Writing about Sports: Red Smith

Writing with humor while word-painting a portrait of an Olympic Opening Ceremony

In “Kings Get in Free,” a story that reads like a “paper” newsreel, Red Smith paints, animates, and celebrates the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, a typewriter his brush, words the pigment, and impasto the style.

One word can describe his 1,128-word piece: Entertaining.

Smith’s opening: “England’s biggest track meet in forty years opened this afternoon with a pageant of nationalism, an orgy of oratory and a paroxysm of symbolism but no running, jumping, or bulging of the biceps.”

That is not how you would expect a sports story to begin, but then, Smith was not the typical sportswriter.

Smith wrote “Kings Get in Free” for the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he began working for three years earlier after Stanley Woodward lured him to the Big Apple from the City of Brotherly Love.

Smith wrote “Kings Get in Free” in 1948 for the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he began working for three years earlier after Stanley Woodwardlured him to the Big Apple from the City of Brotherly Love.

In his book, Paper Tiger, Woodward wrote, “. . . I had been scouting a little guy on the Philadelphia Record whose name was Walter Wellesley Smith. This character was a complete newspaper man. He had been through the mill and had come out with a high polish. In Philadelphia he was being hideously overworked. Not only did he write the column for the Record but he covered the ball games and took most other important assignments.”

Woodward was an icon among sport editors. Jerry Izenberg, whom Lawrence Lawrence asserted in 2020 was “one of the country’s premier sports writers over the last 60 years, said “Stanley Woodward was the greatest editor who ever lived.”

For 22 years, Smith wrote his “Views of Sport” column for the Tribune.

Smith completed the opening appetizer in “Kings Get in Free” with “The recorded casualties were a half-dozen Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts who fainted under the malevolent sun which beat upon Wembley Stadium with padded brutality.”

This was the first Summer Olympics since 1936 when Berlin, Germany hosted it, the one scheduled for 1940 (Tokyo) cancelled, the London games four years delayed, Germany’s tyrant a collective memory.

In 97 degree heat, the 1948 Summer Olympics, the XIVth Olympiad, began.

Smith’s paragraphs blew fresh air onto an event that time and tradition jammed with pomp and circumstance.

The event’s first day was more than a showcase of athletes. It was a spectacle that 82,000 paid to attend. “Besides sitting and sweltering, . . . beat sweaty palms red, yowled and chanted and waved flags as the musclemen of their countries marched by” (Smith).

And its host site, Wembley Stadium, was not just a gladiatorial arena built from more than 25,000 tons of concrete, but “a cooked gaboon of concrete, its gray slopes packed, its currycombed infield a vivid green encircled by a track of bright red clay” (Smith).

As competitors from 59 countries marched past King George VI, each led by a flag-bearer, the monarch saluted them. “Never were the hardships of the monarch business more amply demonstrated although, admittedly, the hours and salary are usually very good,” Smith wrote.

Per Britannica, “There was no Olympic Village; the male athletes were housed at an army camp in Uxbridge, while the women stayed in dormitories at Southlands College.”

Some may view “Kings Get in Free” as satire, but satire’s needle injects negativity, a tone I did not detect. Instead, hyperbole is the game Smith is playing, the exaggeration effecting amusement, which increases the drama, every paragraph a morsel in a meal in a five-star restaurant.

Hyperbole is a type of trope. According to Grammatist, “the noun trope traditionally refers to any figure of speech in which a word or phrase conveys a meaning other than its literal sense. For instance, the phrase broken heart and the use of Wall Street to refer to the U.S. finance industry are tropes because their literal meanings are different from what we understand them to mean.” Other forms of trope are irony, metaphor, and synecdoche.

As the athletic procession progressed and after “the King finally got to sit down,” the pigeons gained their freedom and humor stepped from its shadow just before the Olympic flame arose from a “concrete bird bath.” Smith commented on the number of pigeons, their numbers appearing to be much fewer than expected: “Chances are the brass didn’t dare turn loose that many squab in this hungry nation.”

