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.
Red Smith was considered the thinking man’s sportswriter. He abhorred clichés. He commanded an impressive, sometimes bordering on the ornate, vocabulary. He specialized in striking similes. He called in irony when the occasion required it, which in sports was frequently. And he did all this within the confines of plain style—without the excessive use of subordinate clauses or dashes, and without any semicolons whatsoever. As a prose stylist, Smith could, as they say about the great infielders, pick it.
Unlike so many of the talented newspaper writers among his near-contemporaries—James Thurber, E. B. White, John O’Hara, A. J. Liebling—Red Smith had no wish ever to rise above writing for newspapers. He thought of himself as essentially a reporter. He once claimed that he’d rather go to the dentist than write a book. Of the difficulty of writing, he remarked that “all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” When asked how long it took him to write a column—and it is estimated that he wrote roughly 10,000 of them—he answered: “How much time do I have?”
Walter Wellesley Smith was born in 1905 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, 14 years before the Packers came to town and put the place on the map. He went to Notre Dame and then directly into journalism. A Midwesterner by birth and upbringing, he eventually became what I think of as a naturalized New Yorker: one of those people who, whatever their geographical origins, found their spiritual home in New York and, with it, a comfortable seat at the bar at Toots Shor’s.
Red Smith wrote on all the standard sports, following the calendar of the country’s sports seasons and major events. Every fourth year he broke his normal rhythm by going off to the Olympics. He wrote a lot about boxing in the day when no sporting event had greater interest than that of a heavyweight title fight. He thought boxing “a rough, dangerous, and thrilling sport, the most basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions, and—at its best—one of the purest of art forms.” (Today, of course, boxing is considered the purest form of barbarism, and attracts minimal interest.) He was also excellent on thoroughbred racing, and he wrote a fair amount about fishing for trout and bass, a sport he loved and the only one in which he acknowledged participating.
He wrote most on baseball, which he loved, and on which he was splendid. He was good on track and field and golf, but not quite so fine on football. His view of hockey was implicit in the old joke: “Went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out.” Basketball he loathed, once remarking that he would rather drink a Bronx cocktail (a martini with orange juice and maraschino cherry added) than go to a basketball game. He was wrong about this, I believe, and might have felt differently had he lived into the era of the graceful giants, the Magics and Michaels and LeBrons.
How does the best of Red Smith’s writing, all written for the next day’s paper, ultimately to be used for wrapping fish, hold up? This handsome collection of his writings—the earliest of which is dated September 30, 1934, the latest January 11, 1982, or four days before his death—has been assembled with skill and care by Daniel Okrent. A literary man of all work, Okrent has supplied a useful introduction to the volume; the author’s son, Terence Smith, a former CBS and New York Times journalist, has written a gracious afterword. With the exception of an opening article called “My Press-Box Memories,” none of the columns in this book runs to more than 800 or 900 words. (What might the result have been, one wonders, if Red Smith had extended himself to compositions of 5,000 or 10,000 words?) Some of the columns are organized by decade, some by particular sport, and others by simple chronology.
Of the legendary American sportswriters—Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, John Lardner—Red Smith holds up best. Part of this is owing to his temperament: He knew how best to distance himself from his subject; he understood that he was writing about sports, not the world economy. And unlike A. J. Liebling writing about boxing, Smith, in his coverage of sports, never seemed to be slumming. When he came up against hypocrisy or chicanery—the former on the part of baseball owners, the latter on the part of basketball point-shavers and others—he was properly stern in his condemnations. When he was sentimental, as in describing the installation of old ballplayers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he recognized it. “Even a toad would be moved,” he noted in describing the privilege of election to the hall.
Reading Red Smith’s columns in bulk, as opposed to having read him in the regular rhythm of his daily columns, one gets a firmer notion of his strengths, weaknesses, and general point of view. He was a man of good sense. One finds nothing nutty, over the top, or in the least outré in any of the columns collected in American Pastimes. In his writing, he generally maintained the detachment bordering on skepticism proper to an observer of events in which he had no true stake.
Smith could use his impressive vocabulary to comic effect:
He referred to boxing legends and wisdom as “the cauliflower gospel,” called Wembley Stadium in London “a cooked gaboon of concrete,” cited the use of water to “emasculate scotch.”
It’s difficult to know how educated Red Smith was. Often writing as many as six columns a week, and attending the various events that served as the fodder for these columns, he couldn’t have had much time for reading serious books. In one of his columns, he mentions “David Wark Griffith, Federico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman.” In another, he quotes Ernest Newman, the London Times music critic, on the subject of genius. In a column on the fuss made when Carl Yastrzemski got his 3,000th hit, he notes that when Cap Anson (1852-1922), the Chicago Cubs first baseman, got his 3,000th hit, little fuss was made because “in those days Media was where the Medes and Persians came from.” Baseball, he declares in one column, is “as ceremonious as a Graustarkian court.” He had, in short, a wide enough culture to elevate his column and give it tone.
The charming little touches in Smith’s writing caught his more careful readers’ attention and gained their admiration. The British middleweight Randy Turpin, late in his fight against Sugar Ray Robinson, “was weaving like a cobra dancing to a flute.” The knees of the heavyweight Archie Moore, in his fight against Rocky Marciano, “were wet spaghetti.” He called the Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds, a member of the Creek Indian nation, “that estimable aborigine.” The fight promoter Don King shows up in a pair of “brown pants with a crease that could draw blood.” There is scarcely a column in this book that is without one or more of these fine touches.
