by

Red Smith, Collected

Walter "Red" Smith (photo copyright New York Racing Association)

Walter (Red) Smith (photo copyright New York Racing Association)

My mother had some firm opinions. When I line them up and take their measure now, 40 or 50 years after I first heard them, I don’t always agree, but I do always see her point. Sid Caesar was the best comedian. The New Yorker was the best magazine. Lady in the Dark was the best Broadway musical (that one’s a bit of a reach for me). The Rogues was the best TV show. Brian Bedford was the best actor. She separated writers into categories. James Joyce was the best in the classics division, Pauline Kael the best movie critic, Russell Baker the best columnist, Calvin Trillin the best humorous food enthusiast. And Red Smith was the best sportswriter.

I had to take the last proposition on faith, at least for a while. Walter (Red) Smith was born in 1905 and started his newspapering career in the late twenties. After stints in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, he arrived in New York in 1945 (just a couple of years after my mother did, now that I think of it). His column appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, which at that time and for the remaining two decades of its life was considered the preeminent “writer’s paper” in the country. (An excellent history of the Trib is The Paper, by Richard Kluger.) The trouble is, we took only the Times, the New Rochelle Standard-Star–referred to by my father either as “the sub-standard Star” or “the local yokel”–and once in a while the afternoon New York Post, then nearing the end of its classic liberal phase. (Trillin once quipped that the perfect Post headline in this period would have been “Snowstorm Hits City; Blacks, Jews Suffer Most.”)

The Herald Tribune hit economic trouble in the 1960s, shape-shifted for a year into the World Journal Tribune, and finally folded in 1967. Smith toiled in the wilderness for four years before landing at the Times, where he stayed, and where I was finally able to realize how right my mother was. Here he is on Reggie Jackson’s momentous at-bat for the New York Yankees in a 1977 World Series game against Los Angeles. In his two previous plate appearances, Jackson had hit the first pitch for line-drive home runs.

For the third time Reggie hit the first pitch but this one didn’t take the shortest distance between two points. Straight out from the plate the ball streaked, not toward the neighborly stands in right but on a soaring arc toward the unoccupied bleachers in dead center, where the seats are blacked out to give batters a background. Up the white speck climbed, dwindling, diminishing, until it settled at last halfway up those empty stands, probably four hundred fifty feet away.

The Library of America’s American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, edited by Daniel Okrent, with an Afterword by Smith’s son, Terence, shows that the passing of several decades more has not called Harriet Yagoda’s judgment into question. As Okrent points out, Smith came on the scene at the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of Sportswriting, when literary and sometimes rococo stylists like Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler, and Ring Lardner ruled the press box. The sports blog Deadspin recently posted (from a new collection of Chicago sportswriting edited by Ron Rapoport) a Pegler column column on Babe Ruth’s legendary called shot, in a 1932 World Series game against the Chicago Cubs. The column is a leisurely tableau full of rich morsels like this description of the aging Babe patrolling the outfield:

Somebody in the crowd tossed out a lemon which hit him on the leg. Now there are sensitive ball players who might have been petulant at that and some stiff-necked ones who could only ignore it, boiling inwardly. But the Babe topped the jest. With graphic gestures, old Mr. Ruth called on them for fair play. If they must hit him with missiles, would they please not hit him on the legs? The legs weren’t too good anyway. Would they just as lief hit him on the head? The head was solid and could stand it.

You read it right. Lief.

Something of this stance would always be a part of Smith’s constitution, but he looked to the future as intently as to the past. (If he hadn’t, Hemingway wouldn’t have name-checked him in Across the River and Into the Trees, observing of a character: “He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much.”) Okrent writes, “Early on, Smith found a voice neither florid like Rice’s nor sulfurous like Pegler’s but closer in its sidelong, raised-eyebrow gaze to another of his sportswriting heroes, Damon Runyon.” In the fifties, Smith mocked baseball announcers for unwittingly reviving some of the old hokum:

Soupbone … locked horns … sterling performances … in toto … with the wood … snuffer out. … They sound worse than they read, there are the ancient, blowsy clichés that were coined ever so many years ago by baseball writers with an original turn of the quill pen, were inherited and worked and worn by succeeding generations of bad sportswriters, and finally were lifted by radio guys whose reading had led them to believe this was the proper language of the game.

Smith is probably best remembered for a quote he probably never said. It’s rendered in various ways, including this, on a plaque in the courtyard of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” Whether or not this originated with Smith, he never disowned it, possibly because the way he wrote, though never laborious to read, involved a lot of heavy lifting on his part. That, of course, is a very tired metaphor. Smith took the effort throughout his career to devise fresh and delightful ones. In the very first piece reprinted here, from 1934, he’s talking about a clubhouse interview with player-manager Frankie Frisch, whose St. Louis Cardinals had just defeated the Cincinnati Reds for the 1934 pennant: “You could have planted petunias in the loam on his face.”  Years later, he referred to a gigantic basketball center who “plucked rebounds off the backboard like currants off a bush.” Of a 1946 World Series game, he wrote that as the Cardinals’ Enos (Country) Slaughter was scurrying around the bases, on his way to scoring from first on a single, the Red Sox’ Johnny Pesky “stood morosely studying [National League president] Ford Frick’s signature on the ball.” (And by the way, how great is it for a writer to have names like Johnny Pesky and Country Slaughter to work with? Frankie Frisch, Ford Frick—come on! The alliteration came baked in.)

Okrent opines that “the platonic ideal of a column about a major sports event” is Smith’s on Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run to win the National League pennant for the New York Giants against the Dodgers. The first two paragraphs, alone, suggest he is correct:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Current sports scribes are known to rise to the occasion for especially dramatic moments, such as the Red Sox’ David (Big Papi) Ortiz’s grand-slam homer to tie a playoff game three nights ago. (There’s something special about October home runs. Also, “Big Papi” is a name that gives you something to work with.) Most of the time, though, you find by-rote game stories, columns that don’t have much to offer besides a kind of reflex cynicism, and stuff like this, from the Times: “Rivera has allowed a home run on a two-seamer 3 percent of the time this season, according to BrooksBaseball.net, which tracks Pitchf/x data, or the velocity and location of pitches. Rivera had not given up a home run on a two-seamer since 2007, when Pitchf/x data became available to the public.”

That is beyond inside baseball. That is going deep inside the digestive system of baseball and swimming around in there.

When Red Smith covered Reggie Jackson’s Fall Classic heroics, he was 72 years old. He continued to write four columns a week until January 1982, when he told his readers he’d be cutting back to three. At the end of that column, he said he was often asked about the greatest athlete he ever covered. He mentioned the jockey Bill Shoemaker as a contender and then wrote: “There were, of course, many others, not necessarily great. Indeed, there was a longish period when my rapport with some who were less than great made me nervous. Maybe I was stuck on bad ballplayers. I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio.”

Smith died four days later, making those the last words he ever published. So far, there hasn’t been another Joe DiMaggio or another Red Smith.

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