Master of the Games
The shrewd eye, and elegant prose, of Red Smith.
Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The best writing in newspapers, it used to be said, was in the sports pages. Variously known as the toy department or the playpen or the peanut stand, its interest restricted to matters of supreme inconsequence, the sports pages allowed the people who filled them more latitude for the prose equivalent of fancy footwork. In sports, after all, not that much was at stake: men in funny costumes batting a ball around—or, as in football and boxing, batting one another around—or running round tracks, on foot or in machines or atop horses. Sportswriters, not lashed to journalism’s deadly troika of when, where, and why, had the latitude to be jokey, dramatic, stylish, even gaudy.
Red Smith at ringside, Ali-Liston fight, Lewiston, Maine, 1965
sports illustrated/getty images
Sportswriting was lent a certain literary imprimatur by some of its former practitioners. Ernest Hemingway began his newspaper career on the sports pages, and Ring Lardner went from writing about sports for newspapers to writing novels about the uneducated who often had sports as their background. Many American writers carried unrealized sports fantasies as part of their psychic cargo their life long. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the two biggest disappointments in his life were not having seen combat overseas in World War I and not having been big enough to play football at Princeton.
Most of us who grew up with athletic aspirations will understand Fitzgerald’s disappointment about not playing football in college. I myself would rather have been an all-city high school basketball player, or won the Illinois state singles tennis championship, than have written “Moon River” or turned out a flawless translation of Dante—which I didn’t do, either. Most men who have not achieved the athletic glory they longed for would, I suspect, feel much the same way. In sad compensation, we watch games on television or read about them in our local newspapers.
I long ago reached the stage of jaded sophistication in watching sports on television where having the sound turned on is not required. The few bits of information or rare insights offered by sportscasters, as they are called, are not worth the heavy price they exact in cliché or empty babble. I only read the sports pages in the local press when I go to the barber shop, and I now check scores online or on television crawls on ESPN.
Reading about sports has become dispiriting. Endless are the stories of that continuing sad saga of athletes cheating through chemistry. Contract negotiations, with their vast sums being bandied about, are another glum-making regular item. Articles about concussions in football figure to sweep the boards (to use a basketball metaphor) this autumn—and perhaps for years to come. The never-ending personal scandals, from wife-beating to murder, of young men unable to cope with the heavy cash and adulation that come their way do not lighten the spirit. Hold that Tiger, as Mrs. Woods might say.
As a boy, the first newspaper sportswriter I read was Jerome Holtzman, who covered prep sports for the Chicago Sun-Times. I later came to know Jerry Holtzman, who arranged to have me invited to a dinner that included James T. Farrell, an ardent White Sox fan and author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, and another Chicago sportswriter named Bill Gleason. Holtzman, who later wrote for the Tribune, became the official historian of baseball, which meant that every year he wrote a lengthy article for the Sporting News summarizing the past baseball season. Holtzman invented the category of relief pitching known as “the save.” He was also a nice man.
The one sportswriter considered indispensable throughout my boyhood, and well beyond, was the columnist Red Smith (1905-1982). Smith didn’t begin his professional life as a sportswriter, but drifted into it as a reporter on the St. Louis Star. His editor, after canning half the six-man sports department for being on the take from a local boxing promoter, asked Smith to shift to the sports desk. He never saw it as a demotion. “Sports constitutes a valid part of our culture, our civilization,” he would later write, “and keeping the public informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
After stints on papers in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, in 1945 Smith was brought to the New York Herald Tribune by Stanley Woodward, the paper’s legendary sports editor. Of Smith, Woodward wrote that “he was a complete newspaper man [who] had been through the mill and come out with a high polish.” After the Herald Tribune went under in 1966, Smith transferred to the New York Times. His columns were widely syndicated.