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RED
A Biography of Red Smith
By Ira Berkow

Reviewer: Marc Maturo, MarcMyWords.net; Lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) and sports copy editor for The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y.


Twenty-six years after his death, the legendary sports writer Red Smith remains a compelling figure for anyone who appreciates great writing, even if his basically consisted of 54 years of reportage on the world of fun and games and the varied people who were often skewered by Red's witticisms.

His start in 1927 at the Milwaukee Sentinel took him to the New York Times, which gave Walter Wellesley Smith, or "Red," another start in life when, in his 60s, he wrote to, "try to get as close to the truth as possible."

Berkow, who was fortunate enough to call Red a colleague, also does his best to get as close to the truth as possible. There are many interesting anecdotes in this 294-page tome, but one that strikes to the heart of the author was Red's apparent disdain for the Pulitzer Prize and the politics incumbent with winning one -- that is, until Red himself was bestowed the honor in 1976. While celebrating during a party at the Times, with another Pulitzer winner -- the writer Sydney Schanberg for his writing on Cambodia -- Red received a phone call from his son Terry, who was in Israel on the day he found out his dad had won. Terry, knowing full well about Red's beliefs, said to his dad, rhetorically, "You'll refuse it, of course." Replied Red, without missing a beat, "Not on your life." Terry persisted: "You mean, after all these years saying how corrupt the Pulitzer is, now you're going to take it." And Red, impish as always, responded quickly, with a hearty laugh, "Precisely."

The belated prize, certainly deserved, was not necessary, of course, to validate the remarkable career that Red enjoyed until he faded at the end, and finally closed his eyes for a final time on Jan. 15, 1982. A smallish man, with a crooked smile and an anti-Howard Cosell countenance, Red never flaunted his social stature and was always a welcome addition to any press box. He never took himself too seriously, and even though he did remarkably well on those few times he ventured outside the sports realm, covering political conventions, Red was absolutely content and always told anyone within earshot that writing about sports truly beat working for a living.

Of course, consider some of the objects of his attention and eloquent writing style. Figures such as Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, and Joe DiMaggio, and the writer Ernest Hemingway. It was The Yankee Clipper -- DiMaggio -- and the great jockey Bill Shoemaker whom Red placed on a pedestal, perhaps because both of those tremendous athletes best mirrored the grace and style and humble stature of Red himself. They both had traits that Red admired, and were traits that most describe the writer. Above all, Red was self-effacing; for instance, Berkow points out that Red never once negotiated a pay raise and really never worried about amassing wealth, living comfortably in Stamford, Conn. Although sports writers of his time were never rolling in dough ("You don't get into the business to make money," Red would say), Red couldn't be bought. Listen to this tale by the late Barney Nagler, another of Red's contemporaries: when Red was brought to New York by the Herald Tribune, from Philadelphia, in 1945, Nagler was walking along Broadway with Herman Taylor, a fight promoter from Philly. So Nagler, trying to find out something about the new guy, Smith, asked Taylor what he knew about Red. "Herman," asked Nagler, "what kind of guy is this Red Smith?" And Taylor, without tongue planted in cheek, replied, "He's not a good guy. You can't trust him. He won't take (bribes)."

Perhaps this apparent disregard for money stemmed from Red's early childhood growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where his dad ran a grocery business and where, one summer, Red drove a delivery truck. But, remembers Red, "I always had it good," despite the contretemps with his older brother Art, who was more volatile than his sibling. Where Art would erupt, Red would contemplate, an early indication of the writer's deliberate and thoughtful style.

Berkow brings much to life in Red, including his battles with George Steinbrenner and the writer Dick Young, and provides many little details such as Red's painstaking time behind the typewriter and then, ultimately, the VDT (video display terminal) of the modern era. Red would strive for the perfect word, the perfect phrasing, the perfect context. Yet, surprisingly, Red did very little editing or rewriting, leaving the editing, sparse though it might have been, to others. Usually, Red would sit down and knock out his columns, his irreverence and insight and support of the "little man" nearly always coming through with grace and style. In RED, Berkow liberally sprinkles excerpts of Smith's columns, all of which reflect the writer's wonderful way with words. Berkow's words, too, are wonderful. Pick up RED and pick up a bit of American history, and be reminded once again that even in sports, great writing can be found.


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