Red Smith died at noon yesterday, and there has to be a sorrow in the land. He won't write those columns any more, and Red Smith fans are more than saddened, they're deprived. There has been a withdrawal of one of the steady joys of reading the artist at his work. Red wouldn't agree, but he was like that in his persistent modesty. He preferred to call himself a working stiff.
Those, of all persuasions, who had an appreciation of the written word were attracted to him and his facility for using the language. He raised the sports-writing trade to a literacy and elegance it had not known before. Red wouldn't agree to that either, but only the most ungrateful of sportswriters would fail to genuflect to the one-time redhead gone white-haired on the job. He also gave their business class.
None before him had Red's wit and scope. The classical education he got at Notre Dame erupted sometimes in his spouting of Shakespeare's lines at an evening with friends. Occasionally he might quote from a classic in his work, but he shrank at wearing his erudition on his sleeve, and preferred his own turn of phrase, pungent with Smith-ism. As when he called Happy Chandler "the greatest baseball commissioner since Judge Landis," the immediate predecessor.
To those innocents who sometimes would ask him how he had achieved such an easy and bright writing style, Red liked to say, "I was a good speller in school." He didn't want to appear to be a hero to himself, this chap who won all the prizes, Pulitzer, Grantland Rice, you name it, who while working at the job as a sportswriter, transcended it.
He was my friend and Red would be so better at writing this about a friend who died. I've been with him of a night when he had to wrench himself toward the typewriter to deliver the tribute to a friend gone from this life. He agonized over it, and it came out tender.
At his New Canaan, Conn., home, only last week, a visiting photographer was asking Red to pose for a picture for the dustjacket of a most unusual book. It was to be a collection of Red's obituaries of friends, which had appeared in his columns over the years. That any publisher would be that much interested in such stuff came as a surprise to Red, he said.
The same columns that had such easy flow that didn't come easy to Red Smith. He agonized over each one, describing it as "a case of letting little drops of blood in search of the right word, the right pitch. Sometimes rolling my eyes and breaking out into cold sweats, and groaning somewhat, too." In conversation, he liked to deal in such delightful overkill.
Red suspected the gravity of his condition, part kidney failure, and just before being admitted to the hospital in Stamford, Conn., he said to his doctor, "I've had a good run." A bit later, he was saying to his doctor again, "I'd like to go like Granny Rice did, quietly."
Red didn't like to make a fuss about matters unless he felt somebody was getting a raw deal. He could be gentle with sinners and outraged by pompous "fiddle-bottomed" sports officials, who offended his sense of good sense. He defended some boxers and their shenanigans "because it's not a sport for altar boys."
Red always said he didn't want to write as an expert, and never considered himself one. He said he wanted to write and comment as a spectator at the scene. He confessed that he liked baseball best. It was apparent that horse racing was one of his favorites, that boxing held a fascination for him, and that football was all right. He wouldn't touch basketball or winter sports, "because I don't know anything about basketball, and even less about winter things, where you could also freeze your toes off."
At the old New York Herald Tribune, they drafted him at political convention time to apply his wit to the goings on at those proceedings, and nobody out-wrote him. But he rejected all suggestions that he become a political or global columnist because "that's not my cup of tea. I don't know where the political stories are. But as a sportswriter needing something to write on a dull day I know where the dugouts are."
He was often at his best with his descriptive vignettes of fishermen at the streams or hunters in the woods. They were compelling reading even for those who, like Red himself, knew little about either fishing or hunting yet went along. But on a typewriter he could articulate a scene that brought a fish, or mourning dove, to life and their predators to frustration. In his glee.
Even on deadline Red was patient with autograph seekers, young sportswriters asking advice from the master and simple admiring Red Smith fans who wanted to talk. He was a study in modesty, but later at the typewriter he struggled to make up for lost time; the column that would seem later to be written so effortlessly was hard labor for the man of particular words.
This man of charm would, when necessary, take off the gloves and slug it out with any chosen adversary. Bowie Kuhn was a frequent target for letting the World Series go on in freezing weather. Red came out strongly against the U.S. Olympic Committee in urging a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
His syndicated anti-Olympics column was killed by the Times after it had gone out to a few clients, the first time a Smith column ever was embargoed by anybody. The complaint was that Red had taken up a position the Times had not yet fully considered and that Red appeared to be conducting a crusade.
There was a flap across the country about this, but Red finally called the whole thing "a bloody bore." He said, "Us kids should stick to fun and games, I guess, leaving things like Afghanistan invasions to more serious people than sportswriters." He couldn't resist a stinging dig at his bosses, however, adding that in the future "I guess I'll write about the infield fly rule."
Many years ago Red offered an insight into the kind of spoofing he likes when some periodical invited him to write an autobiography and he wrote: "Red Smith, christened Walter Wellesley Smith on a cold day in 1905 in Green Bay, Wis., has been bleeding out a daily sports column for the Herald Tribune for about three years. Previous conditions of servitude have included 10 years at hard labor on the Philadelphia Record, eight years on the St. Louis Star-Times and a year with the Milwaukee Sentinel. He admires sports for others and might have been a great athlete himself except that he is small, puny, slow, inept, uncoordinated, myopic and yellow. He is the proprietor of two small children, one large mortgage."
And the owner of a place in the hearts and the memory of so many who were his admirers, and his friends. I'd like to say thanks, old buddy, for passing through.