Red Smith did not just write “Kings Get in Free,” he crafted it, staging its scenes, the trope a tool he wielded with a surgeon’s precision. At its end, he closed with “It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.”

It’s easy to like his story too.

⚾️ For decades with royal bearing, Smith carried the sportswriting torch.

Writing About Sports

Bats and Stats is expanding its focus. Included in this expansion will be articles about sportswriting — or as Glenn Stout, who was editor for the Best American Sports Writing series for 30 years, views it — sports writing, the difference between sportswriting and sports writing subtle but significant.

The audience will, hopefully, expand beyond those who enjoy reading about sports to include students eager to learn how to write about sports and teachers interested in using sports as a writing enabler.

To start on this journey, I will share and examine one of Charles P. Pierce’s stories. Pierce’s background is both varied and extensive. Among his achievements is his sports stories have been published in the Best American Sports Writing series nine times, placing him fifth on its most often published list.

His story, “Bad Blood Takes Center Stage in Bruins-Leafs as Suspension Lingers,”  was published in Sports Illustrated on April 14, 2019. It is unique for a sports story in that it is divided into three sections.

In one of the best opening paragraphs I have seen in journalistic writing, let alone sportswriting, Charles Pierce wrote this about the second game of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs:

In the single most predictable development in the National Hockey League since the Atlanta Thrashers decamped for Anywhere Else, winding up in Winnipeg, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs decided that there had been entirely too much fast skating and open-ice action in the first game of their Stanley Cup playoff series. So Boston came out throwing the Maple Leafs around like a autumn thunderstorm. The Leafs responded rather in kind and, by the time it was all over but the hum of the MRI machines, the Bruins had put Toronto away, 4-1, evening the series at a game apiece, and instilling in it the requisite amount of ill-feeling and bad-blood that gives life and meaning to a playoff series.

If you are a fan, savor it, a journalism student, learn from it, a writing teacher, share it.

Not only does Pierce start his piece with a tempting appetizer, but in his second sentence he sweetens it with this quote:

“Everybody has to pull on the rope,” said Boston defenseman Charlie McCoy. “We have to play to our identity.”

That quote is like the number two hitter in a baseball lineup. The leadoff batter’s job is to get on base. The number two batter’s role is to advance the leadoff batter when he gets on base, thus increasing their team’s chances of scoring. Further, when the first batter gets on base and the second batter is at the plate, suspense mounts as more is at stake. 

Writing-wise, with his quote Pierce wants to increase reader involvement. “Pull on the rope” is a metaphor that is knotted to the team’s identity.

Identity is an underestimated — and underused — concept in sportswriting today. Just as individuals have identities, so do teams. And in game one, Boston announced their identity via their actions — as Pierce said at the start of his next paragraph: “Which the Bruins did almost from the moment the puck first hit the ice.” 

English teachers: Pierce is asserting it is okay to start a “sentence” with which, which automatically makes it a sentence fragment. By doing that, he is also sharing an aspect of his identity. It is a stylistic intervention seen elsewhere in his writing, e.g., his piece “A Big Game” contains these two sentences: ”I am a sucker for a Big Game. Which is not necessarily the same as a Championship Game.”

His sportswriting then moves beyond just giving a blow by blow account of the game action. He places his words within the context of establishing identity, thus enlarging his writing’s scope.

To add flavor to his thoughts, Pierce engages in personification, humanizing the puck: “After taking a rather ordinary turn behind the Toronto goal, Maple Leaf winger William Nylander rather casually started up ice only to leave the puck behind, lying there flat and lonely at the left post.”

Pierce ups the excitement by zooming in on the “running battle between Boston’s Jake DeBrusk and Toronto’s Nazem Kadri.” About Kadri, Pierce wrote, he “has something of a rap sheet trailing him,” Pierce’s words dancing in a metaphorical ballroom. After delving into their acts of violence, using details such as “DeBrusk dropped Nadri in open ice with a knee to his knee” to liven their interaction, Pierce, a master of paragraph shifts, segues seamlessly from 2019 to “April 2, 1969, 50 years ago,” another time when Boston and Toronto battled in a Stanley Cup series.

