By Patrick Obley
Nov. 1, 2019
By the time he accepted an award in 1981 that would henceforth be named for him, Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith had seen his New York Times column count reduced from six to five to four times a week.
A few months after he accepted that Associated Press Sports Editors’ inaugural lifetime honor, intended for those who had made “major contributions to sports journalism,” Smith sat before his computer in New Canaan, Connecticut, and pondered whether he could still be relevant.
“Up to now, the pieces under my byline have run on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Smith wrote to begin his Jan. 11, 1982 column. “Starting this week, it will be Sunday, Monday and Thursday – three columns instead of four. We shall have to wait and see whether the quality improves.”
Times publisher John S. Knight had broached the topic one afternoon in Marje Everett’s bar at the Arlington Park racetrack.
“Nobody can write six good columns a week,” Knight said, according to Smith. “Why don’t you write three? Want me to fix it up?”
Said Smith, “Look, Mr. Knight. Suppose I wrote three stinkers. I wouldn’t have the rest of the week to recover.”
Sitting before the computer in his home office, pecking away at that Jan. 11 column, Smith mused: “One of the beauties of this job is that there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow things will be better. … Now that the quota is back to three, will things be better day after tomorrow?”
They weren’t even better later that day. Upon hitting the send button on the modem, the last third of column vanished, forcing him to rewrite the ending. Just as he finished, his son Terence called from the West Coast where he – an award-winning journalist in his own right – was on assignment. He listened to his father’s tale of misery and asked, “Are you okay now?”
“I’m two vodka-tonics away from being fine,” he said.
Nothing would be fine again. Two days later, Smith was in the hospital and on Jan. 15, 1982, congestive heart failure and kidney disease silenced sports writing’s most singular voice.
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
While these words could have served as his epitaph, they are the beginning of Smith’s most iconic deadline masterpiece, written 30 years earlier on an improbable autumn afternoon at the Polo Grounds. On Oct. 3, 1951, In the span of 926 words, Smith brought to bear everything he had ever learned about reporting and writing, which were the two separate but equal branches of proper journalism.
As pandemonium ensued on the field beneath him in the aftermath of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World,” Smith and his fellow sports writers sat dumbfounded in the press box trying to figure out how to write what they had just witnessed.
“Baseball writes itself,” Smith had told an interviewer just one year prior. “It’s two out and the bases are loaded and – well, you’ve got a situation right there.”
Thomson’s home run off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca not only won the pennant for the New York Giants, but capped an improbable final three weeks of the regular season in which the Giants chased down the Dodgers to force the winner-take-all game. The act of the home run itself could not carry the story. The scene on the field alluded to something bigger. As a columnist writing on a subject that would already be well-known to readers everywhere by the following morning, Smith’s task was not to regurgitate play-by-play. From within a story everyone knew, he had to divulge something else, something more, something indelible, yet less tangible.
It had been Smith’s career-long dream to write for one of New York’s dailies, which he considered the beating heart of the newspaper world. When Herald Tribune sports editor Stanley Woodward made it real for Smith in 1945, one of his first assignments had been that year’s World Series.
Woodward delivered marching orders to each of the writers except Smith. When Smith asked him what he was supposed to do, Woodward said, “Write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway.”
As Daniel Okrent translates in his introduction to American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, Woodward was telling Smith to “keep your senses open and alert, and you’ll find something that no one else is paying attention to.”
On that afternoon six years later, Smith’s training kicked in. He turned his attention to the field and simply pounded into his typewriter what he was witnessing until providence or experience took command and finished the column for him:
Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head on into a special park cop who brings him down with a flying tackle.
Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.
At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.
From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again, the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coat tails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.
And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. … The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October. … Of the final day of the season when they won the championship and started home with it from Boston, to hear on the train how the dead, defeated Dodgers had risen from the ashes in the Philadelphia twilight. … Of the three-game play-off in which they won, and lost, and were losing again with one out in the ninth inning yesterday when – why bother?
Writing is hard sometimes. For Smith, it was the bill that came due for hanging out, watching sports and having great conversations with some of the most colorful personalities of the day. He often was the last person in a press box or along press row at a given event. When writing from home in what he called his “torture chamber” of an office, an entire day could pass as he slaved over his latest 800- to 1000-word “View of Sport”.
