September 25th, 2005
By Terence Smith
Shady Side, MD
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my father, Red Smith, the late sports columnist for The New York Times.
He was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, September 25, 1905, and died in 1982 at the age of 76. He spent 55 of those years as a newspaperman, mostly in sports, writing for papers in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia and finally in what he always considered to be the big time, New York.
He maintained that, save The Times, he killed every paper he ever worked for. Indeed, they are all either gone or merged, including The New York Herald Tribune, although I am not sure he can be blamed for burying all of them. At the age of 70, writing for The Times, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1976.
To mark his centennial, my sister, Kit O’Meara, and I decided we would get together and do something he would have enjoyed: go to a ballgame. The National League was his favorite, so the choice was obvious. At 1:05 this afternoon, Kit and I, together with our spouses and my daughter, Elizabeth Smith, will be in RFK stadium, watching the Washington Nationals wrap up their series with the Mets.
“Remember,” Kit said, “how bereft he was when the Giants and Dodgers quit New York, leaving only the Yankees for him to cover?” (“Rooting for the Yankees,” he used to say, “makes about as much sense as rooting for United States Steel.”)
“And remember,” Kit went on, “how tickled he was when The Mets came to town and made such good copy?” In fact, the Amazin’ Mets, with Casey Stengel as the resident poet and philosopher, gave him scores of wonderful columns. The National League was back in New York and life was good.
With his centennial approaching, Kit and I began to muse about what he would have thought about the sports world today. It was more than a beat to him. He was a fan as well as a professional observer. It is not too hard to guess what he would have thought.
I am certain he would be astonished — nothing less — by the money in sports today. The idea of television contracts for major league baseball and football being measured in the billions, the notion that individual franchises, like the Yankees or the Washington Redskins, could be valued at over a billion dollars, the fact that individual players could have multi-year contracts equivalent to the budget of a small city — all this would seem Orwellian to him.
And yet, I don’t think he would dispute that the real stars were worth whatever the market will bear. In column after column, he took the side of the players in their disputes with the owners. In 1969, he wrote supportively of Curt Flood, when the Flood chose to holdout against Baseball’s reserve clause when he was traded against his will from St. Louis, where he had played for a dozen years, to Philadelphia.
“Curtis Charles Flood is a man of character and self-respect,” Red wrote. “Being black, he is more sensitive than most white players about the institution of slavery as it exists in professional baseball.” He described baseball’s initial response to Flood’s request to be eligible to play for any team as…”Run along, sonny, you bother me.”
Would he have extended underdog status to today’s baseball holdouts, with their huge salaries and aggressive agents and rampant free-agency? To be consistent, I think he would have had to swallow hard and say yes, the stars bring in the fans and the money, so they are worth whatever they can negotiate.
Kit is not so sure, but adds: “Whatever he thought of the players, he would have had a hard time viewing today’s sports owners as underprivileged or under-compensated.”
But we both agree that he would have been shocked at the dollar signs involved. After all, he wrote more than once, “Sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play.”
And what would he have thought of the steroid scandals that have dominated the headlines this year? Kit and I are convinced that he would have hated them as a threat to the integrity of the sport he loved.
Another frightful development, in his likely view, would have been the emergence of sports talk radio and the ubiquitous shouting that dominates most sports broadcasting these days. But here is his dirty little secret: he would have listened and watched anyway, no doubt talking back to the television just as he used to do whenever Howard Cosell was pontificating. And shamelessly, he would have stolen material for his column.
But there is much about sports today that he would have applauded. He would have rejoiced in some of the spectacular individual performances — a Tiger Woods, for example, or a Roger Clemens, or a Peyton Manning or the Williams sisters. Are they better than the stars of his day? We doubt he would have cared one way or the other.
Two sports he relished (partly because they made such great copy,) were thoroughbred racing and boxing. Doubtless he would be dismayed by the disintegration of the fight game today and the fact that racing survives more on slot machines and simulcasts than what happens on the track.
He loved this time of the year, because it brought football. His preference was always the college game over the pros — he had more fun watching Harvard battle Yale in “the game” than enduring the hype surrounding the “stuporbowl,” as he dubbed it. And so he probably would have applauded the college bowl championship series, for all its flaws, because it puts the football spotlight back where he thought it belonged.
As an early feminist in a man’s sports world, he would have celebrated the emergence of women and women’s sports today. He also championed the rights of women reporters to the locker room, on the grounds that it leveled the journalistic playing field.
Kit and I think he would have appreciated much of what appears in the sports pages today. The best columnists are as good as any in the so-called Golden Age, and he would have taken pleasure in the way they go about what he always described as “the best job in the world.”
But mainly he would have enjoyed the chance to come along today to RFK, to watch the Nationals and the Mets play in the sunshine, to feel the pulse of the pennant races quicken and the momentum build towards the World Series. That’s the way he would have wanted to spend the day.