The words “greatest,” “American” and “sportswriter” seem to have affixed themselves to the name of Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith indelibly and eternally. No doubt in Smith’s case this will be reinforced with the publication of “American Pastimes,” not so much because it is an exhaustive compendium of what are represented as his best columns — a half-dozen such books were published during his lifetime or immediately after his death in 1982 — but because it has the imprimatur of the Library of America, which claims to publish “America’s best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions.”
Ah, but as we’d say in the sort of novels that don’t get published in the Library of America, “Whoa there, hoss!” For it turns out that Smith has been thrown what he certainly would recognize as a curve: “American Pastimes” is not a certifiable Library of America “classic,” with the familiar discreet black dust wrapper, acid-free paper and red cloth page marker, but “A Special Publication of the Library of America,” with an ordinary commercial dust wrapper, ordinary paper and no page marker. Red Smith, in other words, has been admitted to the Library of America on sufferance, not as certifiably major league but as somewhere in the high minors: one of those guys who spends his entire career bouncing between AA and AAA, getting the proverbial cup of coffee in the bigs but never making it longer than a handful of games with the Big Club.
Smith, a witty and self-mocking man but also a proud one, would not have been fooled by any of this. He would have been delighted to see his work back in the bookstores, but he would have known that he was getting in through the back door. Daniel Okrent tells us in his useful introduction to this volume that Smith reacted sarcastically when, in 1956, his contemporary Arthur Daley of the New York Times, one of the most pompous and self-satisfied journalists ever to sit in front of a typewriter, became the first sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize. (Smith had to wait two full decades to win his own.) So Smith probably would have recognized “American Pastimes” for what it seems to be: a somewhat backhanded compliment.
On the other hand, it would have delighted Smith to learn that this fall Ring Lardner, whom as a young sportswriter he worshiped (“One of my earliest heroes was Ring Lardner”), will be admitted to the Library of America as a full member in good standing. This is about as overdue as it could be, but it corrects a long-standing injustice, and it underscores the ways in which writing about sports has contributed so much to our literature. Very few sports journalists have reached Smith’s level — though no one has ever written as well about baseball as Roger Angell did in the 1960s and ’70s, and for a while in the same period the staff of Sports Illustrated included the likes of Roy Blount Jr., Robert Creamer, Frank Deford and Ron Fimrite — but Lardner showed how sport, baseball most particularly, was central to the American character, and Smith learned that lesson well.
As Smith’s son Terence, himself a distinguished journalist, says in a brief, affectionate afterword to this collection, his father was a columnist pure and simple, a master of the 800-word “plinth,” as he was amused to call his column, with no pretensions or desires to be otherwise. Born in Green Bay, Wis., in 1905, he did a prolonged journalistic apprenticeship before finally reaching the New York Herald Tribune in 1945, where he stayed until the paper’s demise in 1967 (by then it had been folded into what was called the World-Journal-Tribune), after which he floundered around until being taken in by the New York Times in 1971, where, as Okrent correctly writes, “he was, immediately and obviously, the best writer in the paper.” His last column for the Gray Lady was published on Jan. 11, 1982, and four days later he died.
Smith’s 22 years with the Trib are almost universally regarded as his personal golden age, and with reason. The best pieces in this collection come from that period. At the Trib he worked under the legendary (no other word will do) Stanley Woodward, the best sports editor ever to wield a blue pencil and the author of the classic newspaper memoir“Paper Tiger” (1964), in which among many other things he tells how he lured Smith away from the Philadelphia Record and how he remained forever amazed that no other New York paper had tried to snatch him up. With Smith’s arrival the Trib’s sports page almost immediately became what Woodward aimed it to be — the best anywhere — and it remained just that until the harsh economic realities of the 1960s did the paper in.
As the paper’s star columnist, Smith covered just about everything, though he hated basketball (he “would rather drink a Bronx cocktail than speak well of basketball”), wasn’t especially interested in ice hockey or golf, and though he enjoyed watching intercollegiate football, was deeply skeptical “about the trapping and care and feeding of athletes, about slipping them through phony courses so they could make headlines and profits for the college with no danger of intellectual pursuits distracting them from the main job.” Those words were written in 1951; it took something on the order of a quarter-century for a few others to awaken to that unpleasant truth, and of course to date almost no one has done anything except make the situation even worse.
Smith was an honest man who couldn’t stand hypocrisy and self-righteousness. He loved boxing and the characters who inhabited its world, and he wrote affectionately about many of them, notably Joe Louis and Archie Moore, but he loved it without illusions. After the death of Benny Paret in April 1962 in a fight against Emile Griffith — a fight I all too well remember watching, in horror, as it unfolded on television — he wrote: “To me boxing is a rough, dangerous and thrilling sport, the most basic and natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions.”At the same time he had “no quarrel . . . with those who sincerely regard it as a vicious business that should have no place in a civilized society,” but he loathed “the part-time bleeding hearts, the professional sob sisters of press and politics and radio who seize these opportunities to parade their own nobility, demonstrate their own eloquence, and incidentally stir the emotions of a few readers, voters, or listeners.”
Smith hated the “stupidity” of “the men who run the Olympics”; he saw the move of the Dodgers and the Giants to California as “an unrelieved calamity, a grievous loss to [New York] and to baseball . . . an indictment of the men operating the clubs and the men governing the city”; he loathed the plantation mentality of baseball’s owners, whose “reaction to unrest down in the slave cabins” — i.e., Curt Flood’s attack on the reserve clause binding “the player to his employer through his professional life” — was to wink and carry on business as usual. Yet he didn’t let the stupidity and venality of owners, politicians and other ne’er-do-wells blind him to the innate beauty of the sports under their control, and he wrote glowingly about the games and those who played them.
There are lovely pieces here about any number of people: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Shoemaker, Yogi Berra (“the keystone, the binder, the adhesive element that has held [the Yankees] together”), the great horses Seabiscuit and Secretariat. Driving “the fifteen-hundred-mile route from New York to Miami” to cover spring training in 1955, he was surprised to see not a single baseball game being played within view of the road and wondered if this meant the national pastime was beginning to lose its grip. He mused:
“The only reason baseball is our national sport, instead of cricket or soccer, is that practically all American males play baseball or its equivalent — stickball on the city streets, softball on the school yards — when they are young. When they grow up they go watch the games, not so much to enjoy the thrill of appreciation that anybody must feel seeing a Phil Rizzuto scoop up a grounder and get rid of the ball in one fluid motion, but more because the spectacle restores their youth, warms them with nostalgic memories of the fun they had as kids.”
Smith was no sentimentalist, but he knew honest, heartfelt emotions for what they are and wasn’t ashamed to set them down on paper. There was no one like him while he was around, and there hasn’t been anyone like him since.
The Very Best of Red Smith
Edited by Daniel Okrent
Library of America. 560 pp. $29.95