One Sunday afternoon in May, 1969, Jimmy Breslin, then running for president of the New York city council on the same ticket as his pal, the mayoral hopeful Norman Mailer, went on the stump at a hurling double-header in Gaelic Park up in the Bronx. The kind of hospitable venue where an Irish-American boasting a Donegal lineage, campaigning in a Democratic primary race, might ordinarily expect a warm welcome and guaranteed votes. Except this one.
In his day job as the most-read newspaper columnist in town, Breslin’s writing against the Vietnam war had put him at odds with the more conservative GAA constituency, his arrival at the old ground prompting chants of scum, a chorus of boos and insults about being a fat bum. As Mailer was led to a VIP seat in the stand, a pair of burly goons in the employ of John Kerry O’Donnell, domineering patriarch of the games in the city, were manhandling Breslin back out through the gate as a priest looked on.
“These are my people and they are waiting for me,” he wrote of an encounter that culminated in his tyres being slashed. “They are waiting to beat the hell out of me.”
He was, of course, proved right about Vietnam, like so many other polarising issues on which he took often controversial stands over half a century as the voice of a city. His death at the age of 88 last Sunday unleashed a torrent of accolades about a lifetime devoted to tilting at the windmills of the powerful and championing the causes of the underdog.
It also sparked the redistribution of some of his greatest hits: the deadline masterpiece about the cops who rushed a dying
to the hospital, the famous interview with the man digging John F Kennedy’s grave, and, inevitably, his pivotal role in the Son of Sam murders.
In a career garlanded with a Pulitzer prize for, among other things, putting faces to the names of a new disease called Aids, Breslin started out covering sports for the long-since-defunct New York Journal-American.
“The rule that I followed from my first day as a copy boy in the sports department was that you couldn’t write about a game unless you went to see it,” wrote Breslin. “These people who tried to report by watching television were killing readers with lifeless stories.”
On his travels, he happened upon the hapless 1962 New York Mets, in their first season in the majors, en route to the worst losing record since 1900. For a broke journalist with banks and loan sharks on his tail, and a home phone that had just been cut off, he identified with their struggle and recognised them as a gift.
“You had to be a sucker not to write about them,” said Breslin.
Brilliantly capturing the history-making awfulness and the hilarity of their on-field ineptitude, his subsequent book Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? transformed his financial fortunes and made his name. Although he once denounced football as "a game designed to keep coalminers off the street", sport was always good to him thereafter, providing one more platform to show he had his finger on the pulse of the five boroughs.
Witness his attempt to explain to older readers how Joe Namath, the NFL quarterback cum 1960s countercultural icon, was the product of an era they didn't quite understand.
"His people are on First and Second Avenues, where young girls spill out of the buildings and into the bars crowded with guys, and the world is made of long hair and tape cartridges and swirling colour and military overcoats and the girls go home with guys or the guys go home with girls and nobody is too worried about any of it because life moves, it doesn't stand still and whisper about what happened last night," wrote Breslin in a magazine piece about the man who had just delivered the New York Jets their first and only Super Bowl. "It is out of these bars and apartment buildings and the life of them that Joe Willie Namath comes."
He once confessed that his biggest thrill was sitting next to somebody on the subway who was reading his column, an admission that may explain how prolific he was. As well as the daily newspaper columns that defined his greatness, there was a constant stream of novels, biographies and non-fiction books on subjects that ranged from satirising the mob to excoriating the Catholic Church. Unlike some of his contemporaries he wore his Irishness lightly, as might be expected from somebody who spent a sabbatical in Killiney in 1970.
Whether referencing a group of NYPD cops making the annual pilgrimage home for the All-Ireland finals in September, or merely mentioning the walls of a pub hung with sepia photographs of triumphant Gaelic football teams, there’s a sense of a man who knew well the country his ancestors hailed from.
And kept in touch with it too, even in the worst of times. When Ali fought Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971, Breslin procured two ringside seats for Bernadette Devlin, then the MP for Mid-Ulster, and somebody he considered a friend.
“When you live in fires and funerals and strikes and rats and crowds and people screaming in the night,” he once wrote, “sports is the only thing that makes any sense.”
And he would know.