For nearly fifty years, Red Smith wrote about the human condition as he found it reflected in our games. Some of what he wrote felt as if nobody else could have written it, such as when he described a prize fight between Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio by contending that “you couldn’t have scraped the winner off the loser with a putty knife.”
Daniel Okrent has edited a new collection of Red Smith’s newspaper columns titled American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith.
Highlights of Bill’s interview with Dan Okrent
BL: Intimations of fun notwithstanding, Smith once said something like, ‘Writing is simple, all you have to do is open a vein.’ Do you think he was looking for sympathy when he said that?
DO: I don’t think so. He said it so many times in so many different ways. He really found it hard because he wanted to get every word right. He was such a craftsman, working in such detail to get it right that he sweated it. His choice of words was like no one else who has ever written about sports, I believe. Totally imaginative, totally his own. Same with his images, his metaphors. He would sit in the press box after a game, or a horse race, or a fight and he would just type and tear the paper out, ball it up, throw it away. Type, tear it up, throw it away. And finally he would have something that he would be happy with and that would be in the morning’s paper and then it would be thrown away.
BL: Ranking writers is the ultimate subjective exercise, of course. But I have to ask anyway. In your opinion, where on the list of greatest sportwriters does Red Smith appear?
DO: Well, you’re kind of giving me a really nice softball there. He’s number one. I think that he is the best. He maintained an extraordinary level of quality over a 50-year period writing at some points during his career seven times a week. In his last years writing for the Times, around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize, he was as good as he had ever been. One of the things that was striking to me was how good he was when he was kid, when he was starting out in the early 30s. I think that Smith sometimes gets belittled because he only wrote a newspaper column. He never wrote a book. So no one could take him seriously as they might have because he was writing for the morning paper, which was doomed wrapping fish.
The very best of Red Smith is very good, indeed.
Red Smith wrote about sports for a long time – from the ’40s into the ’80s. He attended and chronicled a great many marquee events connected to baseball, boxing, football, and lots of other sports. And as Dan Okrent, the editor of American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, explained when we spoke this week, Smith was hard on himself. Unlike some of his colleagues in the press box, he didn’t just write. He re-wrote. He wanted to write more columns than his employers sometimes required, figuring that writing more would present him with a better opportunity to produce a great one.
Read through American Pastimes and you will smile, and you will laugh, and that is what Red Smith hoped you would do. But it is not all he hoped his readers would do. Smith admired many of the athletes about whom he wrote, and in writing about them he conveyed the reasons for his admiration, which often only began with how well those athletes played their games. He saw that in writing about sports he had an opportunity to write about courage, integrity, and the ability to take one’s work seriously without celebrating one’s self.
This is not to suggest that there are not sour notes, even in this “best of” collection, because there are. Even though it was written in 1966, when lots of sportswriters wrongheadedly regarded the man who would become Muhammad Ali as an irresponsible coward, Smith’s characterization of Ali’s “quarrel with his Louisville draft board” as “loud and tasteless”…”as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war” seemed boorish, narrow-minded, and uninformed. Reading it today makes it seem as if at least in February of ’66, when the column ran, Smith was given to cheap shots. Dan Okrent says the column had to be included in order to make clear Smith’s own change of heart. Perhaps he’s right.