The temperature seemed to drop 40 degrees when I heard Red Smith had died. The chill reminded me of another very cold day, one we spent together.
It was January 1976. Red was in Pittsburgh to cover the AFC championship game between the Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. I was in Pittsburgh to cover Red Smith.
I was in journalism school, writing my master's essay about the best sportswriter America ever had. "Well, Jane," he said, the first time I spoke to him, "I think it's a lousy idea. But if you want to do it, it's okay with me."
Red had given up his seat in the heated football press box to sit outside with me. He noted the temperature (16 degrees) and the unlined boots on my feet. We watched the second half inside on TV.
I was too inexperienced to know how extraordinary that was for a writer on deadline to do, how perfectly ordinary the kindness was for Red.
After the game, Red and the rest of the horde followed the Steelers to the winners' locker room. A lanky Pinkerton guard stood watch outside the Raiders' door. I ventured forward. "Ladies Day today?" I asked. This was in the day when ladies did not go into locker rooms.
"Got credentials?" he replied. A yellow tag dangled from my coat. It said: Red Smith, New York Times. "You're Red Smith?" he said. I nodded as modestly as I knew Red would. "Go right in."
John Madden, the coach, looked up, glaring at the Pinkerton. "Who the hell is she?" he said.
"Don't worry about her," the guard replied. "She's Red Smith."
It was the last time I was thrown out of a locker room.
A lot of writers wanted to be Red Smith, to be as good as he was. That was impossible. Knowing him was enough.
In the beginning, we would sit in the barn behind his house and talk about writing, why he put a comma here, broke a sentence there. He had no answers to my questions. "Once I was asking the old boxer, Willie Pep, where he got his moves," Red said. "And my friend, Bill Heinz, looked at me and said, 'You silly son-of-a-bitch, can you say where you learned to write?' "
But I knew he knew, so I sent him stories to edit, as did so many other young writers. And it never failed to amaze me that he found time for so many of us. He would mark up the stories (never in red pen, that was for editors), apologizing in the margins for the changes he had made. One came back with the word "swell" on it. That didn't begin to describe how I felt.
One night, he came to dinner. Billie Jean King, who was then my boss at womenSports Magazine, wanted to meet him. She came dressed in cashmere, dripping jewelry. Red came, as usual, in a pink shirt and a burgundy tie. I was expecting fireworks. They hardly spoke. Both were so shy.
When Red and his wife Phyllis, whom he always called "my bride," got up to leave, Billie Jean stood, too. Looking down at her hand-made boots, she said in a little girl voice, "It was an honor to meet you, Mr. Smith. I've admired you for a very long time."
Red was uncomfortable, as he usually was among gushing admirers. But he didn't squirm when he won the Pulitzer in 1976. "You get awful tired," he said, "scuffing your feet in the dust and saying, 'Aw, gee.' "
Billie Jean's magazine folded, and I became a free-lancer for awhile. One day at Yankee Stadium, I needed to get into the locker room. Women still were not allowed. Red, who called himself a boy reporter and thought girls had no business in there, said, "Don't worry, I'll do your leg work for you."
Twenty minutes later, he returned with five pages of notes. He never took any for himself. He always said just listen for the key words of a sentence, for the way people talk. Red wrote the way he talked. Just listening to him, and the voice he called the croak of an old crock, you learned about words, about decency, about modesty.
Their first day in the Philippines for the Thrilla in Manila, Dave Anderson, Red's colleague at the Times, found him wandering about the corridors of their hotel. Red was distraught and, opening the door to his palatial suite, he showed Anderson why. "He looks at me," Anderson said, a few years back, "and says, 'You know, Dave, I really hate this dean treatment.' "
One night during the World Series in October, the interview room at Yankee Stadium caught fire. This was enough to make Red rejoice. He did a lot of rejoicing. He was unambivalent about what he did and the people he did it with. That was why he was still there at 2 a.m., although he did not have to be, getting ready to catch a charter flight to Los Angeles with the other reporters. There's no dean treatment on a red-eye.
The last time we spoke, they were taking some pictures for the jacket of a new book, a collection of obituaries he had written about his friends. "A bunch of stiffs," he said.
"I'm awfully tired of writing obituaries for people I care about," he said a few years ago. "But I know what the alternative is and I don't care for that, either."
I don't care much for writing this. But I know what Red would say. It's fine, Jane, but it's too long.