“Give us this day our daily plinth,” my father, Red Smith, and his pal, Joe Palmer, the racing columnist, would pray, one with a scotch and soda in hand, the other bourbon and branch water, as they convened in Palmer’s book-lined study at the end of a day. It was their private joke—a plinth is the base of a column—but the prayer was fervent. My father’s search for his plinth was unending.
Walter Wellesley (Red) Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin on September 25, 1905. He decided early on that he wanted to go to Notre Dame and become a newspaperman, just the way an older kid he admired had done, so he did. Simple as that. New York was always his goal, but his route was roundabout: The Milwaukee Sentinel, The St. Louis Star, The Philadelphia Record, and, finally, the big time: the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Along the way, he must have written thousands of sports columns, becoming arguably the best in the business, right up until his death in 1982. Now a new collection, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, is being published by Library of America.
In my memory, Pop was always writing a column, in a press box at the ballpark or racetrack, in his basement office at home, in a plane or train, or in the family car on summer vacation trips to Wisconsin. He would balance his Olivetti portable on his knees in the passenger seat, typing as my mother drove, shushing my sister, Kit, and me in the back seat. Once, when we moved into our house in Connecticut, he had the movers set up a table and chair beneath a tree and wrote a column there. It was moving day, but his deadline was looming, as always.
The columns, including those so ably collected in American Pastimes, were his métier, although he would have sneered at that word. The form suited him. He was good at capturing an event or a thought or a story in 800 words or so, often with an elegant phrase or a snatch of dialogue or the perfect anecdote. He demurred repeatedly when people urged him to write a full-length book about sports or anything else. “I’d rather go to the dentist,” he’d say.
Later in life, the suggestion of a biography or, worse yet, an autobiography, was dismissed out of hand. “To be written about is to be written off,” he told me more than once. That’s not true, of course, but it revealed his lifelong anxiety about being passed over or forgotten.
Even when he had become the most widely read sports columnist in the country and collected his share of awards, he worried aloud, at least to me, about whether his contract would be renewed, whether the paper would want someone else, someone younger and fresher, to take his place. He always described himself as “a working stiff.” That was one reason he always took the side of baseball players in their salary and contract disputes with owners. He saw himself as a performer, never an owner.
The column was his contract with life. As long as he was writing it, he felt he was in the center of things, that he still mattered. That’s why he kept at it until the week he died. As long as he was writing, he was part of the world he had lived and loved. Newspapermen were not just his colleagues, they were the best of his friends, the people he chose to spend time with, on and off the beat.
The annual sports calendar provided his material and often established our family’s rituals: spring training in Florida, the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, then the Preakness in Baltimore, the Belmont in New York, Saratoga in August, baseball through the summer, the World Series and college football in the fall, heavyweight championship fights, and, every four years, the Olympic Games. It made for an intoxicating mix.