Picks and Pans Review: Red

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ira Berkow

"What distinguished Smith as a columnist...was not just his masterful use of the English language, nor his uncommon erudition in sports journalism, nor even his originality, but his sense of humor, stemming from the humorist's unusual way of looking at scenes and subjects." This assessment aptly conveys the tone of this affectionate biography of the late sports columnist Red Smith. The book is packed with good quotes from a most quotable man, funny anecdotes and lots of lore about the newspaper business over the last 50 years or so. Smith's father, a grocer, was in financial trouble in the '20s, and Red worked his way through Notre Dame. He was already interested in journalism. His first job was on the Milwaukee Sentinel and, like many newspapermen of his era, he moved wherever he could earn a few bucks more. Finally, from Philadelphia, he managed the great leap to New York City and the Herald Tribune. Smith was a jewel on a staff that created for several years what many consider to be the best newspaper ever. He hung out at Toots Shor, where he was a bit of a celebrity, and his column was a favorite of many (Bing Crosby, among others, wrote him fan letters). He was also a heavy drinker. Once someone at breakfast said to him, "Red, your eyes look terrible." Smith replied, "If they look bad from where you are, you should see them from where I am." The Trib died, and Smith wound up on the New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer and kept his column going until he was well into his 70s. (When Smith died in 1982, Berkow became a regular columnist at the Times.) The inner workings of men and women are what good biography is all about. Red Smith's mind was an utterly original and fascinating machine, and that's what this warm and lively book conveys beautifully. (Times Books, $17.95)

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