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Red Smith: “Tomorrow will be better” American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

by Andrew Smith Collections of old newspaper columns often are painful to read. With time, context and currency have faded, and observations that once seemed fresh or witty now seem trite and stale. One happy exception, however, is “American Pastimes,” the recently released compilation of work by sports columnist Red Smith, spanning his work for the St. Louis Star covering Dizzy Dean to 1934 to his final column for the New York Times, written just days before he died in January 1982. More than three decades after that last column, any paper, any magazine, any website would be thrilled to publish work that sparkles and moves like this. I became a reader of news in the 1970s. I would read sections of the Times as my father discarded them. Fortunately for me, he didn’t share my interest in sports, so that was what I often got first. My day, therefore, often began with Red Smith (and got steadily more dreary from there). As editor Daniel Okrent says in his excellent introduction, “Smith was tall enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest prose artists in 20th century American literature.” His subject was ultimately unimportant and his touch often was light, but what he crafted on deadline was memorable and powerful. Okrent has organized the book both chronologically and by subject matter. Smith adored baseball, boxing and fishing in particular, so long stretches of columns are sorted into sections on those topics. Other columns are divided into sections by decade, and they show his versatility. Smith moved from the Philadelphia Record to the New York Herald Tribune in 1945. In those dark days before ESPN made sports (and talking about sports, and talking about talking about sports) all too available, the Herald Tribune was one of the loudest megaphones a writer could have. The top New York papers had influence as far as the Mississippi River – and when none of the major sports leagues had teams on the West Coast, that megaphone essentially covered the entire sporting world. Or so New York editors

Authors: Terence Smith, Walkter Wellesley “Red” Smith and Daniel Okrent Publisher: The Library of America, New York iBook: $14.99, 576 pages

must have thought, anyway. Smith had no portfolio. He covered no single sport and often made a point of looking at the periphery of the scene – that place where many good reporters find telling details. “An intense focus on the sideshow to the main event was essential to Smith’s craft,” Okrent notes. “Not the roaring cars hurtling around the Indianapolis Speedway, but the faces and clothing and refreshment choices of the crowd in the infield.” He displayed the beauty of finding your own story and telling it in your own voice. He didn’t love all sports. Despite his fascination with boxing, that most violent of all sports, he looked down on motor racing. He wrote disdainfully of “the sports car faith, a booming religion whose ritual includes human sacrifice,” as if that was never part of boxing’s attraction. Many of Smith’s columns about fishing are as much languid travelogues as they are about fishing. He takes us flyfishing in Beaverkill, near Roscoe, N.Y., and bass fishing all over the East Coast. These columns usually featured some dopey men facing off against dim-witted fish, and the victor was usually beside the point. In Martha’s Vineyard, for example, Smith tells us, “A guy would make a few fruitless casts, then thrust the butt of his rod into the sand and go light up a cigarette and tell some lies.” The point was just to be there. He was at his genius best when he married commentary to observation, as when he described the mayor of New York throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Ebbets Field: “Then he threw the ball, a weak little blooper that plopped

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almost unnoticed on the turf. By this time the band was parading to the flagpole, flanked by enough military to occupy Formosa.” He later quoted Dodgers manager Billy Herman arguing with the umpire: “You are a short word of AngloSaxon origin.” This is how to delete an expletive. Later, when the Mets (“those goldenhearted clowns of all creation”) became amazing in 1969, he captured the baseless optimism colored by cruel history that is true even now. He wrote about a true believer who “had been watching the Mets ever since they introduced the pratfall to baseball back in 1962.” Which makes his last line of the last game so delicious, after pitcher Jerry Koosman completed the win. “When it ended, Koosman was wearing his catcher like prayer beads.” He also knew the beauty of specificity. Writing about the first epic battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in 1971, Smith wrote that “it was as though Joe Frazier had hit him with a baseball bat, Frank Howard model.” Not just a bat, but an awfully big one. It was a reference guaranteed to get a knowing smile from readers. So was the line from the rematch in Manila, that an Ali shot “sent Frazier reeling back on a stranger’s legs.” Smith often compared writing to being bled to death. He took to heart Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view that “easy reading is damn hard writing.” But in that very last column in 1982, he explained why he kept at it. “One of the beauties of this job is that there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow things will be better.” It’s the journalist’s credo. n


Opening the Pentagon Papers by Scott Lambert Whistleblowers, leakers, and a battle between the working press and the government. James Goodale’s “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles” tells a story that has just as much importance today as it did in 1972, when the battle for press freedom reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Goodale, the lead attorney for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case, gives a firsthand description from the Earl Caldwell case that became Branzburg v. Hayes to the culmination of the Pentagon Papers case, with the Supreme Court voting 6-3 to allow publication of the papers. In early 1972, the New York Times published a number of stories that chronicled the deception of the U.S. government regarding the war in Vietnam. The papers, many of them historical in nature, provided instances where the government lied to the public about what it was doing and documented the mistakes made in fighting the war in Vietnam. The U.S. government tried to enjoin the New York Times from publishing, saying that the papers were classified, and that publishing the papers would be a breach of national security. Goodale puts the reader in the boardrooms as the decisions to take this case to court are made. He explains the strategies and the mistakes that were made. The book moves at a surprisingly fast pace, with enough twists and turns

What stands out in this book are the parallels that can be drawn from the Pentagon Papers to today’s headlines. Goodale ends the book with a warning about President Barack Obama, writing that the current president is reminiscent of Nixon in many ways – and could be worse. to make the reader think he or she is a part of the case. The strength of Goodale’s book is the writing. Although he sometimes writes with a touch of arrogance and tends to name-drop, Goodale manages to give the reader an inside look at one of the most important media Supreme Court cases – and he does so in a way that makes the reader wonder what will happen next. Even though the book is nonfiction, it has wonderful characters, from Richard M. Nixon, the president who wants to take down the media, to the plucky lawyers from Goodale’s team who helped to win the case. Goodale writes with a storyteller’s clarity, building drama and making sure to delineate the good guys from the bad. He builds suspense with every legal decision made en route to the Supreme Court, and he also details the good and bad jobs done by the lawyers arguing the case on both sides. The only negative is the sometimes condescending tone that Goodale takes. Get past that and the book is a great read. What stands out in this book are the parallels that can be drawn from the Pentagon Papers to today’s headlines. Goodale ends the book with a warning

about President Barack Obama, writing that the current president is reminiscent of Nixon in many ways – and could be worse. He points out that Obama is currently indicting more U.S. citizens under the Espionage Act, the same charge the government tried Daniel Ellsburg with, than any other president in the country’s history. He warns that the current approach of many news organizations of bringing stories to the government first, before publishing, can become a major problem in the freedom of the press. He cautions at the same time that news feeds should become aware of the NSA spying on the public and the Department of Justice tapping the phones of the Associated Press. The Pentagon Papers case and Branzburg v. Hayes are two important Supreme Court cases for anyone involved in the press. Their importance, and the importance of First Amendment law, become even more critical as media try to find their footing in light of WikiLeaks and the government’s pursuit of all whistleblowers. Goodale’s book is a good way to become acquainted with this important history. n

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles Author: James Goodale Publisher: CUNY Journalism Press, 2013 Paperback: $20, 260 pages Summer 2013 • Gateway Journalism Review • Page 29

Gjr vol43 no331  
Gjr vol43 no331