Smith set standard for sportswriters

Pulitzer Prize winner who would have turned 100 today was a household name in newspaper industry


September 25, 2005|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

He was the best-known sportswriter of his time, a household name in a job where it was tough to be one. Today's far-famed sports columnists reach millions via TV talk shows, radio call-ins and Web blogs. Half a century ago, Walter "Red" Smith simply hung his hat on the printed word.

Smith, who would have turned 100 today, never was one to call for a manager's head or suggest trades. Self-aggrandizement was not his thing. For Smith, there was no "I" in column. He fetched readers with a lyrical style, graceful prose and deft wit.

Consider this, from a 1948 column on the Indianapolis 500:

The flying start was a burst of thunder, a blur of colors. Since then, it has been an unceasing grind, hour after hour, making the eyeballs ache, the temples throb. Every car has a different voice, none soothing. There is a twelve-cylinder Mercedes said to have been built for Adolph Hitler; it runs with a scream like Adolph's conscience.

For 55 years Smith cranked out copy, under fire, sometimes seven days a week. Most of his life was spent in New York, writing for the Herald Tribune (now defunct) and the Times. At his death in 1982, Smith's syndicated column was read in more than 200 newspapers.

His stuff remains unsurpassed, colleagues said.

"Red had a musical way of writing. He was Fred Astaire among us," said Tom Callahan, former sports editor of Time magazine.

Smith's work earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a cover of Newsweek and a nod in an Ernest Hemingway novel, Across the River and into the Trees ("He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much.").

What wasn't to like? Whatever the event, Smith wrote with a polished clarity and an eye for the wry.

Attending the Orioles' home opener in 1954 - the club's first in modern times - he described the pre-game pomp:

A Marine guard bore the colors from outfield to the plate, where the Army Field Band played and a man named Elwood Gary sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" into a dead microphone. It was like listening to Caruso in Braille.

"Red had little leprechaun eyes but a sharp vision, journalistically," said Bill Nack, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for 23 years.

And Smith's stories were little pots of gold.

"I don't know anyone who ever slogged through a Red Smith column. You skated through," Nack said. "His stuff had meter. He moved across the page like a dancer; there was rhythm to what he wrote."

In Smith's day, New York teemed with big shots begging for an ear. He had his pick of Mays or Mantle, of Ali or Affirmed. Baseball, boxing and horse racing were Smith's favored subjects.

Fishing was the only sport he was any good at.

This typewriter is being beaten with fingers whose knuckles are bleeding and nails broken after hand-to-fin struggles with trout exactly the size, shape and disposition of [fighter] Tony Galento.

"There was a literacy to everything he wrote," said Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer and a colleague of Smith's at the Herald Tribune. "I sat next to him at the 1953 World Series when [Brooklyn manager] Charlie Dressen came out to change pitchers."

As an aggravated Dressen stood on the hill, Smith peered out from the press box, thought a moment and batted out this line from a Robert Browning poem:

On a little mound, Napoleon stood on our storming-day; With neck out-thrust, you fancy how, legs wide, arms locked behind ... "

While he would, on occasion, quote highfalutin writers like William Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad, Smith was just as adept at capturing the essence of the shady characters who hung around the ring and backstretch.

"Red was elegant and erudite, yet he found a way to reach readers of all stripes," said John Schulian, a former sportswriter-turned-Hollywood screenwriter. "You could be a Harvard professor or a bricklayer and enjoy the beauty of what he wrote.

"He wouldn't dumb things down for anyone, yet people revered him."

Colleagues marveled at Smith's coolness on deadline, such as his lead on Brooklyn's last-inning victory in the 1947 World Series:

The game has been over for half an hour now, and still a knot of worshippers stands clustered, as around a shrine, out in right field adoring the spot on the wall which Cookie Lavagetto's line drive smote.

But Smith also endeared himself to readers by beating the bushes. He covered dog shows and cock fights. He fished in the Andes and explored an abandoned race track in Jordan.

In 1937, during spring training, he went to Mexico to interview Leon Trotsky, the Russian Communist-in-exile. He titled the story, "Red Trotsky Talks To Red Smith."

Once, while casting for trout in Montana, Smith stumbled upon a newborn bald eagle:

He was a hell-of-a-baby, as big as [jockey] Bobby Ussery, with a Durante nose. How he was ever packed into an egg is one of nature's mysteries.

"There's a freshness, a vibrancy to his writing that's still there," said Schulian, who once wrote for The Evening Sun. Today's readers need more of Smith's ilk, he said.

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