A review of American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith (The Library of America), by Daniel Okrent
In 2004 Frank McCourt, a real estate developer from Boston, bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for $430 million. In 2012 he sold the franchise for $2 billion.
Knowing just those two prices, one might conclude that McCourt is a brilliant businessman. Twenty-one percent is an extraordinary annual return on investment across any eight-year period, after all, but miraculous when those eight years included the worst recession and lowest interest rates since the 1930s.
In fact, McCourt's stewardship of the team was a disaster. By 2011 the baseball commissioner appointed a special representative to oversee the Dodgers, after expressing "deep concerns" about the organization's finances and operations. The public relations debacles that year included not only McCourt's divorce and the attendant ugliness about whether his wife co-owned the team, but a brawl at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day that left one fan hospitalized for months with brain damage. The team was sold only after Major League Baseball insisted on bankruptcy and forced McCourt's departure.
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By the time of his eviction from Chavez Ravine, McCourt was held in greater contempt than any southern Californian not part of the Kardashian family. How, then, did the Dodgers' market value increase five-fold? Technology—specifically, the digital video recorder, whereby millions of American television viewers watch recorded shows when they choose to, rather than when networks or cable channels broadcast the programs. DVRs were rarities in 2004, but household commonplaces by 2012. And people who use them routinely hit the fast-forward button during commercials, thereby diminishing the value of the broadcasting industry's biggest revenue stream. Advertisers, understandably, pay more for the opportunity to present millions of viewers the entirety of a carefully crafted 30-second commercial than for the prospect most viewers will see a fleeting glimpse of a product or logo.
There is one big exception to this rule of the new media universe—sporting events. People who watch them prefer, overwhelmingly, to do so in "real time," a neologism that reflects how the space-time continuum cards dealt to our ancestors have suddenly been reshuffled. Sports fans who watch games as they unfold, rather than record them for subsequent viewing, can't fast-forward through the commercials. Because they desire to see the events as they're happening, instead of viewing recorded games whose scores they've already read on their smartphones, they are the one remaining audience of captive eyeballs, the kind television advertisers used to take for granted. The premise of the $2 billion purchase of the Dodgers was that the value of the broadcast rights to their games was about to explode. And, indeed, earlier this year the new owners reached a deal with TimeWarner Cable, worth between $7 and 8 billion over the next quarter-century, to create a regional sports network featuring Dodgers games.
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All this makes 2013 an incongruous and elegiac year for the Library of America to publish a collection of Red Smith's best work. Who needs accounts of athletic events completed six decades ago when no one can be bothered to take advantage of the opportunity to watch a game played six hours ago? The Library of America has offered collections by A.J. Liebling and Ring Lardner, which include their sports writing but other work as well. It has also published an anthology of writing about baseball, and another about boxing. Walter Wellesley Smith (1905-1982) is, however, the first writer to join the Library of America pantheon solely on the basis of sports journalism. He broke a similar barrier in 1976 when he became the first sportswriter awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Smith began working for the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1927, after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. (According to Daniel Okrent's Introduction to American Pastimes, an N.D. professor had taught him that the goal in writing was to make every sentence "so definite that it would cast a shadow.") He moved to the St. Louis Star in 1928, began using his nickname for the byline when he joined the Philadelphia Record in 1936, and was hired by the New York Herald Tribune in 1945. That famous paper sank beneath the waves in 1966, setting Smith's column adrift. Though syndicated, it appeared locally only in Women's Wear Daily under the heading "Sportif." In 1971 he joined the New York Times, where he worked the next decade, his final column appearing four days before his death from heart failure.
Smith's half-century career encompassed the golden age of sports, and of journalism. Radio and newsreels made Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis some of the most famous Americans of their time. After World War II television turned Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax, Arnold Palmer, and Vince Lombardi into stars, and heroes. Thus, even by the time Red Smith filed his first sports story—the earliest piece in American Pastimes is a 1934 report on Dizzy Dean and the St. Louis Cardinals—other communications media had successfully challenged the newspaper's dominance as a source for raw information. Newspapers' ability to tell you the outcome of games—or elections, trials, and battles—that you didn't already know from radio and TV diminished steadily from his first day on the job until his last. People read newsapers avidly, less to learn what happened than how they should regard it. Smith's editor at the Herald Tribune sent him to one World Series with no particular assignment, just the directive to "write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway."
