Curiously, for all the pleasure he took in it, he was an accidental sportswriter. As he told the story, he was a junior man on the news copy desk at The St. Louis Star, just a few years into his career, making about $40 a week, when the editor, the redoubtable Frank Taylor, discovered that half his six-man sports staff was on the take from a local fight promoter and fired them. Looking around for a replacement, he called my father over and supposedly the following conversation ensued:
Once he got into it, he relished writing sports and thought it was as good a vehicle as any to shed some light on the human condition. “I never felt any prodding need to solve the problems of the world,” he said in an interview years later. “I feel that keeping the public informed in any area is a perfectly worthwhile way to spend your life. Sports constitute a valid part of our culture, our civilization, and keeping the public informed, and, if possible, a little entertained about sports is not an entirely useless thing.”
TAYLOR: Do you know anything about sports, Smith?
SMITH: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
TAYLOR: They tell me you’re very good on football.
SMITH: Well, if you say so.
TAYLOR: Are you honest?
SMITH: I hope so, sir.
TAYLOR: What if a fight promoter offered you $10, would you take it?
SMITH (long pause): $10 is a lot of money, sir.
TAYLOR: Report to the sports editor Monday.
But during World War II, when he was the father of two and 4-F because of his eyesight and covering “games children play” for The Philadelphia Record while others were at the front, he admitted to a “desperate feeling of being useless.”
“I was traveling with the last-place Philadelphia Athletics,” he recalled, “and more than once, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” He comforted himself with the published report that FDR thought sports were important for morale. Readers, he said, could read the war news first and then turn to sports to get updated on what he described as “matters of major inconsequence.”
Pop roamed off the sports beat occasionally, covering the national political conventions in 1956 and 1968, but when invited to expand his column to politics and world affairs, as James “Scotty” Reston and others had done before him, he declined. Same answer when he was asked to become the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. No, he said, the column was his thing, the one thing he did best. He’d stick with it. I think he would have been a good editor, maybe even exceptionally good, but he was not drawn to management and titles never interested him.
He defined himself as a newspaperman, not a sportswriter or columnist. “I’d like to be remembered as a good reporter,” he said in more than one interview, and he meant the much-advertised romance of journalism was real to him, as real in his seventies as it was when he left Green Bay, Wisconsin, for his string of newspaper jobs. Until he reached The New York Times, already at normal retirement age, he had always worked for the second newspaper in a city. “I killed ‘em all,” he’d say with a smile.
He was often described as modest and unassuming, and he did adopt an aw-shucks diffidence in the face of prizes and praise. It wasn’t exactly an act; he thought he was lucky to have had the chance to do all that he did. But he worked devilishly hard, took his writing, if not himself, seriously, constantly sought to be better, and bathed in the admiration he received, especially from colleagues. As Daniel Okrent notes in the introduction to American Pastimes, he was stung when Arthur Daley won the Pulitzer before he did, and he often dismissed the prize as a sop given by the journalistic old-boy network to its favorites on the establishment papers.
Until he won his own Pulitzer, that is, on May 3, 1976, at age seventy.
I was the New York Times correspondent in Israel at the time. When I reached him on the phone in the midst of a newsroom celebration, champagne corks popping in the background, I dead-panned: “You’ll refuse it, of course.” He lowered his voice and growled into the mouthpiece: “Not on your life!” We both laughed our heads off. I was enormously pleased, and so was he.