Red Smith knew his subject - and his writing

Walter Wellesley (Red) Smith of the New York Times was the best sports columnist in America in the 1940s and '50s and, in my opinion, never out of the top five. Red never forgot to include a touch of humor with his writing, although it never came off forced or calculated.

Once people who wouldn't normally look at a sports page discovered Smith, they often went right to his column. If Red didn't get you with his subject, he got you with his writing.

When Smith was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, the people who gave it to him should have been applauded for their action and censured for their tardiness. They could have acted 25 years earlier and never gotten an argument.

Aside from his craftsmanship as a writer, perhaps the most amazing thing about Red was his enthusiasm for sports and newspapering right up to his recent passing. He showed up at the World Series as regularly as the umpires. Every baseball game, he used to say, was somehow different from every other baseball game that was played.

Smith always treated the English language with reverence and affection. He got more description out of fewer adjectives than any writer I ever met. He was also one of the first to take the reader where his ticket wouldn't admit him - into the dugout and locker room.

If someone tried to tell you how Red got into sports writing, you wouldn't believe him. While working on the copy desk of the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1927, Smith got a call to visit the paper's managing editor in his office. For reasons that nobody can now remember, the editor had fired the paper's entire sports staff.

''At the time, I didn't know as much about sports as most of our readers,'' Red observed. ''But one thing the managing editor got right was the notion that I was the most dispensable copyreader he had. Looking back, I think what actually got me the job was when . . . I said I would never take a bribe from a fight manager to get something in the paper that didn't belong there.''

Frank Graham, the sports columnist of the old New York Sun, and Smith were once practically inseparable. Starting around 1946, they traveled down to Florida together to tour the major league baseball camps.

''The first year Graham and I did this, I got the surprise of my life,'' Smith once told me in Baltimore. ''Partway out of the city, I double-parked in front of the Herald Tribune (where Smith worked at the time). When I asked Frank to slide over behind the wheel while I went inside and left my column with the elevator man, he told me that he had never driven a car in his life! For the next 1,500 miles, we made up baseball quiz games to keep me awake.''

A sampling of Smith prose demonstrates how he kept readers awake over the years. On Casey Stengel, fast-talking manager of the New York Yankees: ''Students of Stengelese, which is a live language only superficially resembling Sanskrit, have endeavored for years to capture in print the special quality and flavor, the rich, crunchy goodness of Mr. Casey Stengel's speech. They have not succeeded. The human ear is a wonderful instrument, but it is not so wonderful as the Stengel larynx.''

Even though Red and I exchanged pleasantries at World Series, Super Bowls, and national events for possibly 30 years, I was never in his company long enough to say I really knew him. But I do remember two things he used to tell aspiring young writers:

1. Be a newspaperman first and a sportswriter next. If there are half a dozen top sportswriters in America who did not serve an apprenticeship in the city room, their names do not come to mind.

2. The English language, if handled with respect, scarcely ever poisoned the user.

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