Author Archives: Andrew Smith

GJR book review: Red Smith: ‘Tomorrow will be better’

American Pastimes:
The Very Best of Red Smith
Authors: Terence Smith, Walkter Wellesley “Red” Smith and Daniel Okrent
Publisher: The Library of America, New York
iBook: $14.99, 576 pages

Collections of old newspaper columns often are painful to read. With time, context and currency have faded, and observations that once seemed fresh or witty now seem trite and stale.

One happy exception, however, is “American Pastimes,” the recently released compilation of work by sports columnist Red Smith, spanning his work for the St. Louis Star covering Dizzy Dean to 1934 to his final column for the New York Times, written just days before he died in January 1982. More than three decades after that last column, any paper, any magazine, any website would be thrilled to publish work that sparkles and moves like this.

I became a reader of news in the 1970s. I would read sections of the Times as my father discarded them. Fortunately for me, he didn’t share my interest in sports, so that was what I often got first. My day, therefore, often began with Red Smith (and got steadily more dreary from there). As editor Daniel Okrent says in his excellent introduction, “Smith was tall enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest prose artists in 20th century American literature.” His subject was ultimately unimportant and his touch often was light, but what he crafted on deadline was memorable and powerful.

Okrent has organized the book both chronologically and by subject matter. Smith adored baseball, boxing and fishing in particular, so long stretches of columns are sorted into sections on those topics. Other columns are divided into sections by decade, and they show his versatility. Smith moved from the Philadelphia Record to the New York Herald Tribune in 1945. In those dark days before ESPN made sports (and talking about sports, and talking about talking about sports) all too available, the Herald Tribune was one of the loudest megaphones a writer could have. The top New York papers had influence as far as the Mississippi River – and when none of the major sports leagues had teams on the West Coast, that megaphone essentially covered the entire sporting world. Or so New York editors must have thought, anyway.

Smith had no portfolio. He covered no single sport and often made a point of looking at the periphery of the scene – that place where many good reporters find telling details. “An intense focus on the sideshow to the main event was essential to Smith’s craft,” Okrent notes. “Not the roaring cars hurtling around the Indianapolis Speedway, but the faces and clothing and refreshment choices of the crowd in the infield.” He displayed the beauty of finding your own story and telling it in your own voice.

He didn’t love all sports. Despite his fascination with boxing, that most violent of all sports, he looked down on motor racing. He wrote disdainfully of “the sports car faith, a booming religion whose ritual includes human sacrifice,” as if that was never part of boxing’s attraction.

Many of Smith’s columns about fishing are as much languid travelogues as they are about fishing. He takes us fly-fishing in Beaverkill, near Roscoe, N.Y., and bass fishing all over the East Coast. These columns usually featured some dopey men facing off against dim-witted fish, and the victor was usually beside the point. In Martha’s Vineyard, for example, Smith tells us, “A guy would make a few fruitless casts, then thrust the butt of his rod into the sand and go light up a cigarette and tell some lies.” The point was just to be there.

He was at his genius best when he married commentary to observation, as when he described the mayor of New York throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Ebbets Field: “Then he threw the ball, a weak little blooper that plopped almost unnoticed on the turf. By this time the band was parading to the flagpole, flanked by enough military to occupy Formosa.” He later quoted Dodgers manager Billy Herman arguing with the umpire: “You are a short word of Anglo-Saxon origin.” This is how to delete an expletive.

Later, when the Mets (“those golden-hearted clowns of all creation”) became amazing in 1969, he captured the baseless optimism colored by cruel history that is true even now. He wrote about a true believer who “had been watching the Mets ever since they introduced the pratfall to baseball back in 1962.” Which makes his last line of the last game so delicious, after pitcher Jerry Koosman completed the win. “When it ended, Koosman was wearing his catcher like prayer beads.”

He also knew the beauty of specificity. Writing about the first epic battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in 1971, Smith wrote that “it was as though Joe Frazier had hit him with a baseball bat, Frank Howard model.” Not just a bat, but an awfully big one. It was a reference guaranteed to get a knowing smile from readers. So was the line from the rematch in Manila, that an Ali shot “sent Frazier reeling back on a stranger’s legs.”

Smith often compared writing to being bled to death. He took to heart Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view that “easy reading is damn hard writing.” But in that very last column in 1982, he explained why he kept at it. “One of the beauties of this job is that there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow things will be better.” It’s the journalist’s credo.

Andrew Smith is a reporter for Newsday. He is also a New York Mets fan, still.

A Former Student’s Perspective: J-Schools Can’t Replicate Covering a Beat

Almost 25 years ago, when I emerged from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University with a shiny new journalism degree, there was a debate in the business about whether a reporter needed such an education to succeed. Some things never change.

My first job was at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. After a couple of stops in California and Syracuse again, I’ve been at Newsday on Long Island for the past 18 years. In addition to many co-workers educated at various journalism schools, I’ve also worked with math majors, English majors, law school grads and a few with no college education at all. It’s been clear to me that you can be a terrific reporter or editor without a journalism education.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my education at all.

I went to a journalism school because even before I got into high school, I knew I wanted to be a reporter – and nothing else. I was going to do anything I could do to make that happen at a high level as quickly as possible. I didn’t consider applying to any university without a respected journalism school.

Like those without journalism educations, many of the most important things I’ve learned I picked up on the job. There is no substitute for just doing it. However, a good journalism school makes you do actual journalism. In my sophomore year, I covered a presidential primary and got my work published. By the end of my junior year, I was working more than 20 hours a week at the Post-Standard in Syracuse. That grew out of an internship I got through the Newhouse school. Without the experience and clips from that part-time job, there is no way I would have started my career at the Times-Picayune.

Besides practicing journalism, the main advantage students have is they learn why they’re making the choices they make and examine what they do before, during and after they do it. They routinely get the kind of guidance they might get from an excellent editor, if she or he had time on a particular day to talk about the craft. You lear

n the trade faster in a j-school.

When I walked into the newsroom in New Orleans, I knew how to write a lead. I knew how to mine the clips and fully report a story. I knew how to make use of public records. I knew how to get people to talk to me. I knew how to observe details and use them. I knew how to function on deadline. Sure, I could have learned all those things on the job, and many people do. But I didn’t have to. I was already a reporter.

However, I didn’t learn everything. There’s no way for a journalism school to replicate covering a beat day in and day out. It’s difficult to teach how to develop sources. Those were things I had to figure out on my own.

J-school isn’t for everyone. My belief in the value of journalism school is probably best expressed by the fact that I teach at the one at Stony Brook University. I see there that students who are focused on being journalists get value from such an education and get a head start in the business, just as I did in the 1980s. But I also see that those who drift into the journalism school, unsure of what they want, get washed out quickly.

Those students would be even more unlikely to see the inside of a newsroom with a degree in anything else.

Just as you go to engineering school if you know you want to be an engineer and just as you go to medical school if you know you want to be a doctor, you go to journalism school if you know you want to be a reporter. If you’re not sure, a liberal arts education is perfect. Journalism school is for journalists.

Since graduating from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication in 1986, Andrew Smith has worked at several newspapers, including Newsday, for the last 18 years. He was part of the staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting on the crash of TWA Flight 800, and he won a White House Correspondents Association prize for national reporting for his work on a series about nuclear waste. He also lectures at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism.

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