Red: A Biography of Red Smith Summary

Ira Berkow


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sportwriting has traditionally been regarded as the stepchild of journalism, but in the work of Red Smith, it became a full-fledged member of the family. Smith, only the second member of his profession to win a Pulitzer Prize, was an amiable, slightly old-fashioned man with a classical education, an understated but firm sense of moral decency, an unflagging enthusiasm for sports, and a superb gift for graceful, lucid writing which he perfected through a passionate dedication to his craft.

Ira Berkow, himself a veteran journalist, sketches Smith’s family background and early life and traces his development as a writer, intelligently setting apt selections from Smith’s work amidst a cultural history of mid-twentieth century America. In spite of considerable cooperation from Smith’s family and co-workers, Berkow tends to remain outside the world of his subject, but he is an appreciative observer of Smith’s formative years and he knows the sporting scene which Smith covered so well.

The tone of the book intensifies as it follows Smith through a very dramatic mid-life transformation. At a time when his writing was being derided for its formulaic, conservative approach by the New Journalists, Smith suffered the loss of his wife, the collapse of his newspaper, and the death of several lifelong friends. Many men would have settled into retirement, but Smith, in a demonstration of the quality of his character, underwent a self-sustained renaissance in which his gifts as a writer combined with a new understanding of a world considerably transformed to produce his finest work.

With his language as supple and inventive as before, Smith’s deeper assurance in his convictions enabled him to write powerful columns on Olympic protest, massacre, and boycott; on the baseball strike and the fight over the reserve clause; and on controversial figures such as Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and Howard Cosell. He continued to celebrate the games and men (Tom Seaver, Joe DiMaggio) he admired, and to expose the arrogance and pomposity of those (George Steinbrenner, Bowie Kuhn) who failed to understand the essence of the sporting spirit. Although he wrote four columns a week for more than forty years, his best work--and Berkow demonstrates that there is plenty of it--retains the relevance of definitive reporting, satisfying Ezra Pound’s famous description of literature, “News that stays news.”