There is a quote most-often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” In reality, Smith uttered the words to Walter Winchell in 1949. It was a twist on something fellow sports writer Paul Gallico had written in 1946, so while it might be apocryphal to credit Hemingway or Smith with the famous phrase, there was no doubting Smith lived it.
At long last, this column from the Polo Grounds had begun to bleed out. Smith had found his vein:
Maybe this is the way to tell it: Bobby Thomson, a young Scot from Staten Island, delivered a timely hit yesterday in the ninth inning of an enjoyable game of baseball before 34,320 witnesses in the Polo Grounds. … Or perhaps this is better:
“Well,” said Whitey Lockman, standing on second base in the second inning of yesterday’s play-off game between the Giants and Dodgers.
“Ah, there,” said Bobby Thomson, pulling into the same station after hitting a ball to left field. “How’ve you been?”
“Fancy,” Lockman said, “meeting you here?”
“Ooops!” Thomson said. “Sorry.”
And the Giants’ first chance for a big inning against Don Newcombe disappeared as they tagged him out. Up in the press section, the voice of Willie Goodrich came over the amplifiers announcing a macabre statistic: “Thomson has now hit safely in fifteen consecutive games.” Just then the floodlights were turned on, enabling the Giants to see and count their runners on each base.
It wasn’t funny, though, because it seemed for so long that the Giants weren’t going to get another chance like the one Thomson squandered by trying to take second base with a playmate already there. They couldn’t hit Newcombe and the Dodgers couldn’t do anything wrong. Sal Maglie’s most splendorous pitching would avail nothing unless New York could match the run Brooklyn had scored in the first inning.
The story was winding up, and it wasn’t the happy ending which such a tale demands. Poetic justice was a phrase without meaning.
It was never in doubt that Smith would find a suitable snippet of dialogue to insert into this particular column. As Terence Smith wrote in his prologue for Making Words, “People often marveled at his ear for dialogue: With only a few notes, he could re-create a pitch-perfect account of a locker room interview or running conversation and build most of an eight-hundred-word column around long blocks of unbroken dialogue.”
It was an acquired trait. The style first found him as a child in Green Bay, Wisconsin, reading the latest offering from Ring Lardner or Damon Runyon. Later, after following the older brother of a friend to Notre Dame, Smith was treated to Grantland Rice’s epic “Four Horsemen” story (“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky …”) during the fall of 1924. It was the beginning of sports writing theorem: Lardner’s ear plus Runyon’s turn of phrase plus Rice’s eye equaled masterpiece.
Not that the lesson stuck in the early going. So accomplished was Smith coming out of Notre Dame in 1927 that of the 50 letters he sent to newspapers announcing his availability, only one replied – the New York Times – to say “no.”
Smith caught on to the crime beat at the Milwaukee Sentinel. The beat never failed to deliver, but the pay was lousy. If he earned $24 in a week, he spent $25. When an opportunity presented itself in 1928 to join the copy desk at the St. Louis Star for a whopping $40 a week, he punched up a letter of questionable veracity offering his services as a jack-of-all-trades. Of the four dailies operating in St. Louis at that time, the Star definitely ranked among the top five, but even there he clung to his job by the barest thread.
Yet he would continue to fail upwards. In Smith’s own words as told to sports writer Jerome Holtzman in 1973: That fall the managing editor, a man named Frank Taylor, fired two guys in the sports department (for accepting bribes from a boxing promoter), and he came over to me on the copy desk and he said, “Did you ever work in sports?”
And I said, “No.”
“’Do you know anything about sports?’
And I said, “Just what the average fan knows.”
“They tell me you’re very good on football.”
“Well, if you say so.”
And he said, “Are you honest? If a fight promoter offered you ten dollars would you take it.”
I said, “Ten dollars is a lot of money.”
And he said, “Report to the sports editor Monday.”
A few months later, he was the St. Louis Browns beat writer and his career in sports was off and running.
“Over the years people have said to me, ‘Isn’t it dull covering baseball every day?’” Smith told Holtzman. “My answer used to be ‘It becomes dull only to dull minds.’
