Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News died Friday, July 23 of lung cancer, still young at 72. He was one of the good guys.
When I started regularly for the Village Voice in the mid-1980s, Ziegel was one of the few writers from a New York daily to accept me as a colleague when I’d see him at the ball park or at Madison Square garden for a fight. (Typical greeting, this one from Mike “The Wolfman” Katz, then of the New York Times: “There’s Barra from the Village Voice, where boxing is the sport of queens.”)
Vic told me that he was delighted by the Voice‘s irreverent, contrarian tone because when he started out he was often associated with a group of young sportswriters collectively dubbed “The Chipmunks” by old time sportswriting legend Jimmy Cannon. “He called us that ostensibly because one of us was supposed to have had an overbite — I can’t remember who that was, but it might have been Steve Jacobson of Newsday. I can’t remember.”
The name stuck, he said, because to the old guard, who seldom asked tough questions of celebrity athletes such as Joe DiMaggio and, later, Mickey Mantle, the new breed, which included Ziegel, Leonard Koppett, Maury Allen, Stan Issacs, Leonard Schecter, and Jerry Isenberg among others, would flock to the most revered sports icons “chirping” questions. Their inspirations, Vic once told me, weren’t Jimmy Cannon, Jimmy Powers, Grantland Rice or anyone else from the so-called “Golden Age” of sportswriting but the New Yorker‘s press citric and boxing writer, A.J. Liebling.
Rather than the Times Square haunts of writers from the Runyon age, Ziegel and his fellow Chipmunks — a name they took great pride in — often hung out in the Village and met after games and before fights and races at the Lion’s Head. (“We were as likely to swap beers ands storied with Norman Mailer and Pete Hamill as we were with Arthur Daley or anyone else from the New York Times.”)
Vic was always there for me when I needed an inside tip or good quote, or wanted to make a bet. (I won $20 from him on the 1987 middleweight championship fight between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas. (I won about 10 bets on that fight, and Ziegel was the only one who paid up.)
When I was researching my biography, Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee, in 2007, Ziegel gave me a great story. In 1967, he invited Yogi to go with him to see the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney sophisticated romantic comedy, Two For The Road, about a couple working out the problems in their tumultuous marriage through a series of long car trips. “What did you think, Yogi?” Ziegel asked after the movie. “I don’t know,” Berra responded, “They got in the car, they got out of the car. They got in the car, they got out of the car.”
Here’s something he told me the last time we got together, at Yankee Stadium in 2006. “You know, I’m a little annoyed at all this talk I’m hearing now about ‘W.C. Heinz was the greatest sportswriter who ever lived.’ I mean, there’s a lot of guys you could say that about — Red Smith or Len Koppett or Len Schecter or just about any number of guys at the right time, when they were doing really good work, could have been called ‘The Best.’ Not to take anything away from Bill [Heinz]. He was great. But at a particular time, hell, there were times when I think I was the best.” (He was. He won the Red Smith Award twice for his writing about the Kentucky Derby and the Nat Feistier Award, named after the man who founded The Ring magazine, for excellence in boxing coverage.)
When we left the ballpark that night, he said to me, “Hey, if you use what I said to you about Heinz, please wait until I’m gone.”
Okay, Vic, so here it is. And you were right — at times you were the best.