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Column: Remembering the grace and wit of Red Smith



As a young reporter, I mainly covered sports, and since I was also a fan of the children’s games that grown-ups played to earn their daily bread, I naturally gravitated toward colleagues who shared my enthusiasms.

This was especially the case during the late 1960s and early 1970s when I whiled away many hours at the Lion’s Head, a pub in the heart of Greenwich Village. The regular patrons who gathered there rejoiced in the saloon’s hearty reputation as a haven for “drinkers with writing problems.”

Some of the bull sessions that took place at the Head turned into arguments about who was the greatest baseball player of our time. Or the greatest quarterback. Or the greatest this or that.

Since we moved across a wide range of popular sports, there were plenty of categories to choose from.

Then one night in 1974 we decided to shift the focus away from the jocks and their exploits.

Turning inward to our own line of work, we raised the question: Who is the greatest sportswriter of our era?

The only trouble was that the query generated no debate. To a man, we all quickly agreed that when it came to style — the enviable art of graceful phrasing — the gold standard for our generation was set by a slight, bespectacled man in his 60s who looked more like a banker than a sports columnist. His name was Walter Wellesley Smith, but to his devoted readers, he was more familiarly known as Red Smith.

Stanley Woodward, the renowned sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune in its heyday, loved to claim that Smith was the only sportswriter in history who was named after three women’s colleges.

Woodward always insisted that there was a women’s school named Walter “in Colorado or Wyoming or somewhere out there.” But no one was ever able to find it.

When Woodward hired him in 1945, Red Smith was 39 years old and had labored in relative obscurity for nearly two decades on newspapers in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

But once he began writing a column for the Herald Tribune, his reputation soared to heights far beyond his expectations. The column, “Views of Sports,” was so well-received that it soon became syndicated and ran in 275 papers across the country.

I always felt a sort of kinship with Smith, in part because we both came from the upper Midwest. He was a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I grew up in Michigan. We also shared the same alma mater — Notre Dame.

In fact, it was during my student days in the mid-1950s that I discovered Smith. His column regularly appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, and once I began reading his stuff, it didn’t take me long to realize he was something special.

Smith stayed with the Herald Tribune until it went out of business in 1966, and by then he was firmly ensconced in the pantheon of American journalism. He later joined the New York Times, where his column was published until his death in 1981.

In 1976, Smith was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a rare achievement for a “mere” sportswriter. Of course that honor came his way two years after our merry group at the Lion’s Head had decided, by acclamation, that the classy gent some of us called Le Grand Rouge exploited the mother tongue more deftly than any of his peers.

Not content to leave it at that, we then proceeded to recall and recite some of our favorite phrases from the trove of Smith’s columns over the past three decades. So here, along with some background data, are a few examples of the gems that we tossed around that night.

Whitey Kurowski, a star third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1940s, was a solid hitter, but when it came to fielding his position, he seemed to rely more on raw instinct than skill and finesse. And that prompted Smith to observe that “Whitey Kurowski plays third base by ear.”

In a similar vein was his sly comment on a shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies who was prone to making errors. His miscues were so frequent that Smith likened him to Coleridge’s ancient mariner who “stoppeth one of three.”

One of his most memorable quotes came from a column he wrote about the misfortunes of the NFL team that played in his hometown. In 1958, the Green Bay Packers were the worst team in pro football and had the record to prove it. Or as Smith put it, “The Packers overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed 10 and whelmed one.”

In the summer of 1952, Smith covered the Olympic Games in Helsinki, and while there he and a couple of colleagues decided to brave the ritual of a Finnish sauna, which was then a novelty to most Americans. As they were sweltering through that ordeal of dry-heat excess, they kept their gaze on the thermometer, which was moving upward at a rapid rate. When it crossed the 200-degree mark and continued to rise, Smith nervously reminded his companions that “missionaries are fricasseed at 212.”

Of more recent vintage was his column on the November day in 1973 when the great race horse Secretariat retired to embark on his new career as a sire at a fancy stud farm. Here was Smith’s lead on that transition: “In Secretariat’s mail was a postcard signed Fiji. It read: ‘I can’t wait.’”

He went on to disclose that Fiji was “one of 30-odd mares that will be dating Secretariat when the celebrated sex symbol takes up his role as a lover.”

Over the years, Smith was inclined to be wry or self-deprecating when he was asked about the rare talent he brought to his craft. “Writing is easy,” he famously deadpanned on one occasion.

“You just sit down at the typewriter, open a vein and bleed it out, drop by drop.”

He was a little more revealing about the droll wit and rich irony that runs through so many of his columns — never more so than when he declared that “the natural habitat of the tongue is the left cheek.”

Of all the jewels in Red Smith’s crown, my favorite is the lead he wrote for a column in early 1961 while on assignment in Kentucky: “It is a distinct pleasure to go from the annual winter meeting of the major league baseball owners in Louisville to the January sale of the yearlings in Keeneland because now one has an opportunity, for a change, to view a complete horse.”