Thursday, June 12, 2008

Red Smith and Shirley Povich

Looking toward Father's Day weekend, here is a great tribute to two beloved dads:

As Terence Smith well describes below, his father, Red Smith, and Shirley Povich were giants among sports columnists and among wordsmiths of any stripe.

That copies of To Absent Friends by Red Smith, The Red Smith Reader and All Those Mornings ... At The Post" are available on amazon for pennies apiece (click on the titles if you don't believe me) represents one of the best bargains imaginable for anyone wishing to learn the craft of bringing a subject to life and breadth in 500 words.

Two Parallel Lives: Shirley and Red
Published in the The New York Times: April 17, 2005

In reading a posthumous collection of the crisp, elegant columns of Shirley Povich, I was struck by how similar he was - in his personality, his work and his life - to my father, Red Smith, the former sports columnist for The New York Times.

My father and Povich, who wrote a sports column for The Washington Post for almost 75 years, from 1924 (the year the Senators won their only World Series) until 1998, were close friends and frequent traveling companions.

Along with their pal Frank Graham, a fellow sports columnist, they were a trifecta that followed the sports calendar from spring training in Florida to the World Series in the fall.

They were competitors, of course, but mostly they were friends. Once the day's columns were filed, they preferred one another's company and that of their wives. Their families became warm friends and have remained so to this day.

Povich died on June 4, 1998, at age 92. His children, David, Maury and Lynn, along with the former Post sports editor George Solomon, sorted through some 17,000 columns to choose 120 for "All Those Mornings ... At The Post," which was published this month by PublicAffairs to mark the centennial of Povich's birth. The columns are rich, rewarding, often funny, sometimes acerbic comments on the sporting scene.

Povich and my father were gentlemen of the old school, courteous to a fault, polite and modest. Both were gregarious souls who loved to tell stories, aloud and in print. Povich used to laugh so hard at his own stories he could hardly finish them. But their smiles disappeared when they confronted the self-important, especially the privileged sort who tend to own sports teams.

When provoked, they could skewer the pompous on the point of their pens so skillfully that only the blood would show.

They were born in the same year, both small-town boys, Povich from Bar Harbor, Me., my father from Green Bay, Wis. Both went into newspapering at an early age and both became sportswriters by accident. Povich was assigned to the sports department when he showed up at the Post in search of a job. He could have wound up in circulation, or advertising.

My father told a story, which may even be true, of how he ended up in sports by happenstance. When he was a copy editor for The St. Louis Star (it's gone now; my father always claimed to have killed every paper he worked for but The New York Times), there was apparently a scandal after it was discovered that three reporters in the sports department were on the take. The three were fired and the editor called my father over. As my father told it, the following conversation ensued.

Editor: Smith, what do you know about sports?
Smith: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
Editor: Are you honest, Smith?
Smith: I hope so, sir.
Editor: What would you do if a fight promoter offered you $10 to write about his fighter?
Smith: (long pause) Ten dollars is a lot of money, sir.
Editor: That's an honest answer, Smith. Report to the sports department.

The similarities continued as both my father and Povich wrote an amazing seven columns a week, then six, then five, then fewer. (I remember my father was always writing.)

Both loved baseball first and foremost, and boxing and horse racing and college football and golf and tennis. Both largely ignored basketball and hockey. ("Back-and-forth sports," my father called them.) Their shared preference was for games that had a narrative plot line and colorful characters, sports that wrote themselves.

Both were short in stature, and neither was much of an athlete. My father was a strong swimmer, a competent diver and a passionate and skilled fly-fisherman. At Notre Dame, where he satisfied a physical education requirement by joining the cross-country team, his coach was Knute Rockne. (Coaching football apparently did not fully justify Rockne's salary at the time.)

Anyway, my father recalled that he competed in one long-distance race and finished last, so far behind the field that Rockne took him aside and told him he need not bother entering another race.

My father once wrote of himself in the third person: "He admires sports for others and might have been a great athlete himself except that he is small, puny, slow, inept, uncoordinated, myopic and yellow."

None of those adjectives applied to Povich, except possibly the first. He was an enthusiastic golfer with about an 18 handicap, his son Maury recalled. Other than that, his daughter, Lynn, said, Povich's idea of outdoor exercise was to go to the track.

Povich and my father enjoyed long careers - and "enjoyed" is the right verb. Both saw sports not as life-and-death struggles of cosmic import, but as "games little boys play."

Their commitments to their columns were such that, even in failing health, both wrote their final pieces days before they died.

For my father, his column was his contract with life. He wanted to hold up his end. He seemed to think that when he stopped writing, he would stop living. He was right. He died on Jan. 15, 1982, at the age of 76.

Shirley and Red: two parallel lives, richly lived, artfully written and lovingly remembered.

Terence Smith is senior producer and media correspondent for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." He started his journalism career writing sports, but went straight and spent 20 years covering national and international news for The New York Times.

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