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Books | Sports

February 5, 2008

'All You Have To Do Is Open a Vein'

Red Smith and his biographer, fellow sportswriter Ira Berkow, shared that unique mix of joy and dread when a deadline was approaching.

Carl Bialik

There may never be another Red Smith. Today when sportswriters become famous, they sign with ESPN, become brands unto themselves, and stop writing. Smith, a columnist for several papers including the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times before his death, was read by Bing Crosby, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway. His name was on billboards around New York City, alongside a testimonial from a boxing champ. And yet he kept writing up to six columns a week, tapping out his final piece five days before his death, in 1982, at age 76.

Ira Berkow. Photo by Howard Schatz
"Sportswriting can be fun and gratifying—until you have to face an empty laptop screen on deadline."

Ira Berkow. Photo by Howard Schatz

During his final posting, at the Times, he overlapped with a young sportswriter named Ira Berkow, whom Smith had once encouraged by responding to two columns then college sports columnist Berkow had sent him. Berkow wrote Smith's obituary, and four years later published a fair, honest, yet generous biography, Red: A Biography of Red Smith. Berkow brings to life Smith's milieu, in newsrooms and press boxes, and ably sketches the character of his chief subject, his contemporaries, and the athletes he covered. Most generously, Berkow quotes amply from his former mentor's best work, which includes the prescient observation that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." (Each behemoth is no longer No. 1.)

Such lines, coupled with Smith's witty demeanor, belied the burden he felt from writing near-daily; he compared writing to opening a vein. Berkow, now retired from the Times, has felt the same pain on deadline, though he says sportswriting beats garbage-collecting.

Berkow spoke to Gelf by email about whether Red Smith today would appear on TV, how he caught up after lagging on the significance of Jackie Robinson, and how his liberal politics late in life deepened his writing. You can hear Berkow and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, February 7th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Today the most famous and influential sportswriters derive at least some of their fame from television. Rick Reilly, with the back page of Sports Illustrated each week as a forum, was an exception, but now he's going to be doing TV for ESPN. What would Red make of that?

Ira Berkow: It was rare in Red Smith's day, as opposed to writers today, that one would virtually split one's time between being behind the writing machine and in front of a camera. Red wasn't interested in being that kind of celebrity, but he was not opposed to making money, either. His primary interest was in being a fine writer. I believe that if he could do some TV, and not have it impact on his writing, he would have strongly considered it.

GM: It's not just TV that's diminished the role of newspaper sports columnists. The web has commoditized sports news, making it harder for columnists to relate new facts, and blogs have taken on part of columnists' role of opining on sports news. Would Red have been repelled by this change? Or started his own blog? Or both?

IB: I doubt if Red Smith would have been interested. It was hard enough for him to write a column (remember, he said writing a column was easy, "all you have to do is open a vein"). And any opinion he had would be manifested in his newspaper column.

GM: Red, the blogger, would have had the luxury of not having to carry around a heavy computer terminal, which he did to file his New York Times column. He also could have used profanity, something the Times barred. For which paper were Red's columns best? Was that a reflection of his effort at the time, or the quality of editing at that paper?

IB: I think Red might say that his columns at the Herald Tribune were better—more "writerly"—because he was freer there. While Red Smith was still Red Smith at the Times, the editing at the Times is more stringent. He complained a great deal about the copy desk at the Times, sending one memorable note to the sports editor calling the sports copy editors "Neanderthals."

GM: You first contacted Red Smith when you were writing sports for your college paper. How meaningful was that encounter in determining your eventual career path?

IB: Red Smith's reply to a letter (and two college newspaper columns) that I sent him meant a great deal to me. While his first response was "Try again," he did it rather gently and I was not only flattered that the great man would take even a little interest in me, but I was also encouraged.

GM: I'd say a good columnist has three skills: deft writing; keen analysis; and an eye for details, particularly those that haven't surfaced elsewhere. Which of these did Red think was most important, and which was he best at?

IB: Red Smith had all three of the significant skills of a writer that you mention in equal amounts: deft writing, keen analysis, an eye for details. For a great writer, you can't have one without the other two.

"This book surely was a labor of love. But it was labor, and I am also happy to report that I received remuneration for it."
GM: I found it interesting that he was so well-respected and in demand among book editors, but never wrote a standalone book, only collections of columns.

IB: Red's columns (he wrote from, when he was starting, six a week to, in his later years, four a week) took up all the time he had for writing. He wrote a children's book when he was in his 30s at the Philadelphia Record (for the money, which wasn't much), but that was all.

GM: Does it tarnish his legacy that he was late to the Jackie Robinson story?

IB: I don't think it tarnishes his legacy. He did have to play catch-up, but he did that eloquently and elegantly. Remember that terrific line that said almost everything about Robinson, when he made a sensational catch in a critical pennant-deciding game: "the unconquerable doing the impossible."

GM: Did his shift to a more political—and more liberal—outlook improve or detract from his writing?

IB: His growing liberal tendencies as he aged gave his writing a greater depth than ever before. That's my opinion. When I wrote this sometime earlier, the National Review took exception to it, which didn't come as a surprise.

GM: What did Smith's family think of the book? What would he have thought of it?

IB: Smith's family liked the book, and cooperated as much as they could in promotion of it. Terry Smith, Red's son, was a writer for the Times and later a television commentator, and he particularly understood that I was attempting to write an objective book about his father (and, if I could be criticized for being generous to Red, at least I wasn't accused of being reverential). I believe Terry felt I succeeded, as did, I'm happy to report, the bulk of the book's reviewers.

GM: Was this book a labor of love for you?

IB: This book surely was a labor of love. But it was labor, and I am also happy to report that I received remuneration for it.

GM: Do you agree with Smith that sportswriting is about as idyllic as jobs get?

IB: I worked as a garbage collector for the City of Chicago in the summers of my last two years of high school and my first two years of college. I'd say that almost any job would be idyllic compared to that, but, yes, sportswriting can be fun and gratifying—until you have to face an empty laptop screen on deadline.

GM: Do today's budding sportswriters read Smith? Should they?

IB: I don't know if today's "budding" sportswriters read Red Smith. Should they? Anyone who wants to be a writer in any field, anyone who values the printed word, anyone who wants to understand sports in the larger context of our society and culture, can read Red Smith for great profit. In this regard, I agree with the headline in a review of my book in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It read: "The Shakespeare of the Press Box." That worked for me.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 27, 08
Jeff Siegel

How can I get in touch with Ira Berkow. My name is Jeff Siegel I went to Sullivan High School in Chicago 68-72 and Pitched with Dewey Robinson he was Number 1 and I was number 2.
I am also writing a book and have read full swing recomended by another Jewish writter Named Huey Freeman who is alos from Chicago.
I am moving to NY City in November and I would like to get in touch with Ira Berkow. My phone number is 678-595-1931 and my e-mail is
Jeff Siegel

- Sports
- posted on Feb 21, 10
Bill Casteel

Am I wrong or did Mr. Smith make the statement that "writing isn't fun; having written is fun?" If not, to whom should that quote be attributed? Thanks.

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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