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A LEGACY OF CONSCIENCE AND WIT
In the early days of television. Red Smith was briefly persuaded to step out of his accustomed role as a newspaper sports columnist to do some racetrack commentary on the tube. As the horses paraded into the paddock behind him, Smith, facing the camera, was obliged to describe them while casting backward glances toward the paddock, which isn't an easy task. After a while, he simply gave up, turned his back to the camera and, engaging as always, began contentedly discussing the nags. You're not supposed to turn your back on your audience in TV, which may be why Smith's career in that medium was short-lived, but he was free to do something of the sort in his beloved column. A self-effacing man who remained unimpressed by the Pulitzer Prize and other honors bestowed on him, he just wrote what he saw and felt and invited his readers to take a look over his shoulder if they so desired.
Smith died last week at the age of 76, four days after revealing in his New York Times column his intention to cut his output from four pieces a week to three. He left behind 55 years' worth of marvelous stuff. After the fourth game of the 1947 World Series, in which Floyd Bevens lost his no-hitter and the game as a result of Cookie Lavagetto's pinch double with two out in the ninth, Smith wrote, "The unhappiest man in Brooklyn is sitting up here now in the far end of the press box. The 'v' on his typewriter is broken. He can't write either Lavagetto or Bevens." Twenty-five years later, after Oakland beat the Reds in the World Series, Smith alluded to the congratulatory postgame hugging among the triumphant A's: "And so, as Bobby Tolan contemplates a plunge into the turgid Ohio, we tiptoe silently away from Riverfront Stadium and a love scene of almost unbearable tenderness."
He wrote with as much conscience as wit, and was sometimes biting. To Smith, George Steinbrenner was George III, Bowie Kuhn was "the greatest commissioner since Spike Eckert" and amateur sports officials were amiable oafs who could be found to be "breathing heavily, stuffed shirts heaving from exertion." In the same column in which that last phrase appeared, he also wrote, "The gentlemen who rule our amateur sports have many attractive qualities such as heads." His prose took on an even sharper edge when the Olympic brass decided to resume the 1972 Munich Games following the massacre of Israeli athletes: "Walled off in their dream world, appallingly unaware of the realities of life and death, the aging playground directors who conduct this quadrennial muscle dance ruled that a little bloodshed must not be permitted to interrupt play."
In a profession not always free of backbiting, Smith was revered by his colleagues. He was unfailingly generous in assisting young writers. One of them was Ira Berkow, who as a college student made so bold as to write Smith a letter. A correspondence developed, and, with the older man's encouragement, Berkow became a sportswriter, eventually joining the Times. He wrote Smith's front-page obituary last week. Berkow says the first time he ever took notice of Smith's byline was in 1958 over an account of a middleweight title fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio that included this passage: "When he [ Basilio] was declared the loser, he dropped to one knee, blessed himself, remained bowed there for a long moment of prayer. Then he rose, lifted both hands in salute to the crowd, and departed—loser and a true champion."
"I literally cried when I read that," Berkow recalls. "The next time I read one of his columns, I laughed. I was going to be a lawyer until I read Red Smith."
A SHORT STOP IN A LONG SEASON
All right, a little quiz. How many current college basketball players can you come up with whose first names are the same as the surnames of major league shortstops, past or present? The University of Detroit's Aparicio Curry? Easy. San Francisco's Crosetti Speight? Too obvious for words. For full credit, you'd also have to have mentioned the likes of Boston College's Burnett Adams (Johnny Burnett was a shortstop with the Indians from 1927 to '34), Weaver Blondin of the University of the District of Columbia (Buck Weaver hit .272 in nine seasons with the White Sox), Houston Baptist's Boone Almanza ( Ray Boone was a sometime shortstop for the Indians and the Tigers in the '40s and '50s), and Alcorn State's Stanley Davenport and Purdue's Russell Cross (the A's Fred Stanley and the Dodgers' Bill Russell are still active).
Sorry, only half-credit for Louisville's Scooter McCray.