“If you have the perception and the interest to see it, and the wit to express it, your story is always different from yesterday’s story,” Smith continued. “I still think every game is different, not that some of them aren’t dull, but it’s a rare person who lives his life without encountering dull spots. It’s up to the writer to take a lively interest and see the difference.”
As his Oct. 3, 1951 column rounded third and headed for home, Smith was charging full speed ahead, lodged firmly in the narrative momentum, setting up Thomson for greatness: Now it was the seventh inning and Thomson was up with runners on first and third base, none out. Pitching a shutout in Philadelphia last Saturday night, pitching again in Philadelphia on Sunday, holding the Giants scoreless this far, Newcombe had now gone twenty-one innings without allowing a run.
He threw four strikes to Thomson. Two were fouled off out of play. Then he threw a fifth. Thomson’s fly scored Monte Irvin. The score was tied. It was a new ball game.
Wait a moment, though. Here’s Pee Wee Reese hitting safely in the eighth. Here’s Duke Snider singling Reese to third. Here’s Maglie, wild – pitching a run home. Here’s Andy Pafko slashing a hit through Thomson for another score. Here’s Billy Cox batting still another home. Where does his hit go?
Where else? Through Thomson at third.
So it was the Dodger’s ball game, 4 to 1, and the Dodgers’ pennant. So all right. Better get started and beat the crowd home. That stuff in the ninth inning? That didn’t mean anything.
A single by Al Dark. A single by Don Mueller. Irvin’s pop-up. Lockman’s one-run double. Now the corniest possible sort of Hollywood schmaltz – stretcher bearers plodding away with an injured Mueller between them, symbolic of the Giants themselves.
There went Newcombe and here came Ralph Branca. Who’s at bat? Thomson again? He beat Branca with a home run the other day. Would Charlie Dressen order him walked, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to the dead-end kids at the bottom of the batting order? No, Branca’s first pitch was a called strike.
The second pitch – well, when Thomson reached first base he turned and looked toward the left-field stands. Then he started jumping straight up in the air, again and again. Then he trotted around the bases, taking his time.
Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.
By the time this column appeared, Smith was already among the biggest names in sports writing. Hemingway had immortalized him during a passage in Across the River and into the Trees: He noted how the wind was blowing, looked at the portrait, poured another glass of Valpolicella, and then started to read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune. I ought to take the pills, he thought. But the hell with the pills … He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much.”
When Rice passed away in 1954, Smith became the nation’s most-widely syndicated writer. On April 21, 1958, he graced the cover of Newsweek magazine with the headline, “Red Smith: Star of the Press Box”.
“I can go anywhere I want and see anything I want and do anything I want,” Smith told Newsweek’s Roger Kahn. “I’ve got the greatest job in America.”
Kahn’s profile was comprehensive. In making the argument that Smith was the world’s foremost expert on sports and words, he offered a number of Smith’s more colorful passages:
* From a column about the prettiest sight in sports: “Bases loaded, two out, three and two on the batter – and everybody moving with the pitch.”
* On Pepper Martin in the 1931 World Series: “John Leonard Pepper Martin stole into the sportswriting fellers’ pantry, got into the rhetoric barrel, and made off with all the superlatives. Now if there’s one thing sportswriting fellers dread, it’s the thought of going down into the twilight of life without a few superlatives to keep the wolf from the door. ‘Most sensational in history,’ is their stock in trade. Naturally, they were pretty sore.”
* On Kentucky Derby winner, Native Dancer: “Native Dancer, who usually travels first class and all by himself, went democratic today and arrived here (Louisville, Kentucky) in a crowd so proletarian it included newspapermen … Native Dancer was the only passenger aboard with a bank account of $300,000.”
* On Yankees manager Casey Stengel: “Students of Stengelese, which is a live language only superficially resembling Sanskrit, have endeavored for years to capture in print the special quality, the pure body and flavor, the rich, crunchy goodness of Mr. Casey Stengel’s speech. They have not succeeded. The human ear is a wonderful instrument, but not so wonderful as the Stengel larynx.”
* On baseball commissioner Happy Chandler: “Nothing that Happy Chandler did as baseball commissioner became him so well as his leave-taking.”
