Seymour Smith: great legend, greater man

MIKE LITTWIN

November 21, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

It isn't just because he once kidnapped a general that you should know about Seymour Smith or because when Wes Unseld went into the Hall of Fame, there was Smith sitting at his table or even because he can read type upside down. No, the reason you should know about Smith is that when he retires today, after working at The Baltimore Sun for 40-plus years, no one will have ever said an unkind word about him. It must be a record.

Smith joined The Sun in 1944, at age 16, as a wide-eyed copy boy in the pre-computer, pre-television glory days when city rooms didn't look like insurance offices and when, inside a man's desk, there was as likely to be a bottle of gin as there was a dictionary. Newspapers presented a great opportunity to work long hours, but with low pay and at some risk to your liver. No

wonder he misses it already.

"Maybe it's because I'm older," Smith says, "but it was romantic in the old days. It was like something out of an Edward G. Robinson movie. Gin bottles in the desks. I don't ever remember hearing anyone say, 'Stop the presses,' but it was like that."

Smith got into the business the same way everyone does -- accidentally. A Baltimore native, he was working at the school paper at Southern High when he saw an ad in The Sun for a copy boy. Why not? He could make 17 bucks a week.

Three years later, Smith graduated from copy boy to sportswriter. And soon, he was covering the old Bullets in the NBA. "It was the major leagues," he said. "Not that anyone cared about them. But still the major leagues."

He learned a lot, and not just about sports. You see, the business had a few interesting ethical problems at the time, when some sports editors found unusual ways of making pocket money.

"Once, the Harlem Globetrotters were coming to town," Smith said. "It was during the summer, and they used to put a floor down over home plate. They were playing a team of NBA stars. I thought that would be a pretty good feature, but the boss said, 'Who cares about basketball?'

"Abe Saperstein's brother came to town ahead of the team to try to get some publicity. He asked me what kind of guy the sports editor was. I told him he wasn't a bad guy. That wasn't what he meant. He wanted to know what kind of guy he was. All I know is that he went into the sports editor's office and when he came out, I was assigned to write a story every day."

Smith would write thousands of stories about basketball, even when no one was getting paid off. He saw the modern-day NBA in its nascent stages, and that was plenty. He saw the young Bob Cousy and George Mikan and the early giants. There were train rides to Philadelphia and New York, and, for the playoffs, his first plane ride, this to Chicago. His roommate was Frank Cashen, who then worked for the News-Post before going straight.

Life was different then for sportswriters. First of all, players and reporters got along better. Smith and his wife, Eunice, would go to players' weddings, and more recently, to their funerals. They sat up after games at a coach's house, eating sandwiches, talking sports. It was a simpler time, before the big money.

In his day on the beat, Smith saw one Bullets team die and another re-born, and then, in 1965, he became an assistant sports editor, taking charge of putting the paper together and leaving behind the chance at a Pulitzer. That's the Smith I know and hundreds of other Sun writers have known -- famous for bad puns and long stories and for never once losing his temper. If you've ever thought that the front page of the sports section seemed overcrowded, that was because Smith hated to leave anyone's story off Page One. Every office should have someone like him.

He's leaving the long nights behind for the good life, but with memories of Unseld and Gus Johnson (a friend of mine says he still has a clipping that Smith wrote about Johnson) and all the rest intact. He can still mist up when talking about the first time Maurice Stokes appeared at the charity game that was played to help defray his medical expenses each year.

"My wife and I went up to Kutsher's in the Catskills to see it," Smith said. "It's an outdoor court, with maybe 2,000 people around it. Others were sitting on the roof of their bungalows. Then Oscar [Robertson] and Wilt [Chamberlain] wheeled him out. It just got to me. The same way it did that night they had for Gus Johnson."

People mean something to him. These days, Smith gets invited to Earl Strom's retirement party. He keeps in touch with Buddy Jeannette, the old Bullets coach. His son practically grew up in Jimmy Phelan's house. His wife sends Christmas cards to everyone, and everyone, from Unseld to Kevin Loughery, sends cards back. That's pretty much his story, except for the part about the general.

In 1952, Smith was drafted, but he was fortunate enough not to have to fight in Korea. Instead, he became a public relations specialist. One day, he was sent to get an interview to be used on WBAL Radio on order of his commanding general. He sought out a sergeant, who said he'd get the captain. The captain got the colonel. The colonel got the general, when all Smith needed was to interview anyone. So, he brought a general back with him, flags flying, to do an interview when a private would have done as well, and he became semi-famous for it.

"When I told the real story to my commanding officer about the so-called kidnapping," Smith said, "he told me the legend was better."

Which is something that every writer ought to know.

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