Smith, Walter Wellesley ("Red")
SMITH, Walter Wellesley ("Red")
(b. 25 September1905 in Green Bay, Wisconsin; d. 15 January 1982 in Stamford, Connecticut), sports journalist esteemed for his unique blend of incisive commentary, technique, vitality, and humor.
Smith was the second of three children born to Walter Philip Smith, a third-generation wholesale produce and retail groceries salesman, and Ida Richardson, a homemaker. Both Smith and his brother Arthur Richardson were named after the Duke of Wellesley, whose Christian name was Arthur Wellesley. Smith's father gave him the nickname "Brick" because of his hair color. Later in life, "Brick" became "Red," a moniker that endured even after his hair receded and turned white. Smith graduated from East High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1922 with a "B" average and his first writing award, a free copy of the $3 yearbook, which he earned with a humorous essay about the school's debating team. After graduation, he was accepted to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He worked for a year as a clerk for a hardware company to save money for school.
Smith enrolled as a journalism major at Notre Dame in autumn 1923. During his freshman year, he worked for the school newspaper and by his junior year he was editing the university's annual, The Dome. When asked later to name the person on campus he most admired, Smith chose his journalism professor, who stressed factual accuracy, specific and straightforward language, and the importance of expanding one's areas of interest.
Smith graduated cum laude from Notre Dame with a B.A. on 5 June 1927, and he took his first newspaper job as a general assignment reporter for Wisconsin's Milwaukee Sentinel. Looking for a pay raise, he wrote to the St. Louis Star the following year and sold himself as a well-rounded veteran newspaperman. He was hired as a copyreader for $40 per week, a significant increase over the $24 he earned weekly from the Sentinel. Smith moved from copyreading to sportswriting after the paper fired half its sports staff for taking bribes from a wrestling promoter in exchange for favorable publicity.
In 1929, while covering the St. Louis Browns spring training camp, he earned his first byline—"W. W. Smith." He soon became a familiar sight in the Browns press box, typing with the same two-finger style he taught himself in high school. Later that year he met Catherine ("Kay") Cody, whom he married on 11 February 1933. The couple had two children, one of whom, Terence ("Terry") Fitzgerald, became a reporter for the New York Times. They faced hard times at first, because Smith's salary had increased only fifty cents per week since he joined the paper four years earlier. These financial struggles led him to become active in the newly formed American Newspaper Guild.
In June 1932 the Star merged with the St. Louis Times to form the St. Louis Star-Times. The merger forced substantial layoffs and job changes, and Smith became one of only two rewrite men employed by the paper. With the other rewrite man frequently on assignment, Smith often rewrote the entire paper by himself. Rewriting helped Smith's own writing, and he learned to use more concise language and precise images.
In 1936 Smith moved to Philadelphia and became a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Record, where he formed a friendship with the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. His first piece appeared on 20 June 1936 with the byline "Walt Smith." Influenced by his wife, Smith asked for another byline and received one both he and Kay agreed to, "Red." Smith never again published under a different name.
Although he never intended to have a career as a sportswriter, Smith ended up dedicating his life to sports, covering the Olympics, auto racing, baseball, basketball, fishing, boxing, and even dog shows. Baseball, however, was his focus. His quick wit, vibrant language, and close attention to rhythm and detail entertained millions of readers, as demonstrated in the following excerpt from a 4 October 1951 article written after Bobby Thomson's famous pennant-clinching home run: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again." Perhaps Smith's most famous baseball line was, "Baseball is dull only to those with dull minds." He also addressed other topics, particularly politics. In 1937 he interviewed Leon Trotsky, then in exile in Mexico. Later he covered the 1956 and 1968 national political conventions.
Smith's career reached its peak when he joined the staff of the New York Herald Tribune in August 1945. Within four months, Smith had his own column, which he wrote for the Herald Tribune until it closed in 1966. By 1954 he was the most widely syndicated sports columnist in the country. With his column distributed nationally by the Publishers-Hall Newspaper Syndicate, Smith kept working even after the Herald Tribune and its short-lived successor, the World Journal Tribune, ceased operation. The New York Times began running Smith's column three years later on 15 November 1971. Then age sixty-six, he began to expand the scope of his columns, writing more directly about how sporting events fit within a larger context of a politically turbulent world. He also endured changes in his personal life; his wife died of liver cancer in 1967, and he married the artist Phyllis Warner Weiss on 2 November 1968. Smith's broader perspective won him a diverse readership and, in April 1976, the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary.
Smith continued to work even after being diagnosed with cancer in the late 1970s. He refused to stop writing as long as the Times kept publishing his work and people kept reading it. Finally in 1981 he agreed to cut back from four to three columns per week. The first article he wrote under this revised schedule was published on 11 January 1982. Smith died four days later of heart failure. He is buried in Longridge Union Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.
Gifted with a startling memory and an uncanny knack for crafting incisive stories, Smith was, in Ernest Hemingway's words, "the most important force in American sportswriting." Smith's contemporary Shirley Povich of the Washington Post recalled, "Those, of all persuasions, who had an appreciation for the written word were attracted to him and his facility for using the language. He raised the sportswriting trade to a literacy and elegance it had not known before." With all of his success, however, Smith remained grounded, referring to his work merely as entertainment a reader might look forward to a few times a week. He admitted that his sympathies were always on the side he perceived as the underdog. It was no accident then that the targets of his quick wit were often the most powerful people in sports, such as the Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Smith criticized historians and biographers who made politicians and celebrities in all fields into heroes. He took pride in not exaggerating the glory of athletes, preserving instead a sense of proportion and fairness. His unparalleled ability to do so, while at same time entertaining millions of readers with humor and acute insights, made Smith one of the most popular and respected sportswriters of the twentieth century.
Smith's papers are in the Notre Dame Archives, University of Notre Dame. His books include Out of the Red (1950); The Best of Red Smith (1963); Red Smith on Fishing Around the World (1963); Strawberries in Wintertime: The Sporting World of Red Smith (1974); Press Box: Red Smith ' s Favorite Sports Stories (1976); To Absent Friends from Red Smith (1982); The Red Smith Reader (1982), which offers 130 of his columns on a variety of topics; and Red Smith on Baseball (2000), a selection of 167 of Smith's most memorable columns. Ira Berkow, Red: A Biography of Red Smith (1986), is a full-scale biography that provides an insightful look at Smith's life and career. Helpful interviews include Jerome Holtzman, No Cheering in the Press Box (1974); James Grant, "Just a Newspaper Stiff," The American Spectator (Nov. 1977); and John L. Kern, "Red Smith in the Final Innings," Writer ' s Digest (June 1982). Other useful sources include Frank Deford, "It's a Quarter of a Century Overdue, But at Last Red Smith Has a Pulitzer," Sports Illustrated (7 June 1976), and Donald Hall, "First a Writer, Then a Sportsman," New York Times Book Review (18 July 1982). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Jan. 1982).