“ENGLAND'S BIGGEST TRACK MEET in 40 years opened this afternoon with a pageant of nationalism, an orgy of oratory and a paroxysm of symbolism but no running, jumping or bulging of the biceps.” That’s the way Red Smith opened his column on the Opening Ceremony at the London Olympics before last, 65 years ago. Smith, underwhelmed but not cynical, deadpans his way through the description of what was, even then, an overwrought spectacle:
Out of a runway at the east end of the oval came a Boy Scout with bare knees and a sign reading “Greece.” [...] [The King] looked on while trumpeters trumpeted, speakers spoke, and attendants released a great mess of caged pigeons, which zoomed and swooped over eighty-two thousand unprotected skulls.
Smith disputes the number of pigeons — the Olympic organizers claimed 7,000; he says 2,000 — which allows him to drop an oblique reminder that the host country was still licking its World War II wounds: “Chances are the brass didn’t dare turn loose that many squab in this hungry nation.” At last, the torch is lit, and Smith puts a button on the whole shebang: “The crowd made with the tonsils. It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.”
With its evocation of Shakespearean comedy and its note of tempered approval not overwhelmed by enthusiasm, “You had to like it” would have been an apt alternate title for the Library of America’s American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith. Edited by Daniel Okrent, the collection does not give the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter the classic LoA treatment: the black dust jacket is replaced by a handsome cream cover, with photos of Smith’s two favorite sports — baseball and horse racing — replacing the usual author portrait. But that’s packaging. Whether he got in through the side door or no, Smith has entered the canon now. What made Red Smith good, and what makes him last?
In his introduction, Okrent recalls an anecdote from Smith’s early days on the New York Herald Tribune. When Smith asked his boss, Stanley Woodward, what he was supposed to cover at the World Series, Woodward said to “write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway.” As Okrent points out, that advice gave Smith the freedom not to quote the day’s hero on how he “just saw my pitch and hit it” or how the manager planned to approach the schedule over the next month (one game at a time, naturally). This means that today’s reader does not have to wade through play-by-play of 65-year-old regular-season games.
Sly, sidelong, and un-self-serious, Smith approached sports from an oblique angle. “An intense focus on the sideshow to the main event was essential to Smith’s craft,” Okrent says. So, when Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, Smith ends his column thusly:
In the confusion, Benny Weinrig won $9. Benny is press-box steward in Ebbets Field. Whenever the Dodgers or their opponents are hitless for three innings, somebody starts a pool on the first hit. If nobody wins, Benny gets the swag.
Benny loves the Dodgers. To him, this was blood money.
This lacks the gravitas of Jimmy Breslin’s interview with JFK’s gravedigger, but the principle’s the same: with everyone focused on history, Smith points his spotlight just offstage.
Okrent has grouped Smith’s columns into nine sections: four covering five decades of baseball (1934–1981!), two on fishing (about which the less said, the better), and the remainder dedicated to “Sports in the Forties,” “Fifties,” “Sixties,” and “Seventies.” The comprehensiveness of those latter titles might seem a bit of editorial hubris, but they’re not. This collection, while not an almanac of champions, is a pretty fair overview as a history of about 50 years’ worth of 20th-century athletics. After all, here’s a writer who eulogized Babe Ruth, was in the press box for Bobby Thomson’s shot heard 'round the world, Joe DiMaggio’s last game, the Munich Olympics, the Thrilla in Manila, Secretariat’s Triple Crown races, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line, and so on.
One near-constant is Smith’s intolerance of cliché. Smith was often the last man out of the press box as he tried to come up with something new to say. For his trouble, we get a minor-league shortstop who’s “slightly larger than a growler of beer”; a Rhode Island State point guard described as “a gaunt young case of malnutrition”; and Harry Truman, two weeks removed from his 1948 upset over Dewey, referred to as a “former haberdasher and prominent fancier of hopeless causes.”
Sometimes, Smith took direct aim at the idiocy of journalism, as in a delightful column from Opening Day 1953, when he purports to have obtained the transcript of a sports editor’s interview of a would-be writer. The resulting catechism is a catalog of the hoariest of baseball clichés:
Q:[…] And what is the game played on?
A: It is played on the velvety sward.
Q: Identify the home team.
A: Our heroes.
Q: And they oppose?
A: The hated visitors.
It goes on like this until the prospective reporter is unable to come up with “twin killing” to describe a double play, at which point the editor decides, “Maybe I don’t need a new baseball writer.”
Smith’s assault on sports clichés is particularly interesting in light of his friendship with Grantland Rice, who invented most of them. Smith eulogized Rice in at least four separate columns (none of them appear here, but they can be found in To Absent Friends , a remarkable collection of 182 Smith-penned obituaries). Not one of those four praises Rice’s writing; Smith hails the “great man” for his humility, his knack for picking up the check, his general menschiness, but never cites a sentence Rice wrote. From the first table at Toots Shor’s, Smith drank with Rice and the rest of the nationally syndicated New York sports columnists, as well as commissioners, umpires, players, and trainers — everyone he covered except the horses. Despite this coziness, Smith avoided what Deadspin’s John Koblin, borrowing a term from Joan Didion, recently identified in Sports Illustrated’s Peter King: “the deferential spirit.”
