Red Smith was considered the thinking man’s sportswriter. He abhorred clichés. He commanded an impressive, sometimes bordering on the ornate, vocabulary. He specialized in striking similes. He called in irony when the occasion required it, which in sports was frequently. And he did all this within the confines of plain style—without the excessive use of subordinate clauses or dashes, and without any semicolons whatsoever. As a prose stylist, Smith could, as they say about the great infielders, pick it.
It’s an excellent survey of Smith’s writing career, except for this:
Of the legendary American sportswriters—Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, John Lardner—Red Smith holds up best.
Left off that roll call is the great W.C. Heinz, memorialized by Jeff MacGregor in this 2008 Sports Illustrated obit:
“At his best, he’s better than any of us.”
W.C. Heinz may have been the best pure sportswriter who ever lived. I had the privilege of writing a long profile of Bill for this magazine in September 2000. (It’s online at SI.com/heinz.) After which we became and remained friends. As precise as he was generous, he mentored me—as he did every younger writer who came to him—and was a stern advocate for simplicity and understatement. For an authentic, straightforward voice. He wanted all of us who did this work to bear those truths forward. So for what I’m about to write, he’d scold me. Too big, he’d say. Don’t go overboard.
W.C. Heinz was the Prometheus of modern American sportswriting. There is sportswriting before Heinz, and there is sportswriting after Heinz. He is the bridge between the ancients and the Jet Age. He gets us from Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen to Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson. The light he brought to us all, to those of us who read and write about sports, was the twofold fire of realism and literary merit.
We could quote endlessly from MacGregor’s piece. Better you should read it. And even more so, this.
(Just one more quote: “His 1949 column from the New York Sun, “Death of a Racehorse,” is the Gettysburg Address of sportswriting. A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it . . . ” That one’s here.)