“A master,” said chessman Arthur Bisguier, “cogitates carefully, perhaps a half-hour, on a move. Finally, he chooses the correct square for the correct piece and places it there. A grand master is much more skillful. He hardly thinks at all. He throws the piece into the air and it just falls on the right square.”


1 Bluenatic   ~  Apr 5, 2013 9:26 am

I grew up on Long Island reading Stan Isaacs' sports media column in the pages of Newsday and was thrilled when, years later, I had the chance to work with him on a book, Ten Moments That Shook the Sports World. The book is essentially a memoir of Stan's time covering some of the greatest sporting events of the past century, from The Shot Heard 'Round the World to Secretariat's extraordinary 31-length victory at Belmont. But the gem of the book is Stan's sobering, exquisitely-written chapter on covering the 1972 Munich games and the massacre that marred them. I recommend it without qualification.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Apr 5, 2013 9:41 am

Wow. I need to get that. Thanks for the tip, man.

3 Yankee Mama   ~  Apr 5, 2013 4:50 pm

Wow, I just spent the better part of an hour engrossed in all this Steve Isaacs/Chipmunk stuff! Although, it kept me from my own work, I will call it, "school is in session."

Thanks for that, AB! I would love to read his commentary on the 1972 Munich Games.

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