Perhaps the highest compliment Ira Berkow can receive is that he wrote a story about Red Smith that is almost as interesting and entertaining as a story by Red Smith.
Certainly Berkow, a New York Times sportswriter, and most other sportswriters in this country would take an "almost" in this context as unmatchable praise. Smith was a legend in his time. And when his time ended, when he died at age 76 in January, 1982, the field of sports journalism had lost a leader and gained a legacy.
For most of the 1960s and '70s, the pedestal that held those who were the best at writing about fun and games and had the biggest readership of those who followed the fun and games had room for two: Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times and Smith of the New York Times. They were America's literary bookends of sport, bicoastal boys of summer, not to mention just about every other season where games were played and score was kept. When Smith died, and only then, did the pedestal belong to Murray alone, as it does to this day.
Berkow's book starts slowly, bogging down in too much early childhood and boy-goes-to-college material. But for those who can wade through that, it is worth the pair of hip-boots. When it finally starts to unravel, the story of Red Smith is one for the sports fan and for the nonfan alike.
In his last few years, when Smith was aging badly but still turning out some of the finest work appearing on any sports pages anywhere, he became a pied piper of sorts. Young and not-so-young sportswriters followed his every move, chased coffee and quotes for him and phoned their sports desk in euphoria if he remembered their name and actually used it in the same sentence with the word "hello."
In many ways, the adulation was deserved.
Smith had a magic with words that made games into Shakespearean plays that you could understand. His 30-inch columns read like 10. Smith took home runs that were hammered or bashed or clouted over centerfield walls in other stories and floated them just a whisker above the outstretched glove of the outfielder and into the waiting J. C. Penney's glove of the freckled-faced 9-year-old in the first row of the cheap bleacher seats. Reading many other sportswriters of his time was like chomping rock candy. Reading Smith was like eating a pound of whipped cream.
Smith's writing was eloquent, detached. His lines eased into readers' psyche. The lines of others of his era barged through like Pete Rose heading for Ray Fosse.
But to Berkow's credit, he includes some of the out-takes in his star's story. Had he not, had he avoided the pimples and written only of clear skin and nice tan, the story of Red Smith would not have been an honest one, the ultimate embarrassment to those who remember Smith as a very honest Smith.
Berkow writes of a Red Smith who, occasionally, sat on good stories (rather than wanting them) to help out friends; who was bothered more than he cared to be about any editing of his column; who was insecure enough right to the end to fight every cutback of the number of columns he wrote each week, even when the cutbacks were proposed to spare his health; who mocked the choice of Arthur Daley of the New York Times as a Pulitzer Prize winner and never really forgave the Pulitzer people for their bad judgment until he himself won at age 70 in 1976; and a man who, while taking great pride in his family life and doing his best to acquire outside friends and interests, was basically a driven, focused, workaholic newspaperman.
Also, he drank too much. But one of the great, warm moments in the book is when Berkow relates that Smith's son, inquiring of the doctors after his father's death from kidney disease and congestive heart failure, asked what the condition of his liver had been. "Just fine," the doctor reported.
In the end, and in Berkow's book, Smith will be remembered and revered for the unique way his words built pictures of sports and sports figures. He called George Steinbrenner "George III," in honor of the rattle-brained English king; he called the U.S. Olympic officials who threw Tommie Smith and John Carlos off the team for their black-gloved protest in Mexico City in 1968 "playground directors." And he referred to a race horse named in his honor (W. W. Smith for his real name, Walter Wellesely) as "not much to look at, but then, neither was his namesake."
Near the end of the book, Berkow writes: "Few people ever read Smith to find out the score."
For sportswriters whose daily goal it is to take the reader beyond the bare details and into the color and flavor of the games and the people that play them, that is very high praise. In fact, where Red Smith was concerned, somebody should have thought to put that on his gravestone.