In that section, about that series first game Pierce wrote , “A rookie defenseman named Pat Quinn lined Orr up and laid him out, cold, with a sledgehammer of an elbow”; then started the next paragraph with “The old Boston Garden went completely insane. The league’s director of officials was in attendance and is said to have whispered a silent prayer for Orr to get up, lest nobody get out of the building alive.”

Good writers not only tell, they also show, deepen their readers experience by situating them within its physical setting, into a place where they can hear silent prayers and see the swirling fists, grabbing hands, and sliding feet. 

And then, just when readers are fully immersed in the aftermath of the Orr drama, Pierce slams a foot down on his writing brake, jumps into his time machine and returns to 2019, barely leaving readers time to catch their breath. 

Though Pierce does not elaborate on his Kadri comment, he slows the pace and shares his take on the NHL’s 2019 attitude toward fighting, including 41 words in a mention of baseball’s, football’s, and basketball’s fighting history, barely enough to pique a reader’s interest in exploring that further. 

I doubt the NHL’s leadership took his words seriously then as it still does not seem to take fighting seriously now. 

Money is still the monster that dictates the NHL’s moves.

Hockey Violence: Fighting

The amount of information on the Internet about fighting in hockey reflects the interest level in the topic. On December 21, 2021, the USA TODAY  webpage titled “NHL fights from the 2021-22 season” contains 89 photos through December 19, 2021. 

Even more information about each fight can be found on the Hockey Fights website. The homepage has a table listing 114 “total fights” under the heading “2022 NHL Fight Stats,” which is for the 2021-2022 season, and a section “Featured Fights.”

On December 22, the featured fight was between Nathan Beaulieu and Dakota Joshua. 

Clicking the fight’s photo takes you to a page that shows whom site members voted the fight’s winner. Bealieu got 89.7%, Joshua 10.3%. No one voted it a draw

In the Voting Results table, by clicking either fighter’s name you get a listing of that fighter’s “latest fights.” For Beaulieu the list contains 10 fights, the earliest in 2018. Also on that page is his “Year By Year Fight Totals,” the teams he fought for and against, and the players with whom he fought.

Despite the interest in fighting in hockey, discourse over whether the sport is better off without it continues.

Should fighting be banned?

This issue is raised on procon.org. Each side’s argument presents three reasons. Here are the reasons given for allowing fighting in hockey:

  1. “Allowing fighting makes the sport safer overall by holding players accountable.
  2. Fighting draws fans and increases the game’s entertainment value.
  3. Fighting is a hockey tradition that exists in the official rules and as an unwritten code among players.”

Which side presents the stronger argument?

Which position do you support? Why?

Stathead School: Get Home Game Info

For this search, you need to use Stathead Baseball’s Split Finders tool. It can be used to get both player and team data for both batting and pitching. When used for team batting, you can search one or multiple seasons. As I just wanted the data for a single season, I did a single season search.

Here is how to use Stathead Baseball to get the results in the above tweet.

  1. Go to Split Finders > Team Batting.
  2. Set Sort By to Descending and OBP.
  3. Make Seasons “2021 to 2021”.
  4. For Choose Split Type, select Home or Away.
  5. For Choose A Split, select Home.
  6. Under Team Filters, click or tap Choose a Team Filter.
  7. Then, click or tap Team.
  8. Click or tap Any Team
  9. Select New York Mets.
  10. Click or tap Get Results.

Under Current Search, you should see this:
▶︎ In the Regular Season, in 2021, For NYM, In the AL or NL or FL, Home (within Home or Away), sorted by greatest On-Base%.

To get the away game data, repeat the above steps, making this one change:
5. For Choose A Split, select Away.

View the Stathead results for home games and away games..