The Red Smith Reader
To Absent Friends from Red Smith
Late Innings: A Baseball Companion
“Hollywood,” wrote Johnny Mercer, is the place “where you’re terrific if you’re even good.” But you don’t have to go to Hollywood to attain this pleasant, vaguely humiliating condition; sportswriting will do.
Selected sportswriters get canonized by the faithful in every major city, and a precious few become national cults, but no matter how glibly or fervently they are honored, their impact on the outside world of letters remains slightly less than that of a movie starlet—and the best of them know it. When the late, wonderfully fluent John Lardner tried a regular humor column in the London Times, he became as awkward as a circus bear, as if he were performing for his betters; and in The Red Smith Reader, the few political pieces just read like sports pieces without the sports. Smith’s jauntiness seems for once out of tune and self-conscious, because politics is a different kind of joke.
Both Smith (also, alas, late) and Roger Angell, two of the very best, seem well aware of this deforming bind, and it affects their work. Smith was often praised for reminding his readers that baseball was a game that small boys could play: but so are mathematics and the violin. It hardly seems worth repeating. But Smith was a super self-deprecator, midwestern Catholic division (see under Eugene McCarthy, whose attitude toward the presidency was cerily similar to Red Smith’s on Sport), and this was one of the ways he did it. “I never had any soaring ambition to be a sportswriter per se,” he writes in a stuttering sort of preface, “I wanted to be a newspaperman…. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that…. I haven’t been ashamed of what I’ve done. I seem to be making apologies for it. I don’t mean to….” In short, a soul, or at least a persona, on the rack.
In real life, Red (it seems pertinent to say that I knew him) was capable of forgetting for weeks at a time that baseball could be played by small boys. In the late, bad hours, when lesser men may be found wrestling with the meaning of meaning, Smith would most likely be grubbing gleefully through the Baseball Encyclopedia to prove that Travis Jackson did so belong in the Hall of Fame. His world was sport, small boys or no, and he strayed from it at his peril.
But he did get some outside fame anyway—a mention in Hemingway, an appointment to a board of language purists for the American Heritage Dictionary—and the guess here (a phrase he used to bypass the first person, which he avoided like Yaweh in the Old Testament) is that the recognition flustered him a little. Hence the ungainly attempts to apologize and not apologize for his subject in the same breath; hence also an increase as he went along in think-pieces: analyses of the players’ union and other sub-athletic matters. He …