Master of the Games
The shrewd eye, and elegant prose, of Red Smith.
Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.