Reading Red Smith

My father-in-law sends me books. A few times a year I’ll find a cardboard box from Amazon resting on the stoop when I get home from work, and when this happens I know without looking who the package is from. This year, over the holiday, he sent me The Red Smith Reader.

The late Red Smith began his career as a sportswriter in 1928, before television was invented. He kept hammering out newspaper columns until more than half a century later, when sports had become obsessively televised commodities. On first glance, The Red Smith Reader suggests a past when our nation’s sports culture was simpler than it is today. The front cover is dominated by a black-and-white photo of Red Smith himself, aging, gray, bespectacled, tenderly tugging a sheet of paper out of his typewriter.

I began by reading the chapter on football. I read it hoping to find a kind of founding mythos of the game about the toothless tough men who played the sport purely for love. I was looking for Red Smith to transport me to a halcyon moment in football history, because, from my perspective at least, 2007 was a terrible year for pro football. The Dolphins went 1-15; the Patriots became gods among men; and we all had to watch (repeatedly) Jessica Simpson do her awkward “I’m Tony Romo’s girlfriend” shimmy in the Princess Box at Texas Stadium. Needless to say, I’m glossing over the truly ugly news about the NFL in 2007—the revelations of Michael Vick’s dog-fighting, Ted Johnson’s early-onset senility, and the NFL’s bogus ignorance of football’s effects on the human brainpan. Before the season started, I was already sick of the NFL; the games just made things worse.

Red Smith might be the antidote, I thought. He might restore some gravitas to a game that has become all too Sports Center.

The first piece in the football section of The Red Smith Reader is a 1968 article about Vince Lombardi, which begins: “After lunch the players lounged about the hotel patio watching the surf fling white plumes high against the darkening sky. Clouds were piling up in the west… Vince Lombardi frowned.”

Perfect! Austere, moody, a bit purple. I was right, it seemed; in the not-too-distant past, football was a noble sport, played and coached by men of substance.

It turns out, though, that Smith was also very alert to the ironies and hypocrisies of our national obsession with football. In a 1969 column about Joe Namath’s ill-fated ownership of a bar in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Smith reminds us that “professional athletes must be more particular about the company they keep than sportswriters, Senators, or Supreme Court justices.” As he points out this absurd double standard, Smith strikes a tone different from the cool irony of ESPN and the heartbroken moaning of contemporary sports columnists like the Times’ George Vescey and the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan. Smith raises a question about the fairness and sanity of our heroic expectations of sports stars; Vescey, Ryan and others too often seem to take such expectations for granted.

In 1972, Smith wrote an entire column about long-time Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney. Far from humble hagiography, the piece depicts Rooney as a talented, profane man with an overactive gambling instinct. It’s hard to imagine any of ESPN’s sleek corporate soldiers digging into the less-than-saintly life of an NFL owner. But this sort of inquiry was Red Smith’s bread-and-butter.

In other words, Red Smith wrote about football players, owners, and coaches as flawed human beings living in a complicated world, a world bigger than the game of football. Now that we have several 24-hour networks devoted exclusively to sports, though, the game is bigger than the world. According to our Manichean media, the players are either heroes or goats; they overcome adversity or they squander their talent. I think Red Smith would have loved the Tony Romo-Jessica Simpson story, but he would not have wasted time questioning Romo’s character. Where art thou, Romo? In Cabo with your pink-jersey-ed starlet, of course. Not because it’s smart, not because it’s the best thing for the team, but because you wanted to go. And where were you at the time, Jerry Jones? Doing what? With whom? And where, dear reader, were you?

Red Smith on the ’42 WOrld Series: “It could only happen in Brooklyn. Nowhere else in this broad, untidy universe, not in Bedlam nor in Babel or in the remotest psychopathic ward… Only in the ancestral home of the Dodgers… could a man win a World Series game by striking out.”

— Mark B.    Jan 15, 04:29 PM    #


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