Red Smith said he wasn't sure he'd go to heaven if he missed his day to write. "Some sins are not forgiven, you know," he said. His voice had a chirp in it, like a bird's happy cry. He was 76 years old, and it was 2 o'clock in the morning after the Dodgers had won the last World Series. Someone brought drinks to the table, two for Red, and this old happy sportswriter lifted a glass. "To tomorrow's column," he said.

Red died yesterday. He once wrote about a friend, John Lardner, who had died at the typewriter. That's the only way to go, Red said. Red's last column ran in The New York Times on Monday, a column in which he announced he would be writing three times a week instead of four. Columnists half Red's age are worn out with three performances a week, but Red, who once wrote seven a week, was worried that three a week didn't give him enough times at bat to make up for the strikeouts.

Only Red Smith thought Red Smith ever struck out. "I'm just a working stiff trying to write better than I can," he said. He wrote beautifully. By the joy of his song, he confirmed his idea that people "go to games to have fun and they read the paper the next morning to have fun again." He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for a series of columns dealing with sports' diverse issues. He juggled for us to make us smile, and he taught us all the while.

In the late 1960s, some kid sportswriters probably dreamed of covering their first Masters golf tournament so they could stand near Arnold Palmer.

I wanted to see Red Smith work.

It was 11:15 on a Tuesday morning.

With my credentials in hand, I stood at the back of the big quonset hut that is the Masters press room. I looked for seat J 15, where the woman checking me in had said Red Smith would be.

A tiny old man sat there. He was putting a piece of paper into his typewriter.

But his hand was shaking so much that instead of threading the paper into the roller with only his left hand, Red needed to use both hands to steady the paper.

The next day, I read the column written by this little old man with the shakes. It looked like it had been handed down by God on a good day.

Ring Lardner, in the 1920s, turned the sports column into a piece of literature. His use of dialect lifted his work beyond sports reporting and, following the thread of his influence, it is right to say Lardner made it possible for Damon Runyon to succeed on the sports page; and if Lardner begat Runyon, Runyon begat Jimmy Cannon, whose highly stylized, tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold columns created a whole generation of sports writers full of darkness.

Red Smith let the sun shine in. Down one side of the old New York Herald Tribune, Cannon wrote of murder; running down the other side, Smith did a lot of what one of his bosses called "godding up these athletes," but Red also was a self-described "aw-nuts scribbler." It just happened that more times than not, Red saw something nice and wrote a poem to it.

Cannon hefted a broadsword, Smith a rapier. His columnist colleague at the New York Times, Dave Anderson, said he never consulted with Red about topics. They never seemed to clash. But when a hockey game was called off, Anderson, desperate for something to write, went to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden. Somehow, Red had been there the day before with plans to write the next day.

"I went to the dog show today," Anderson told Red.

"You son of a bitch," Red said brightly.

He made us proud to be sportswriters. It is no accident that the New York Times' sports department is full of gifted writers. "I am proud of Ira," Smith wrote in the preface to a book by Ira Berkow, not then with the Times, and Berkow said, "For that preface, I'd have written the book for free."

Smith's modesty is legendary.

When the Associated Press Sports Editors made Smith the first winner of a sportswriting award to carry his name, Tom Callahan told the AP people, "You better not give him a plaque."

Callahan, sports editor of Time magazine, had been to Smith's home in Connecticut. "If you give him a plaque," Callahan said, "he'll pry the metal off and use the wood for kindling in his fireplace. He's got a whole box full of metal off plaques."

Red didn't come pick up the award.

If we could all be so courtly, be so economical and light on the typewriter, make the damn machine sing the way Red did, helping a few people smile of a morning and explaining in one-syllable words what Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller are up to--if we could be Red Smith, we would be, and that is his legacy to his craft.

Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" interviewed Red last year. Safer kept asking questions about Red's life work. Didn't he feel he should have dealt with more serious issues?

"The only thing still standing in Rome is the ball park," Red said.

Walter Wellesley Smith, the only man (he said) ever named for two women's colleges, used part of his last column to answer the familiar question of which athlete he liked best. Bill Shoemaker, Red said. And then, looking ahead, the old man wrote the last line, "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."

One of a kind is enough, of course, and one Red Smith was a gift beyond compare. a sportswriting award to carry his name, Tom Callahan told the AP people, "You better not give him a plaque."

Callahan, sports editor of Time magazine, had been to Smith's home in Connecticut. "If you give him a plaque," Callahan said, "he'll pry the metal off and use the wood for kindling in his fireplace. He's got a whole box full of metal off plaques."

Red didn't come pick up the award.

If we could all be so courtly, be so economical and light on the typewriter, make the damn machine sing the way Red did, helping a few people smile of a morning and explaining in one-syllable words what Bowie Kuhn and Marvin Miller are up to--if we could be Red Smith, we would be, and that is his legacy to his craft.

Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" interviewed Red last year. Safer kept asking questions about Red's life work. Didn't he feel he should have dealt with more serious issues?

"The only thing still standing in Rome is the ball park," Red said.

Walter Wellesley Smith, the only man (he said) ever named for two women's colleges, used part of his last column to answer the familiar question of which athlete he liked best. Bill Shoemaker, Red said. And then, looking ahead, the old man wrote the last line, "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."

One of a kind is enough, of course, and one Red Smith was a gift beyond compare.