Walter Wellesley Smith, a k a Red Smith, was an uncommonly graceful prose stylist who wrote about sports for five and a half decades, in the process gaining a reputation as the most accomplished journalist the sports pages have published. His finest hours came in the two decades his column appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, when he gained a national reputation among readers -- and veneration from his fellow journalists -- for writing that was consistently witty, literate and knowledgeable, though it was not until after he had joined The New York Times that he won his Pulitzer Prize for commentary, in 1976, at the time only the second awarded to a sportswriter.
By virtually all accounts Smith was a decent man as well as a skillful writer. He was a loyal member of the sportswriting fraternity -- fraternity it most emphatically was during his day -- who drank with the boys, swapped stories tall and short, idled away the long press box hours with banter and repartee, and remained devoutly loyal to, if often physically distant from, his family. He and his first wife Kay had two children, both of whom remember him with obvious and affecting love; after her premature death from cancer he had the good fortune to find a second wife, Phyllis, who gave him loyal support until his death in 1982 at the age of 76.
Apart from a few details, that is just about it. Like most people who spend their lives with typewriter or pen, Smith did not do much except write; the words, not the life, are what command our attention. Yet no matter how ordinary the life, biography is now obligatory; thus we have "Red," an earnest but pedestrian biography that is padded out to some 300 pages with extracts from Smith's work, recapitulations of events he covered, even personal recollections by the author, whose acquaintance with Smith seems to have been little more than glancing.
For those who insist on details, they are as follows: Smith was born in 1905 in Wisconsin; he seems to have had an exceptionally happy and uneventful childhood. He drifted into newspaper work somewhat by accident, as was often the case in those days, and did time at papers in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Philadelphia before he was hired, in 1945, by Stanley Woodward, the deservedly legendary sports editor of the Herald Tribune. After that paper folded in 1966 he had a bad period -- several people close to him, including his wife, died -- but in 1971 he joined The Times, where he stayed until his own death.
Smith was not a born writer. The examples of his early work quoted in this biography are characteristic of '20s and '30s sports page prose: florid, prolix, cliche'd. But he was a learner. He seems to have been responsive to good editing but, more to the point, he was a hearty reader who studied the excellence of others in order to improve himself. His office and house were cluttered with books, by no means all of them about sports; it was, in fact, his acquaintance with matters beyond the playing field that distinguished him from run-of-the-mill sportswriters and that in large measure accounted for his enthusiastic following among readers not otherwise attracted to the sports pages.
But if Smith was better than anyone else writing sports, he did not regard himself as superior to his subject or his colleagues. He did not think sport was especially important, and he discovered early on that the end of a game is not the end of the world, but he placed a high value on integrity and found it in ample supply at the race track, the ballpark, the fishing hole. Almost to a man, his closest friends were sportswriters: Grantland Rice, Frank Graham, Jimmy Cannon -- he probably was never so happy as he was when in their company, at spring training or a fighter's camp or a classic horse race. One of his friends was Jerome Holtzman, of the Chicago Sun-Times, to whom he made this revealing comment:
"My enthusiasm is self-generating, self-renewing. My life, the way it's been going now, I see very few baseball games in the summer. I'll start with the opening of the season. I'll see the games then, but things like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness get in the way, and lately we've had a home up in Martha's Vineyard, where I like to spend as much of the summer as I can, working from there. By the time the World Series comes along, I may feel that I've had very little baseball for the year. But I find that old enthusiasm renewing itself when I sit there at the playoffs."
Red Smith loved his work; it was as simple as that. More than anything else, perhaps, it was this deep affection for the world of games, and an unabated longing to write about them, that gave his columns such life, that made readers feel they were in the hands of a man who knew and cared about what he was doing. Those who wish to rediscover the pleasures Smith offered are referred to "The Red Smith Reader," a generous collection published in the year of his death; the words still matter.