July 27, 2010 7:04 AM
by Michael Katz
Sportswriter raised the bar in New York
The guy who would later become his best man first spotted the guy who would become the greatest Jewish sportswriter in the showers after a CCNY gym class. There was Vic Ziegel, soaping himself and chanting, "Rain, rain, rain, will I never get off this damn island."
That was more than a half-century ago and in the ensuing years Vic put himself on an island with maybe Red Smith and Jim Murray among American sports columnists, an island with maybe Mark Twain and Nathanial West among American humorists.
I will not underestimate my best friend the way his newspapers often did. He was a giant. For a long while, he was the only active boxing writer in New York. When I was lucky enough to win the Nat Fleischer Award in 1981, I pointed out I was not even the best boxing writer in my Greenwich Village apartment house. Marilyn and I lived in 4A, Roberta and Vic were in 6A. Vic finally got the Fleischer a couple of years later.
Larry Merchant recently said you could tell a Ziegel sentence even in isolation, that no one else could have constructed it that way. That’s because Vic was a consummate craftsman. Some guys have the ability to sit down and type a stream, sort of like Mozart. Vic agonized over every comma, the way Beethoven did over every note.
His spontaneity was marvelous, all the same, cracking one-liners, like "ice hockey is soccer on the rocks." He and his buddy from Newsday, Lewis Grossberger, fashioned the "Non-Runners Handbook" to combat the jogging fad and dedicated it to Calvin Coolidge for uttering, "I do not choose to run."
He kind of disappeared between the New York Post and New York Daily News, writing instead for Rolling Stone. He came back in 1985 as sports editor of the News, a surprise to those who did not know what a great inside man Vic was (when a few Yankees were caught urinating in public in Kansas City, Vic called them "Whiz Kids" in the News headline).
He was one of the "Chipmunks," a young group of irreverent sportswriters so dubbed by Jimmy Cannon. His first major beat was the original New York Mets. When the clowns became surprise contenders in 1969, Vic admitted it was somewhat of a struggle to have to write straight leads. This is the guy who wrote, after the non-Miracle Mets made an unusual late comeback, "The game is never over until the final out, The New York Post has learned."
He did a story on Pete Rose, who explained that when he mentioned a product in a newspaper story he was writing, he often got a case of it.
Vic concluded his story with "Remy Martin, Remy Martin, Remy Martin."
The cognac was thus delivered.
His idol was Leonard Schecter; many later writers tried to emulate Vic, but he never did have a worthy imitator. He invented me, though he was wise enough not to take out a patent. My first assignment for the CCNY undergraduate newspaper, The Campus, was City College vs. Temple in wrestling and the sports editor sent Vic along as a guide. I wrote that the Beaver heavyweight was pinned in 1:09. Vic changed that to 69 seconds.
I was just 16 when I met him more than 50 years ago. I knew about Louie and Ella; he introduced me not only to Lester and Billie, but to Pee Wee Russell and Bunny Berigan. He also introduced me to "Citizen Kane," which he knew by heart, and W.C. Fields, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, the Lion’s Head, where he was a member of the Bobo Newsom Marching and Chowder Society, along with Red Smith, novelist Joe Flaherty and composer David Amram.
He loved boxing and baseball, but I think his favorite game was horse racing. Though the cancer had come back in both lungs and he could barely breathe, he covered the Triple Crown races this year. They were unworthy of his talent. He accepted what he called "the end game" with Talmudic grace. I wish he could have been more comfortable, though.
NOTE: There are some films I can watch a million times, like "Citizen Kane" or "Beat the Devil" or "Bank Dick." Classic fights do not always fit that mold – in most cases, the sequel is a disappointment. I fear that is true with next week’s rematch of what was voted by some as the 2009 fight of the year. Second time around, Juan Manuel Marquez should have no early trouble with Juan Diaz. It took him a few rounds to figure out the young Texas last year on the way to a ninth-round stoppage. He should be quicker this time.