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, 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 scribe's 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 Archie Moore (Rocky threw "a left that made him curtsy like a convent girl"), or Secretariat pulled away from the field at Belmont on my birthday in 1973 ("It seems a little greedy to win by thirty-one lengths," the horse's owner said), or the Yankees beat the Dodgers for their fifth World Championship in a row twenty years earlier. The title of the last piece mentioned, a quote pulled from the piece (and not, alas, the original headline), is a beauty: "Like Rooting for U. S Steel." And I wondered whether the Godfather auteurs remembered this line about the New York Yankees and their fans when they had Hyman Roth -- celebrating his birthday in Cuba -- 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, and American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith (edited by Daniel Okrent) comes from that time as remote from us and 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 New Yorker spoiled by having three major league teams within subway distance. Joe DiMaggio 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"), were the unlikely victors of a four-game World Series sweep of Cleveland in 1954. Sugar Ray Robinson, the best fighter "pound for pound" in any weight class, performed regularly at the Garden. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, made West Point a college football powerhouse. Between 1949 and 1960, Casey Stengel managed the Yankees to ten pennants in twelve years. In 1947, Branch Rickey ("the greatest of all double-talk monologists") put a Dodger uniform on Jackie Robinson and revolutionized baseball.
Smith made an art of deadline sportswriting. He was especially handy with a simile. When Sugar Ray was past his prime, in one of the Carmen Basilio bouts, Smith conjectures: "Maybe, like an aging shortstop, he can no longer go to his right." Or consider these sentences from his piece about the 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, Tommy Henrich of the Yankees 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. but what I like most is this glimpse into road-trip life, circa 1952.
Smith has his sour moments. He is down on Jersey Joe Walcott (for being old) and Ted Williams (for spitting his displeasure with the fans), He is right to voice a city's frustration and anguish when the Dodgers and Giants left 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 taken hold. 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. There is one error, the product of an 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 completely different Rocky, Graziano, a 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 the 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 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 great skill and without ostentation or temperament. 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 Joe 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." The last sentence in the last column Smith ever wrote was something he told himself whenever he felt disappointed with the current crop of ballplayers: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."
-- David Lehman
[This post appeared originally on our blog in 2013]