Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Bases Loaded

By Dave Chamberlain

APRIL 24, 2000: 

Red Smith: On Baseball by Red Smith (Ivan R. Dee), $24.95, 363 pages

Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures by Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfeld (Houghton Mifflin), $18.95, 143 pages

Red Smith was not a good writer.

A baseball columnist over a span of more than fifty years, primarily for New York's Times and Herald Tribune, Smith began his career during baseball's Golden Age, covering the Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn and the Giants when they were in New York; watching legendary players named Williams, Musiel, DiMaggio and Boudreau. The first anthology of Smith's columns -- though incomplete -- comes in the form of "Red Smith: On Baseball."

Smith embraced the flowery affronts to the world of brevity that defined sports journalism through the first seventy years of the twentieth century. Indeed, were (present day Trib columnist) Skip Bayless to begin a story with "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there can be 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," (written by Smith after Bobby Thompson's World Series-winning homerun in 1951) the average Trib reader would never even finish the second sentence.

Good writer or bad writer, Red Smith excelled at one thing: In the days of before ESPN and sportscrap.com, when baseball was a radio event or shown on grainy black-and-white television once a week, Smith captured the soul of America's pastime like no other baseball writer. He possessed an innate ability to illustrate, through words, the crack of the bat, the smell of a freshly-mowed outfield, the malice of Brooklyn's "bums" and the sound of brown tobacco spit being forced through Leo Durocher's teeth. Smith's knack for putting baseball into words has not gone unnoticed; when Editor & Publisher magazine compiled a list of the century's twenty-five most influential print journalists, Smith was the only representative from the sporting world.

Worthwhile are Smith's anecdotes, stories and obits about players and teams from times not caught on film: baseball before 1930. After Yankee shortstop Tony Lazzeri's death at the age 42, Smith wrote "... there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house -- a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd as Tony's did." Writing an obit for Walter Johnson, one of baseball's hardest throwers and kindest hearts ever, Smith captured Johnson's legend in one anecdote: "Henry Edwards once told me he asked Walter if he'd ever used a spitter [a spitball]. Walter said just once. It almost got away from him and he never tried it again for fear he'd kill somebody."

But even the most rabid of baseball historians will find the majority of Smith's collected work only mildly interesting. Baseball's Golden Age came when film and television media were still in formative years, but we have been deluged with footage, "ESPN's Classic Sports" and post-death bios of Joltin' Joe and The Mick. Smith's columns add precious little.

And concerning precious little, that's how much time remains for baseball's eldest of grounds, Boston's venerable Fenway Park. Now two years away from demolition, the park has inspired "Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures," a glossy celebration containing pics of Fenway from its inaugural game (in 1912) to the modern day. Though the action photos -- of Babe Ruth, of balls bouncing off the "Green Monster," of catcher Scott Hatteberg peeing in a decrepit urinal -- are a fond memorial to the park, too much is devoted to scantily-clad girls' butts and kissing couples. A good addition to any baseball library, though; give it to the grandkids in fifty years, long after Fenway is but a ghost.

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