Sometimes, true enough, they go awry. The Yankees pitcher Bob Turley comes out of a game “like a loose tooth.” In a fight against Sugar Ray Robinson, the welterweight Carmen Basilio’s left eye closed up “like a purple clam.” Joe DiMaggio catches a Gene Hermanski long line-drive “like a well-fed banquet guest.” A lake is described as “flat as a fried egg”; fog at the 1978 World Cup tournament in Fort Lauderdale looks as if “a grey souffle garnished the fairway.” He refers to a 12-pound trout he himself caught as “broad-shouldered, magnificently colored, and splendidly deep, like Jane Russell”—which, even if it doesn’t quite work, is amusing nonetheless.
Many of these columns were written before the age of television, when sportswriters can assume that readers have already seen the game being written about, so Smith had to expend much of his space on recounting games. In a column from 1944, he felt the need to describe every touchdown in Army’s 59-0 win over Notre Dame. He chronicled action more than personalities. Thus, he spells out the trajectory of a Jim Hickman homer in a 1963 Mets-Braves game: “A high fly to left, curling toward the foul line, arching toward the stands, sailing, sinking—in for a grand slam.”
Many of his best columns were tributes to older ballplayers: Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Babe Ruth. Some turned on an anecdote or joke. One such tells the old story about the punter who reverently asks God’s help to bring the horse he has bet on in a winner. As the horse comes down the stretch, leading by two lengths, the punter says, “Thank you, Lord. I’ll take him from here. Come on, you son of a bitch!”
A newspaper column is primarily an instrument of opinionation. Red Smith was never short of opinions, some of them unpredictable. He thought banning the beanball from baseball took an important weapon out of a pitcher’s arsenal. He had memories of Ty Cobb, whose violence on the basepath made Attila the Hun look like Mother Teresa, and felt that removing high slides and other rough play from baseball was in part responsible for the game’s declining attendance. The advent of the designated hitter, he thought, took the element of managing out of the game. He knocked the hype of Super Bowl games, and thought the baseball All Star game a nonevent and “a sorry exercise in huckstering.”
He admired Curt Flood, the man who made free-agency in baseball possible, and sided against the owners in every dispute they entered into with players. He felt much the same about the International Olympic Committee, whose insensitivity and instinct for always making the wrong decision was flawless. He was never blind to the corruption in college sports, and, quite properly, blamed “the college presidents, the coaches, the registrars, [and] the alumni, who compounded the felony.”
Although he wrote with great admiration for Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and called Willie Mays “the most exciting player of his time,” Red Smith’s candidate for the greatest athlete of his day was the jockey Willie Shoemaker (1931-2003). Smith thought thoroughbred racing the most dangerous of all sports, with the possible exception of rodeo, which he called “the world’s most violent sport.” Shoemaker brought not only bravery but intelligence to horse racing; he was also an all-round athlete, unbeatable at tennis and golf. He also happened to be a gent, which always counted significantly in Red Smith’s reckoning.
He doesn’t come out and say it, but Muhammad Ali may well have been Smith’s candidate for the most overrated athlete of his time. “The boy braggart,” Smith called him. He disliked Ali’s running at the mouth, degrading his opponents, pumping himself up. “If there is any decency in him,” Smith wrote in connection with Ali’s third bout against Joe Frazier (“The Thrilla in Manila”), “he will not bad-mouth Joe Frazier again, for Frazier makes him a real champion. In the ring with Joe, he is a better and braver man than he is with anybody else.” When Ali elected conscientious-objector status in 1966, Smith wrote, in the one jarring political note in the more than 500 pages of American Pastimes, that he made “himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” What Smith would have made of Muhammad Ali today, dragging his Parkinson’s-benumbed body to the Olympics and other sporting spectacles, would have made the subject for a powerful column.
Among the pleasures of American Pastimes is the tour of sports history—in effect, a decade-by-decade highlights show—that the book provides. Red Smith wrote during a time when sports fans knew not only the names of the great racehorses—Whirlaway, Seattle Slew, Citation, Secretariat, War Admiral—but knew their athletic personality as expressed through racetrack performance. His columns record the great prizefights and prizefighters: Joe Louis, Rocky Graziano, Tony Zale, Jersey Joe Walcott, Archie Moore, and others. Writing out of New York, he often wrote about the Yankees and their winning ways: “The dreary, weary, yawning ennui of it.”
The older columns remind one how vastly the money in sports has changed. First prize for the Masters golf tournament in 1946 was $2,500. Smith’s column on Walter Johnson includes a reference to the 1912 Philadelphia Athletics’ “hundred thousand dollar infield,” whereas today, two season box-seat tickets to Yankees games might cost that much. Had he been alive, Red Smith might have put the astonishing sums now earned by athletes in perspective, if that is possible. And it is hard to believe that he would have been anything other than unflinching in his denunciation of athletes who use steroids and other drugs.
Smith was said to have been highly irritated when, in 1956, the first Pulitzer Prize for sportswriting went to Arthur Daley of the New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize committee must have been puffing on the same stuff the Nobel Prize committee did when, in 1901, it passed over Leo Tolstoy for the prize in literature and gave it to Sully Prudhomme. Smith won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976. But he also won something much greater. Through his carefully crafted prose, always turned out under deadline pressure, he won for his best columns a life that has lasted long after he, much to the regret of his readers, departed the planet.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.