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The Prose Pro
Daniel Okrent
May 06, 2013
A NEW COLLECTION OF COLUMNS FROM THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA SHOWS HOW RED SMITH BECAME A MASTER OF THE PAGE, ONE EXQUISITE SENTENCE AT A TIME
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May 06, 2013

The Prose Pro

A NEW COLLECTION OF COLUMNS FROM THE LIBRARY OF AMERICA SHOWS HOW RED SMITH BECAME A MASTER OF THE PAGE, ONE EXQUISITE SENTENCE AT A TIME

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There's nothing to writing," Smith liked to say. "All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." As much as he disliked the act of writing, he loved the reporting. For Smith, an interview was a conversation, less question-and-answer exercise than bantering dialogue, never made formal by the intrusion of pen or tape recorder. He never took notes. His ear for the music of speech enabled him to preserve the salient quotes, just as his eye could capture the revealing facial expression. Then he'd summon a fully realized individual from his typewriter.

His favorite spectator sports were baseball, boxing and thoroughbred racing. Fishing was the only sport he participated in; his fishing columns were his most personal pieces, written in a tranquillity other sports rarely afforded him. If most sports page readers had no interest in fishing itself, they could still be captured by perfect little sentences like this one from 1950: "A pair of loons flew overhead, taking their time."

I think Smith most loved the fights, and the fighters, and the trainers, and even a few of the promoters. He generally abided the essential violence of boxing, confining his outrage to the occasional dishonesty of a fighter's performance. Apart from his rare pieces about political subjects, I don't think Smith ever summoned outrage equal to his condemnation of Jersey Joe Walcott's mendacious 1953 rematch with Rocky Marciano. Walcott made no visible effort, and to Smith this was a capital crime. "Walcott was guaranteed a quarter of a million dollars for this night's work," he wrote. "If its finish guarantees his departure from boxing, the price was not too great."

In 1967, the Trib's successor, the World-Journal-Tribune, closed its doors. After four chilly years during which Smith's only New York outlet was Women's Wear Daily, The New York Times brought him in from the cold, and in 1976 he won a Pulitzer for commentary. For the next 11 years he wrote more energetically about the NFL than he had before, but mostly he remained attached to boxing, baseball and the ponies. He had a lot to say about Muhammad Ali—first crankily negative, later largely positive—and also about Secretariat and Henry Aaron and Reggie Jackson and Seattle Slew. Memorial columns eulogizing men he had known in his long career appeared more frequently. So did ambling, loose-limbed pieces connecting the sporting present to the sporting past.

On Jan. 11, 1982, the headline above Smith's column read WRITE LESS—AND BETTER? In the second sentence he announced that he was cutting back to three columns a week. Then he goes about his digressive way, recalling the years when he wrote seven times a week, which leads to an anecdote set at Arlington Park in Chicago, which in turn yields a lovely anecdote about Sonny Liston. Almost as if catching his breath, he stops to report that the two questions he is most often asked are "Of all those you have met, who was the best athlete?" and "Which one did you like best?" This had an oddly valedictory ring to it, as did the very last line: "Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."

That was the last sentence Red Smith wrote. He died four days later, having traveled something like 8,000,000 words from Green Bay.

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