He was a required taste, the answer to a question no one asked. He was a character, the kind newspapers produced without even trying.
Mike Marley, New York Post sports writer — but mostly a boxing man unequalled for access, sarcasm, creativity and the ability to dine at the finest restaurants without picking up the check — died last week at 72 in Cape Cod, Mass.
Marley was part of a Post sports crew of wishful post-pubescents developed on the blind by late sports editor Jerry “Blackie” Lisker — another character with a love of boxing, known for his fierce scowls and as a soft touch.
Lisker was more the director and warden of a boys camp for reprobates with portable typewriters than the sports editor of a Gotham newspaper. More comic-strip creation than counselor, he made it work, proving that there’s a lot to be said for neglect.
He would do the hiring — no résumé needed — then disappear, dropping his new kids into the laps of beleaguered assistant sports editors Greg Gallo and Dick Klayman for molding and scolding.
Lisker always had a fresh tan. Once, walking through the newsroom carrying a garment bag, Lisker bumped into layout man Dom Marrano, another unforgettable newspaper man who passed last year.
Marrano: “Hey, Blackie, you look great. Where ya been?” Without breaking stride, Lisker growled, “London.” It was early March. And Lisker had, in fact, just returned from London. With a tan.
Marley was Lisker’s pride and joy. And as Marley dressed in what could best be described as ensembles from “Gentlemen’s Disorderly” (he was later seen in a pink fedora), he left as many Damon Runyon tales about himself as he wrote about others.
Given that he was nuts, everyone had a Marley story:
Harvey Araton, who ascended to the Knicks beat under Lisker and was honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame, recalls throwing a party at which Marley passed out. Upon awakening on a couch in the early morning, Marley shouted for a ride back to the city. When Araton ignored him, refusing to open his bedroom’s locked door, Marley began to feed lit matches under it — until he set fire to the rug. Marley won.
Kenny Moran was in Miami on an assignment as our fishing and hunting columnist — from the movie, “Fat Chance” — when he met up with Marley, who was covering the Muhammad Ali camp, before Ali’s 1980 fight with Larry Holmes. Marley idolized Ali — and apparently vice versa.
“Mike and I followed Ali and [trainer] Angelo Dundee back to his hotel suite, where Mike was trying to get his story, but the place is so crowded and noisy we end up in the bathroom.
“Mike is standing in the bathtub with his reporter’s pad and I’m sitting on the edge of the sink while Ali, laughing, is pulling jabs to my face. Unforgettable scene.”
Marley had one foible I could never square. He was attracted to scoundrels.
After 13 years, he quit The Post to work with odious self-promoter Howard Cosell on his “ABC SportsBeat” show while attending Fordham Law School. Marley eventually became a criminal defense attorney.
He then worked as the publicity man for Don King, an incongruous gig, as it was King who so cruelly exploited Marley’s man, Ali, for every shot to the head he was worth.
Bob Drury, another of Lisker’s serendipitous hires, recalls Marley, the barrister.
“We’re in Elaine’s. It’s late. (Elaine’s was the place to go when it was time to go home.) Marley walks in leading a small entourage. He’s flying happy, buying drinks. It’s a celebration. I ask what’s up.
“He holds up the Village Voice. Ten photos. The headline, ‘NYC’s Ten Worst Landlords.’ Marley’s jubilant:
“ ‘I represent four of them!’ ”
And it was Drury who spent the first night of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid’s jail after he and Marley were arrested for breaking into the U.S. team’s compound. Their aborted assignment: interview reclusive star skater Tai Babilonia.
“The desk sergeant says he has to keep one of us for 24 hours. With our one phone call we reach Lisker at home at 3 in the morning. First Marley spoke to him, then my turn: ‘Sorry, Bobby, Marley’s better on deadline. You’re staying.’ ”
The copy Marley produced from those Olympics remains unforgettable. In a glossary of event terms, he explained the giant slalom as a “large freshwater fish,” figure skaters as “the farm team for Ice Capades.”
Then there was the outdoor wedding of Post nightside sports editor Pat “Hondo” Hannigan. With Marley taking the early lead, The Post sports department’s table, toward the back, was nearing its alcohol limit when Marley asked baseball writer Steve Wilder if he liked tossed salad.
When Wilder, perhaps unfamiliar with Marley’s blank-faced madness, said that he did, Marley threw his salad on him, covering him with the house dressing. Wilder threw a punch and tabloid hell broke loose.
Lisker, from his seat up front, dashed through the guests’ tables to break it up, fuming in his New England accent that if we want to fight we should do so “on a barge!” — though it’s still remembered and imitated as “on a bahge!”
When Lisker returned to his table, he was asked what happened. With a devilish smile, he proudly piped, “That’s my boys!” Then sat down as if nothing had happened.
My indelible memory of Marley was from the 1984 Marvin Hagler-Mustafa Hamsho middleweight championship at the Garden, back when HBO made boxing special in spite of boxing promoters.
There was a rumor that Lisker owned a piece of Hamsho. Who knows? Blackie’s sense of journalistic propriety was nil.
His job was to scowl up a great, aggressive, all-in sports section — which he did with the likes of horse-racing columnist Ray Kerrison, Mike McAlary, Steve Serby and Hockey Hall of Fame honoree Larry Brooks, along with those previously noted.
That it was a great section doesn’t mean that Lisker read it. He occasionally suggested story ideas I’d already written.
Anyway, Marley and I, seated near ringside, wound up with Hamsho’s blood spatter on our clothes. I couldn’t wait to hit the men’s room to try to wash it off.
Marley said he’d leave his stains where they were, as they’d be indistinguishable from the other blood on his clothes.
Greg Marotta, an in-the-know sports idea man, was a frequent observer of Marley’s ways and means.
Marotta recalls Marley’s oft-stated law practice sales pitch: “Reasonable doubt for a reasonable price.”
No one who met Marley could depart without a story or, at the least, a look of confusion. In a room filled with Jerry Lisker’s mostly young, hired-on-the-blind characters, Marley stood out. And for a character who seemed to show up everywhere — even when invited — it’s strange to consider that he’ll never again be seen.
Those of us who shared him — including those whose apartments he tried to burn down or whose summer suits he tried to soak in salad oil — cherish the memories, the laughs. Those were the days, my friend.
Ten bells and a tip of a pink fedora for Mike Marley.