The Word According to Red Smith

Helsinki Olympics, 1952:

On the fifth day of boisterous combat, this conclave of gristle had achieved a climax with the second bid for a gold medal by the comical contortionist Emil Zatopek. Four years ago, this gaunt and grimacing Czech with the running form of a zombie had made himself the pin-up boy of the London games. Witnesses who have long since forgotten the other events still wake up screaming in the dark when Emil the Terrible goes writhing through their dreams, gasping, groaning, clawing at his abdomen in horrible extremities of pain. In the most frightful horror spectacle since Frankenstein, Zatopek set an Olympic record for 10,000 meters in London and barely failed to win the 5,000 from Belgium’s Gaston Reiff. . .

It’s my guess that you could take any column by Red Smith and not find its equal in today’s daily newspapers. Certainly not in the papers I read.

When I queried my brother Ben, long-time West Michigan columnist and editor, about this, he laid the blame on the economics of the newspaper industry. Poorly paid writers are expected to do little more than rehash the games and write columns either plaintive or hopeful about the local teams’ performance and prospects.

You need to go to the national publications, he said, and mentioned a recent article on Andre Iguodala in Sports Illustrated­ by Lee Jenkins (SI, http://www.si.com/nba/2015/06/16/andre-iguodala-lebron-james-nba-finals-warriors-cavaliers ).

Today’s newspapers don’t do what the Herald Tribune was rewarded for doing, viz., pay a writer a good salary to turn out 800 words 3-5 times a week.

But for me the lesson from Red Smith isn’t primarily about “the good old days.” It would take him up to 6 hours to turn out those 800 words, Smith disclosed. This in addition to the talking, and interviewing and games-watching it took to gather the raw material. That would be 600 hours for my 80,000 word manuscript or 100 6-hour days of writing and polishing—assuming the brain could do that for 6 hours a day. And it still wouldn’t be as good.

The second lesson from Smith is about learning from experts. He recalls going through phases of “imitating,” in turn, Damyon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, and Joe Williams until he eventually developed his own style and “wasn’t imitating any longer.”

I wonder if some of Red Smith’s art—and I don’t mean ‘rhetoric’—might insert a different kind of truth into political commentary today. In any case, he has lessons for me as a wannabe writer of fiction and of non-fiction.

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