Red Smith covered sports for almost half a century, including in depth racing coverage. This month the Library of America is releasing a special collection of some of his work.
Red Smith wrote about sports for more than 40 years. Perhaps America’s most prolific sportswriter, Smith wrote up to six or seven columns a week, first for the New York Herald Tribune, then later for the New York Times. He was the first sportswriter to win the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, and he was the first winner (appropriately) of the Associated Press’s Red Smith Award for outstanding contributions to sports journalism. This month the Library of America, the non-profit that publishes those iconic black-jacketed volumes with red ribbon bookmarks, has issued a “special collection” of Smith’s columns titled “American Pastimes.”
As a special collection, the book does not land Red Smith into the bona-fide Library of America, and there are several collections of Red Smith’s work that have been published since even before his death in 1982, but this collection has some hard-to-find stuff like “My Press Box Memories,” a personal memoir he wrote for Esquire in the 1970s.
Red Smith was truly a titan in the world of sports writing, and as such he was sometimes a controversial character. He was known throughout the 1960s and 70s as a high-profile critic of Muhammad Ali. Despite never having been in the armed services himself, Smith took issue with Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam, calling him a sorry spectacle and a draft dodger. He rooted against Ali until the very end of his career, cheering on Joe Frazier when he handed Ali his first defeat in 32 bouts.
RED SMITH IN HIS LATER YEARS
When it came to horses, however, Red Smith was truly a national treasure. His career spanned almost 50 years. He witnessed Seabiscuit in 1940, saw Whirlaway win the Triple Crown in 1941, and saw Secretariat win the Triple Crown 30 years later.
His writing serves as a singular lived-history of the sport. There is nobody else who covered as much of Thoroughbred horse racing’s history so completely and so adeptly. A first-rate writer and a scholar of the sport, Red Smith’s columns on racing are essential to anyone who wants a glimpse back to a time when not only was horse racing one of America’s favorite sports, but when writers took great care to write about racing with reverence and poetry. It was a time when most sports fans depended on writers like Smith to put them in the sporting events that they couldn’t personally attend. They needed the writer to transport them there with their words. And the better writers did more than just convey stats and information to the reader, but also conveyed emotion and drama as well. It’s a craft that is in short supply in today’s internet age of instant access and abundant information. Yet we all owe a debt of gratitude for such writing to have existed. Not only did it transport the readers of Monday morning’s papers; with collections like “American Pastimes” it continues to transport readers through time, now and for generations to come.
THE COVER OF AMERICAN PASTIMES