Red Smith Made It Look Easy

Columbia Journalism Review

“Give us this day our daily plinth,” my father, Red Smith, and his pal, Joe Palmer, the racing columnist, would pray, one with a scotch and soda in hand, the other bourbon and branch water, as they convened in Palmer’s book-lined study at the end of a day. It was their private joke–a plinth is the base of a column–but the prayer was fervent. My father’s search for his plinth was unending.

Walter Wellesley (Red) Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin on September 25, 1905. He decided early on that he wanted to go to Notre Dame and become a newspaperman, just the way an older kid he admired had done, so he did. Simple as that. New York was always his goal, but his route was roundabout: The Milwaukee Sentinel, The St. Louis Star, The Philadelphia Record, and, finally, the big time: the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Along the way, he must have written thousands of sports columns, becoming arguably the best in the business, right up until his death in 1982. Now a new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, is being published by Library of America.

In my memory, Pop was always writing a column, in a press box at the ballpark or racetrack, in his basement office at home, in a plane or train, or in the family car on summer vacation trips to Wisconsin. He would balance his Olivetti portable on his knees in the passenger seat, typing as my mother drove, shushing my sister, Kit, and me in the back seat. Once, when we moved into our house in Connecticut, he had the movers set up a table and chair beneath a tree and wrote a column there. It was moving day, but his deadline was looming, as always.

The columns, including those so ably collected in American Pastimes, were his métier, although he would have sneered at that word. The form suited him. He was good at capturing an event or a thought or a story in 800 words or so, often with an elegant phrase or a snatch of dialogue or the perfect anecdote. He demurred repeatedly when people urged him to write a full-length book about sports or anything else. “I’d rather go to the dentist,” he’d say.

Later in life, the suggestion of a biography or, worse yet, an autobiography, was dismissed out of hand. “To be written about is to be written off,” he told me more than once. That’s not true, of course, but it revealed his lifelong anxiety about being passed over or forgotten.

Even when he had become the most widely read sports columnist in the country and collected his share of awards, he worried aloud, at least to me, about whether his contract would be renewed, whether the paper would want someone else, someone younger and fresher, to take his place. He always described himself as “a working stiff.” That was one reason he always took the side of baseball players in their salary and contract disputes with owners. He saw himself as a performer, never an owner.

The column was his contract with life. As long as he was writing it, he felt he was in the center of things, that he still mattered. That’s why he kept at it until the week he died. As long as he was writing, he was part of the world he had lived and loved. Newspapermen were not just his colleagues, they were the best of his friends, the people he chose to spend time with, on and off the beat.

The annual sports calendar provided his material and often established our family’s rituals: spring training in Florida, the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, then the Preakness in Baltimore, the Belmont in New York, Saratoga in August, baseball through the summer, the World Series and college football in the fall, heavyweight championship fights, and, every four years, the Olympic Games. It made for an intoxicating mix.

Curiously, for all the pleasure he took in it, he was an accidental sportswriter. As he told the story, he was a junior man on the news copy desk at The St. Louis Star, just a few years into his career, making about $40 a week, when the editor, the redoubtable Frank Taylor, discovered that half his six-man sports staff was on the take from a local fight promoter and fired them. Looking around for a replacement, he called my father over and supposedly the following conversation ensued:

TAYLOR: Do you know anything about sports, Smith?
SMITH: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
TAYLOR: They tell me you’re very good on football.
SMITH: Well, if you say so.
TAYLOR: Are you honest?
SMITH: I hope so, sir.
TAYLOR: What if a fight promoter offered you $10, would you take it?
SMITH (long pause): $10 is a lot of money, sir.
TAYLOR: Report to the sports editor Monday.

Once he got into it, he relished writing sports and thought it was as good a vehicle as any to shed some light on the human condition. “I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world,” he said in an interview years later. “I feel that keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. Sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed, and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
But during World War II, when he was the father of two and 4-F because of his eyesight and covering “games children play” for The Philadelphia Record while others were at the front, he admitted to a “desperate feeling of being useless.”

“I was traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics,” he recalled, “and more than once, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” He comforted himself with the published report that FDR thought sports were important for morale. Readers, he said, could read the war news first and then turn to sports to get updated on what he described as “matters of major inconsequence.”

Pop roamed off the sports beat occasionally, covering the national political conventions in 1956 and 1968, but when invited to expand his column to politics and world affairs, as James “Scotty” Reston and others had done before him, he declined. Same answer when he was asked to become the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. No, he said, the column was his thing, the one thing he did best. He’d stick with it. I think he would have been a good editor, maybe even exceptionally good, but he was not drawn to management and titles never interested him.

He defined himself as a newspaperman, not a sportswriter or columnist. “I’d like to be remembered as a good reporter,” he said in more than one interview, and he meant the much-advertised romance of journalism was real to him, as real in his seventies as it was when he left Green Bay, Wisconsin, for his string of newspaper jobs. Until he reached The New York Times, already at normal retirement age, he had always worked for the second newspaper in a city. “I killed ‘em all,” he’d say with a smile.

He was often described as modest and unassuming, and he did adopt an aw-shucks diffidence in the face of prizes and praise. It wasn’t exactly an act; he thought he was lucky to have had the chance to do all that he did. But he worked devilishly hard, took his writing, if not himself, seriously, constantly sought to be better, and bathed in the admiration he received, especially from colleagues. As Daniel Okrent notes in the introduction to American Pastimes, he was stung when Arthur Daley won the Pulitzer before he did, and he often dismissed the prize as a sop given by the journalistic old-boy network to its favorites on the establishment papers.

Until he won his own Pulitzer, that is, on May 3, 1976, at age seventy.

I was the New York Times correspondent in Israel at the time. When I reached him on the phone in the midst of a newsroom celebration, champagne corks popping in the background, I dead-panned: “You’ll refuse it, of course.” He lowered his voice and growled into the mouthpiece: “Not on your life!” We both laughed our heads off. I was enormously pleased, and so was he.

Pop enjoyed great good health for all but the last few of his seventy-six years. Again, he was lucky, given all the late nights, booze, and decades of unfiltered Camels. His idea of a good time was to sit late at Toots Shor’s saloon, trading stories with the parade of writers, ballplayers, fighters, mobsters, politicians, and hacks that would come by his table during the course of a night. He was successful financially, but his real definition of economic well-being was to have enough money to be able to grab the check for the table at Shor’s on occasion and not break the bank in the process.

He loved his life, had two kids and two good marriages, and lived long enough to know his six grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren and to take my son, Chris, fishing for the first time in his life. They laughed together and Chris caught a fish. That sunny day on Martha’s Vineyard became grist for a column, of course, his plinth for the day.

When his health was failing near the end, he struggled to overcome the congestive heart failure and kidney disease that would take his life. He wanted to get better, he said; the Super Bowl was coming up and he wanted to cover it, to write another column, a good column, and then another after that, and make that one better. Spring training was not that far away.

But if he didn’t get better, he told me, he had no complaints.

“I’ve had a great run,” he said.

And he did.

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