In choosing columns treating of “big names, big events, big issues,” Dave Anderson, the compiler of The Red Smith Reader, has produced a volume that furnishes at least a rough outline of sports history from the Depression years until the early 1980’s. The reader will find, for example, at least one column on each Olympic competition since the post-World War II resumption of the games.
Smith’s columns usually ran under a thousand words. The work of syndicated columnists is subject to editorial trimming, and uniform length is a journalist’s precaution against the deletion of a final paragraph or two. Smith learned early to practice a type of essay that moves quickly to a trenchant conclusion. A typical close is his summation of the 1941 World Series game in which Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen failed to hold a third strike with two outs in the ninth inning and thereby permitted a game-winning rally by the New York Yankees. “The experts certainly knew their onions when they raved about the Yankee power,” Smith wrote. “It was the most powerful strikeout of all time.”
As the mocking tone of “the most powerful strikeout” suggests, Smith did not favor that sportswriter’s delight, hyperbole. He tried to avoid exaggerating the importance of the games and athletes he covered so zestfully, and occasionally he parodied the superlatives of his profession. Of a noted basketball player in 1947, he wrote, “The guy is terrific, colossal, and also very good.” A prefatory interview with Smith, “I’d Like to Be Called a Good Reporter,” establishes the perspective from which he wrote. “I’ve always tried to remember—and this is an old line—that sports isn’t Armageddon. These are just little games that little boys can play.” On the other hand, he stood by his decision to confine his reporting largely to sports, which “constitute a valid part of our culture and our civilization,” adding, as insurance against creeping pomposity, that “keeping the public informed and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
Smith’s stock of metaphors was varied and inexhaustible. He wrote of old-time baseball pitchers who “employed saliva as a tool of the trade and applied it to the ball with the ceremonious formality of a minuet,” of football backs who “operated like infuriated beer trucks,” of a baseball commissioner responding to criticism as “broaching a small cask of bile,” of an unfortunately dull football championship game as a “Stupor Bowl.” The International Olympic Committee, which he regularly harpooned as self-righteous and hypocritical, was a group of “overripe playground directors.” When Henry Aaron established his career home-run record, Smith deftly contrasted the personalities of the new and former record holders: “This courteous, modest man has at last overtaken Babe Ruth’s roistering ghost.” The book brims with scores of such happy turns of language.
Contrary to his announced ambition, Red Smith excelled in a field which straddles the gap between reportage and commentary. Readers reached for his World Series columns not to learn who won the game and how—another staff writer normally answered that need—but to find out what Red Smith had to say about it. The sort of column he wrote allowed him to exercise, at regular intervals, not only reportorial clarity, accuracy, and thoroughness but also gifts such as wit, whimsy, and critical awareness. Columnists validate the experience of their contemporaries. Their genre is essentially that of the periodical essay as developed early in the eighteenth century by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Only the rarest of these essayists leave work that outlasts their contemporaries, but in the realm of sports, Smith’s columns seem likely to endure.
As a commentator, Smith aimed his sharpest arrows at pretentious owners, commissioners, and other administrative noncompetitors whose actions he often found arbitrary, arrogant, and unjust. A good example is “Curt Flood’s Thirteenth Amendment.” Flood, the center fielder of the St. Louis Cardinals, had challenged baseball’s reserve clause, by which a player was bound perpetually to the team that had signed him, unless management chose to sell or trade his contract to another team, as the Cardinals did in Flood’s case after the 1969 season. Since Flood earned a handsome salary, Smith knew that when Flood refused to report to his new team, probably the great majority of baseball’s onlookers sympathized with him very little. “’You mean,’ baseball demands incredulously, ’that at these prices they want human rights, too?’” Smith had long been deriding the major league owners’ insistence that organized baseball could not survive without the reserve clause, though even the courts seemed inclined to exempt the “national pastime” from laws regulating the interstate commerce which it plainly is. It is interesting to note that since Flood lost his court battle with baseball, the reserve clause has been extensively modified without bringing major league baseball to its predicted ruin.
(The entire section is 2110 words.)