The subject was sports -- and more

Among his other distinctions, Walter Wellesley ''Red'' Smith was the only sportswriter to be praised by a Nobel prize-winner in the pages of a novel. During the course of ''Across the River and Into the Trees,'' Ernest Hemingway expressed his admiration through an alter ego, Richard Cantwell, Colonel, United States Army. The final sentence in Chapter 15 runs thus: ''He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much.''

The judgment holds up 32 years later as one of the sounder moments in a rather erratic book.

Red himself had a pride in his craft but a skeptical sense of his trade. ''The question of what to do with old newspaper columns,'' he once wrote, ''isn't quite the same as how to dispose of used razor blades, but the difference is negligible.''

Nobody, including Red, could have known how many columns he turned out during his nearly half a century of sports writing in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York. On Jan. 11, in what proved to be his last column, he announced to New York Times readers that he was cutting down from four columns a week to three, recalling that in the beginning he had put forth seven a week. ''I loved it!'' he wrote, and remarked wistfully of his shrinking quota: ''We shall have to wait and see whether the quality improves.''

Any suspense on the question belonged to Red, not his readers. The quality was always there. Red reported the facts with casually thorough scholarship, but that was not the object. His form was really the short story. He wrote brilliant opening sentences that established character, plot, and a point of view that extended well beyond sports. Here is how he began a column on Buck Leonard, a black superstar whose career ended before baseball integrated: ''Wearing a store suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a smile that could light up Yankee Stadium, a sunny gentleman of 64 revisited his past yesterday and recalled what it was like to be the black Lou Gehrig on a food allowance of 60 cents a day.''

Could Ring Lardner have said more?

Red had his less than favorite subjects. He marveled like a visiting anthropologist at other humans' enthusiasm for hockey and basketball. Though he loved baseball, he couldn't say the same for baseball owners. Commissioners of any sort left him muttering. But he was beset by his own sense of fairness. He could no more deliver an unbalanced judgment than he could write an unbalanced sentence.

Red took delight in recording dialogue, particularly when it came from the mouths of Malaprops like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. But nobody ever accused him of misquoting, and a kind of affection shone through even his most devastating lines, as when he wrote of a notorious spitball pitcher that ''papers needed three columns for his pitching record: won, lost, and relative humidity.''

Red was one of the chroniclers of human comedy. He just happened to be assigned to sporting events, and he took a wide view of what those are. Confronted by a swimming cat in the Bahamas, he adjusted the specs over those mild, amused eyes that missed nothing and went to work: ''The cat is tawny and skinny, with pale and wicked green eyes, and for swimming he used the Australian crawl.''

The view from the press box never bored Red because, for him, it was so much more than that. ''What curious twists and turns we all must take on this journey ,'' he wrote. ''What a strange freight of friendships and prejudices, affections and crotchets we pick up en route.'' And these were what Red finally shared with his readers.

After acknowledging that today's column wraps tomorrow's fish, Red rallied himself to declare: ''Everyone who writes reflects the age in which he lives, and this is not less true of the sports reporter than of the dramatist, poet, novelist, essayist, or historian.'' The manifesto may not apply to some sportswriters - or dramatists, poets, novelists, essayists, and historians. It was honored by Red Smith.

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