American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith
By Woody Wilder
Red Smith was not in my brain’s rolodex a month ago. This isn’t the best thing for a J-school student to admit, especially since I’m interested in sports journalism; however, I can now safely say, I’ve been educated thanks to “American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith,” a five hundred page compilation of Smith’s best writings, edited by Daniel Okrent.
A Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Smith’s columns span nearly five decades from the mid 1930s until his death in 1982. My generation, who came alone well after Smith’s death, is far removed from the height of his career. His writing takes us back to moments buried deep in sporting lore. Stadiums we’ve only see in black and white photos. Moments we only witness through grainy video. Sounds that echo through a muffled radio voice. “American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith” brings these moments to life.
The collection travels the globe. One moment we find Smith in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Pages later, he’s flown across the Atlantic to Gothenburg, Sweden. From there he walks the footsteps of Joshua in Jericho and ends up covering the terror of the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
When in the states, we find the places of old–far removed from the sparkling new stadia popping up over the country. He brings us into Ebbets Field and Polo Grounds–home sites of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The teams have since moved across the country and stadiums demolished to rubble, but Smith’s stories remain. History preserved.
Then there are the players–ney, legends—he covered. Ruth. Seabiscuit. Clay. The greatest to ever grace their respective fields, downs or rings.
Smith wasn’t limited to these demigods. His piece on minor leaguer Bunny Griffiths is one of his best.
Tucked away in his writing are many anecdotes akin to the one of Griffiths. For instance, his story on the Dead Sea Downs, an ancient racetrack of Bedouin camel jockeys. According to legend, this is where Muhammad began a horse breeding operation. Golden nuggets like this are what I found so amazing about Smith. He just didn’t write about what he saw, but also, what he’d been told.
Above his travel, his anecdotes and style, what I enjoyed about Smith’s columns were how they painted the sporting landscape of his time – a time that I can only experience vicariously. It’s unimaginable to think of a time when Army could hammer Notre Dame 59-0.
Smith loved baseball, boxing and horse racing. He also covered the odd topics–fishing, dog breeding and pole vaulting. The latter of which he describes, “ordinarily, pole vaulting inspires no divine passion…as a spectacle, it compares favorably with a typewriting speed contest or women’s basketball.”
It’s Smith stance on pole vaulting that sums up what he did so well. Bring the ordinary and make it extraordinary. He used ordinary sports to make extraordinary columns.