Red Smith would never have predicted that the illustrious Library of America would collect the columns he typed on short deadlines for the New York Herald Tribune, publish them lovingly in the new book American Pastimes, and dub him "America's greatest sportswriter." The involvement of the Library of America -- which has published two volumes by A. J. Liebling, including The Sweet Science, his masterly book on boxing -- reflects the growing recognition of sportswriting as a craft and Smith's elevated standing in the scribes' fraternity.
Smith sat in the press box and, in his phrase, "opened a vein" when it came time to stare at the typewriter. Barely minutes had gone by since Bobby Thomson won the 1951 pennant for the Giants ("Reality has strangled invention"). Or Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott (left) or Archie Moore (Rocky threw "a left that made him curtsy like a convent girl"). Or Secretariat pulled away from the field at Belmont on June 9, 1973 ("It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths," the horse's owner said). Twenty years earlier, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers for their fifth World Championship in a row, Smith wrote a column that in the new book bears this title, a pull quote from the piece: "Like Rooting for U. S Steel." Reading that, I wondered whether the Godfather auteurs remembered this line about the New York Yankees and their fans when they had mob boss Hyman Roth say "Michael, we're bigger than U. S. Steel."
It has been a long time since U. S. Steel was the measure of power, size, and importance. American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, edited by Daniel Okrent, comes from that time as remote from us now and as filled with nostalgic glamour as the early seasons of Mad Men. You could, if you were a lazier columnist than Smith, call it the golden age of American sport; certainly it might have seemed that way to a lad in Washington Heights spoiled by having three major league teams within subway distance, not to mention the football Giants with glamour boy Frank Gifford, a triple threat in the backfield. Joe DiMaggio (pictured at right, with wife) patrolled center field for the Yankees, and when he stepped down, Mickey Mantle came along to take his place. Willie Mays played center for the Giants, who, with Leo Durocher at the helm ("a controversial guy, and that may be the the understatement of the decade"), won an unlikely four-game World Series sweep of the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in 1954. Sugar Ray Robinson, often called the best "pound for pound" fighter in any weight class, performed regularly at the Garden. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, made Army a college football powerhouse up at West Point, fifty-five miles north of the city limits. Between 1949 and 1960, Casey Stengel managed the Bronx Bombers to ten pennants in twelve years. In 1947, Branch Rickey ("the greatest of all double-talk monologists") put a Brooklyn Dodger uniform on Jackie Robinson and revolutionized the national pastime.
Red Smith made an art of deadline sportwriting. He was especially handy with a simile. When Sugar Ray, past his prime, fought Carmen Basilio in 1958, Smith conjectures: "Maybe, like an aging shortstop, he can no longer go to his right." Or consider these sentences from his piece about the fabled 1947 World Series game in which the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto ruined the Yankees' Floyd Bevens's no-hit bid with a bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning two-out double. "In the third [inning] Johnny Lindell caught Jackie Robinson's foul fly like Doc Blanchard hitting the Notre Dame line and came to his feet unbruised. In the fourth Joe DiMaggio caught Gene Hermanski's monstrous drive like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth." In the same game, right-fielder Tommy Henrich took a hit away from Hermanski: "Henrich backed against the board and leaped either four or fourteen feet into the air. He stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker. When he came down he had the ball."
To write for a newspaper requires a strict brevity of means. It takes artistry to write in short paragraphs, as in this one about Brooklyn southpaw Carl Erskine, hero of game five of the 1952 World Series: "Erskine is an agreeable young man with good habits and an equally good overhand cure. He does not drink, does not smoke, and does not choke in the clutch. On out-of-town business trips, while his playmates sit in the hotel lobby waiting for somebody to discard a newspaper, he visits art museums." There is wit in Smith's parallel structures and word choices -- playmates! -- but what I like most here is this glimpse into road-trip life, circa 1952.
An enthusiast at the core, Smith has his sour moments. He is down on Jersey Joe Walcott (for being old) and Ted Williams (for spitting at fans and press in August 1956). Williams's "moist expression of contempt" was "bush," Smith writes, though he graciously does his best nevertheless "to understand and be patient with this painfully introverted, oddly immature thirty-year-old veteran of two wars."
Like every other writer, Smith is far from infallible. He writes off Muhammad Ali too fast after Joe Frazier beat him at the Garden in March 1971: "If they fought a dozen times, Joe Frazier would whip Muhammad Ali a dozen times. And it would get easier as they went along." The columnist is right to voice a city's anger and anguish when its beloved National League teams de-camped for the West Coast at the end of the 1957 season. Their departure from New York "is an unrelieved calamity, a grievous loss to the city and to baseball, a shattering blow to the prestige of the National League, an indictment of the men operating the clubs and the men governing the city." Two years later, a certain amount of revisionism has set in. Baseball's West Coast expansion "was a development long overdue and greatly to be desired, but effected in an atmosphere of deceitful contriving which left the game wearing the dollar sign like a brand."
American Pastimes has been edited, and is introduced, with exemplary intelligence by Daniel Okrent. Chapter heading are wonderful. What had been "Nice Guys Finish" -- the piece about the exodus of the Dodgers and Giants to the Pacific Coast -- now sports the title "East Goes West and League Goes South." There is one error, no doubt a simple oversight, that should be fixed in the next printing. In an October 1966 piece recollecting Fridays in previous decades at Madison Square Garden, Smith would never have referred to "Rocky Marciano's three wars with Tony Zale." It was a competely different Rocky, Graziano, the middleweight, who did battle with Zale. I make a point of it because Rocky Graziano was the first prize-fighter to take my fancy: I was eight years old and saw "Somebody Up There Likes Me" with my parents and sisters at a drive-in movie. Paul Newman played Graziano.
The sportswriter's occupational risk is hyperbole, and Smith is not exempt. Of Whirlaway, winner of racing's Triple Crown the 1941, Smith writes, the colt "was Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones -- not just a champion but. . ." -- you finish the sentence. The remarkable thing is how few lapses there are in such a long career.
Like A. J. Liebling, Red Smith writes with particular verve about Marciano. The undefeated heavyweight champion was "victorious, invincible, indestructible." But it is DiMaggio who best fits Smith's idea of the heroic athlete, the demigod who does everything with majesty and grace -- and is therefore the proper model for a prose stylist, doing his job with consistency and skill and without ostentation or temperament. Joltin' Joe's exploits lubricated the Red Smith simile machine. In a game against the Red Sox in 1950, Bobby Doerr hit what looked to be a sure double when "Joe raced in on a long angle to his left, thrust out his glove, palm up like a landlord taking a payoff under the table."
When DiMaggio retired in October 1951, "the simple, flat fact [is] that the greatest ballplayer of our day and one of the greatest of any day quit baseball yesterday." In the last column Smith ever wrote, dated January 11, 1982, he admits he is sometimes prone to disappointment with the current crop of ballplayers. But he fights it off. "I told myself not to worry," he writes. And then comes this, his last sentence: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."
-- David Lehman