Despite this access, Smith never prized chumminess over an honest take. Of the then-commissioner of baseball, Smith said, “Bowie Kuhn doesn’t tell you anything, so I don’t know whether he lies or not.” He took the baseball owners to task for their complicity with Jim Crow as well as the reserve clause. He seared the US Olympic Committee for its punishment of Tommie Smith and John Carlos after their raised-fist protests at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics: the USOC didn’t know the difference between “politics and human rights.” At the Munich Olympics in 1972, site of Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes, Smith allowed that “[t]he men who run the Olympics are not evil men. Their shocking lack of awareness can’t be due to callousness. It has to be stupidity.” While he could never square his love of boxing with its inherent dangers, Smith was mostly on the right side of history, even when conventional wisdom was not.
More staggering still, in today’s sports media landscape of constant confident assertion, is the fact that Smith could and did admit when he was wrong. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in 1964, Smith described Clay’s harangue of the reporters who had doubted him this way:
“Eat your words,” he howled to the working press rows. “Eat your words.”
Nobody ever had a better right. In a mouth still dry from the excitement [...] the words don’t taste good, but they taste better than they read.
Only two quibbles prevented my unfettered enjoyment of this volume. The minor one involves sloppy copyediting, which isn’t something I’d worry about all that often, but from the Library of America, whose express purpose is to provide canon fodder, you expect better. Smith probably wrote about Joe Louis a hundred times; he knew how to spell the champ’s name. So when, in a 1975 column on Ali-Frazier, Smith refers to the famous Lewis-Schmeling fights, you figure that got through a spellcheck at the LoA. This one is tricky, but Jim Kiick (two “i”s), not “Klick”, was the third-best back on the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, and the Hall of Fame Giants outfielder was Monte Irvin, not “Monty.” And those are just the gaffes I caught.
The major quibble still nags at me, as it will at any writer or reader of contemporary journalism. Among the many Smith columns I’ve loved are those in which he lets someone else, a horse trainer or bullpen coach or some other boulevardier, tell a great story. There’s one in this volume from 1947, in which Smith quotes the former Washington Senators pitcher, major league coach, and restaurateur Al Schacht at length. Sixteen words out of around 800 are not enclosed in quotation marks. Smith, apparently, just let the tape roll.
Except there was no tape, at least if Okrent’s assertion in the introduction is accurate. “For Smith,” Okrent writes, “an interview was a conversation, less question-and-answer exercise than bantering dialogue, and never made formal or self-conscious by the intrusion of pen, steno pad, or tape recorder. He never took notes.” He never took notes! How would this interview-as-conversation defense have gone down if, say, David Carr had used it when Okrent worked as the public editor over at The New York Times? And yet such looseness is apparently allowable in Smith’s case: “From each conversation he would preserve the salient quotes, the sound of a voice, the revealing facial expression — all the elements needed to fashion a full character.”
Now, I don’t know that Al Schacht didn’t utter each of the several hundred words in the very order in which Smith placed them in quotation marks. I do know that I’m not reassured when Okrent calls on noted press critic Don Shula for further evidence: “‘In contrast to the modern sportswriters who can’t live without tape recorders,’ Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula once said, ‘Red Smith wrote accurately from memory.’” What this quote actually tells me is that Smith either never pissed Shula off, or that the old coach went soft with nostalgia. I don’t want to let Smith off the hook with the old “another era” excuse, but I don’t know what else to do. I don’t think he was making stuff up, but it’s hard to believe the Schacht column would meet today’s standards. As I flail, I cling to Times’ columnist Dave Anderson’s introduction to To Absent Friends, in which he attests to Smith’s prodigious memory: when he was young, he knew “all 101 verses of the Rubaiyat” and “[h]is memory was better than a computer’s.” So, okay, it’s possible that Smith was able to remember the best snippets of a boozy conversation with a raconteur and then reproduce them, in order, for his column. Yeah, yeah, I know: the words taste better than they read.
Ah, but I can’t end here. I don’t know whether or not Smith had a virtual Dictaphone in his head, I do know he had an eye behind his thick glasses. It’s Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, the one Bill Mazeroski would win for Pittsburgh in most dramatic fashion, with a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth. But Smith knows his colleagues will write up the game’s result. He keeps his gaze on the New York dugout, where he figures Casey Stengel, 70, is managing his last game for the Yankees. Smith gives a brief retrospective of Stengel’s Yankee career, while he keeps the reader abreast of the game’s several lead changes. Smith ends his column before the game’s dramatic denouement, by telling us the Yanks tied things up in the top of the ninth: “Casey’s old heart sang. A swan song? A brief song, and how. Mazeroski was up first for Pittsburgh.”