IT WAS ANYTHING but the perfunctory rites of his colleagues that prompted so many moving tributes in the newspapers of this country to sportswriter Red Smith, who died Friday at the age of 76. Certainly, Mr. Smith was the dean of this group --just as he was the undisputed master of his craft. But as those who worked alongside him were to explain so movingly, this literate, gifted writer was foremost a man of legendary modesty and kindness, whose love of journalism reached out to give help to his co-workers--and class to his profession.

Though there has never been a prohibition against literacy in the chronicling or analysis of sports, Mr. Smith brought unprecedented literacy and elegance to the trade. He was never pompous but always erudite in his incisive essays on the people and events he covered for The New York Times and before that for the Publishers Newspaper Syndicate, the New York Herald Tribune and the Philadelphia Record.

Despite Mr. Smith's modest denials of his exceptional skills, the polish of these essays came phenomenally easily to his typewriter and his readers: he churned out seven columns a week in Philadelphia, and only this month announced in The Times that he would reduce his four-a-week Pulitzer-prize- winning output to three. While co-workers and competitors watched and read with awe, Mr. Smith was the literary artist at work--though he would put it differently: "I'm just a working stiff trying to write better than I can."

The wit and pleasure so evident in Red Smith's columns was made neither of exaggerated reverence for the sporting world nor of sarcastic disdain. Mr. Smith sought to write and comment as a spectator, not as an expert or even a connoisseur of every sport. He raised hell on occasion, but never lost his sense of humor or his modesty.

Dave Anderson, also a sports columnist for the Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, put it squarely and well when he said of Mr. Smith that "he did what he always wanted to do and he did it better than anybody. He was the best sportswriter we ever had."

And the best journalist his colleagues could ever have.