At the time of the Newsweek profile, Smith estimated he was 11 million words into his journalism career. He had been at it for 30 years by then and would not know he was well past the halfway mark. In the coming years, his voice would transcend sports in the same way sports itself began to insinuate itself into the fabric of life and politics.
“Unlike the normal pattern, I know I have grown more liberal as I’ve grown older,” Smith wrote in 1973. “I have become more convinced that there is room for improvement in the world. I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I feel things should be done about it and that sports are part of this world. Maybe I’m sounding too damn profound or maybe I’m taking bow’s when I shouldn’t. I truly don’t know.”
He strongly admonished Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, for his stance against the Vietnam War, writing in 1966, “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”
Even after the Herald Tribune folded in 1967 and he was left without a newspaper’s backing, Smith continued to appear nationally via syndication. In 1969, he powerfully backed Curt Flood’s crusade to end baseball’s reserve clause, something Smith had found objectionable as far back as 1938.
Smith was hired by the New York Times shortly after that and as his own career began rounding third and heading for home, he continued to evolve as a writer, working hard to tighten up his prose while continuing to tackle those topics that threatened to spill out of sports and onto the world’s political stage.
Smith was present for the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, his deadline reporting appearing on the front page alongside his son Terence’s coverage from Israel. He railed against the decision to proceed with events despite the death of two members of the Israeli National Team and the hostage crisis that was still playing out. In all, 11 Israelis would be killed by the Black September terrorist group: “The 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.”
It was Smith who first broached the possibility of the United States boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics in retribution for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, in the process shaming officials for not boycotting the 1936 Berlin games during the rise of Nazism: “We didn’t know better, and we were painfully slow to learn. .. The Olympic brass won that time. We did not meddle in the internal affairs of Germany.” And later, “It is unthinkable that in the present circumstances we could go play games with Ivan in Ivan’s yard. The United States should lead a walkout now, making it clear to the Russians that even if the shooting ends and the invading forces go home, the rape of a neighbor will not be quickly forgotten.”
Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1976, becoming the second sports writer to earn the honor. More and more, publishers approached him about writing his memoirs. He demurred. As he had done throughout his career, he settled for collecting columns in occasional anthologies. His last two – To Absent Friends and Strawberries in Wintertime – each echoed his own mortality in words he had written concerning the passing of friends, favorite personalities and colleagues.
Ira Berkow had just finished his own column for the New York Times when sports editor Joe Vecchione called with the news of Smith’s passing. Vecchione asked Berkow if he could write the obituary. It was the right decision. From Berkow’s foreward to the anthology, Red Smith on Baseball: When I went away to college – Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – I had my sights set on becoming a lawyer, for want of something better to do. A quirk of fate sent me in a different direction. It happened this way: a guy living across the dormitory hall from me in my junior year, a fellow named Dave Burgin, the sports editor of the school newspaper, was also a huge fan of Red Smith.
Now, a lot of college boys had Playboy centerfolds taped on their walls. Not Burgin. On his wall was a recent cover of Newsweek magazine (this was 1959) which featured the face of Red Smith – receding hair line, glasses, small-boned features, and generous, wise, perhaps somewhat skeptical eyes.
The cover headline read: “Red Smith: Star of the Press Box.” Burgin and I clearly shared an enthusiasm for Smith. Burgin suggested I take a stab at writing for him on The Student. Warily – I had never considering anything like this before – I did. I fell in love with it.”
Not long after finding his passion, Berkow wrote to Smith, sending along two columns he had written for the school newspaper and asking for his advice. Smith replied.
“When I was a cub in Milwaukee,” Smith wrote, “I had a city editor who’d stroll over and read across a guy’s shoulder when he was writing a lead. Sometimes he’d approve, sometimes he’d say, ‘Try again,’ and walk away.
“My best advice is, try again. And then again. If you’re for this racket, and not many really are, then you’ve got an eternity of sweat and tears ahead. I don’t mean just you: I mean anybody.”
In 1986, Berkow would publish the definitive biography of the man who once said, “Being written about is the same as being written off.”
In this rare instance, Walter Wellesley Smith didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Posterity,” Terence Smith said of his father, “was not something he expected to be a part of.”