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His craft for discerning and conveying revelatory details was such that Smith's devoted readers came to feel that a game was still unresolved—even if they knew the outcome, even if they had attended and watched the entire contest from box seats—until they read his account of it at the breakfast table or on the subway the next morning. There cannot have been a baseball fan from Shelter Island to Cape May who opened the Herald Tribune on October 4, 1951, unaware of the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run the previous afternoon. Nor can it have been a surprise to the readers of any of the 100 other newspapers around the country that carried Smith's column. Thomson's hit made the New York Giants National League champions, even though the Brooklyn Dodgers never trailed in their playoff game from the first inning until the last pitch, just as they appeared to have put the pennant out of reach when they opened a 12½—game lead over the Giants on August 10. But readers didn't grasp what happened at the Polo Grounds until they read Smith, who produced what Okrent calls "the platonic ideal of a column about a major sports event." It began:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
Down on the green and white and earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs head-on into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.
Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking, back across the first-base line. Again he shakes loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants' clubhouse.
At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.
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Okrent calculates that Smith wrote 8 million words in his career, parceled out in some 10,000 columns. Few were quite as splendid as "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff," but by all evidence and accounts hardly any of them were less than very good. There is, certainly, not one weak link in the chain of 176 offered in American Pastimes. His admirers believed that Smith's work was usually the best writing in any given newspaper on any given topic the day it was published. Since his column appeared so often—four times a week for the Times, down from every day for the Herald Tribune, down from as many as 10 a week in Philadelphia—that meant every other journalist on the payroll came to work competing for the silver medal.
As ably as he did it, Smith professed to dislike writing. "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein." This line, his most famous, is not among the 8 million words he wrote, but something he uttered, which is why different versions circulate. Though possibly misquoted, he appears not to have been misjudged: Smith really did complain about the difficulty of writing. He never complained about reporting, though. Smith's favorite sports were baseball, boxing, and horseracing. The first is still popular but ceased to be the national pastime years before Smith's death. The ring and the racetrack were essential venues for mid-20th century American sports, but have long since become financially beleaguered sideshows. Covering those beats obligated Smith to do what he loved—hang out in the raffish milieu of eccentrics, dreamers, and reprobates that enveloped each pastime. Even more than his contemporaries did, modern readers will value Smith's recreation of that world, as lost to us as the days when men and women, all wearing hats, waited to board streetcars.
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Lost as well is the cultural space someone like Smith occupied as the authoritative interpreter of one slice of the human experience. The decline of newspapers—of reading—and the fragmentation of audiences for all kinds of stories and arguments, guarantee that sports will never have another Red Smith, even as politics will never have another Walter Lippmann. Their local counterparts have vanished as well. The columns he wrote over a 58-year period made Herb Caen, according to his Pulitzer Prize citation, "a voice and a conscience" of San Francisco. Mayor Richard J. Daley may have run Chicago from 1955 to 1976, but his chief critic and antagonist, Mike Royko, explained the city to itself in brilliant columns that ran in the Daily News and, after its demise, the Tribune. Marshall McLuhan argued that no story in the daily newspaper was as important as the fact that thousands of us were all reading the same paper, strengthening social and civic ligatures frayed by modern life. That shared orientation no longer obtains, as individuals exercise their inalienable right to customize a private news feed by capturing, deliberately or randomly, items from the swarm of accounts, screeds, and amusements darting through cyberspace.
Sportswriters have long deprecated their subject, referring to a newspaper's sports section as the Toy Department. (Okrent records that Frank Deford celebrated being named Sportswriter of the Year by titling a collection The World's Tallest Midget.) A journalist who covers them knows better than anyone that sports are avidly followed but often cynically rendered, as the scandals of performance-enhancing drugs and organized football's belated concern about concussions remind us.
But sports can transport substantial, genuine cargo as well. If they didn't exist, no conversation between newly introduced American men would continue beyond the third minute. The metropolis bound together by the commitment to improve schools or reduce violent crime would be better than one sharing only a passionate devotion to the home team—but worse than one bound together by nothing. "What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about," wrote Roger Angell, one of Smith's worthiest successors. "And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved."
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Red Smith, a superior writer describing superior athletes, connected his readers to that feeling better than anyone who ever sat in a press box. To read his accounts of ancient games played by forgotten competitors not only retrieves the history of sport but sharpens our sense of the moral psychology that draws us to ESPN today. With sentences so definite they cast a shadow, American Pastimes connects us to the part of the human spirit elevated by competition.