Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Young at Heart
2008-01-03 06:29
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to

Red Smith is often considered the greatest sports columnist of them all. He came to New York after the second World War to work for Stanley Woodward at the Herald Tribune. Later, he moved to the Times. Unlike Dick Young, Smith found himself becoming less reactionary as he grew older, which is notable when you consider their respective takes of the changing nature of the game during the Marvin Miller Era. Here is Smith, from a 1972 interview in Jerome Holtzman's classic oral history, No Cheering from the Press Box:

Unlike the normal pattern, I know I have grown more liberal as I've grown older. I have become more convinced that there is room for improvement in the world. I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I feel things should be done about it and sports are part of this world. Maybe I'm sounding too damn profound or maybe I'm taking bows when I shouldn't. I truly don't know. But I do know I am more liberal and probably one of the reasons is that I married not only Phyllis, who is younger and more of today than I was, but I married five stepchildren who are very much of the current generation. They are very good friends and very articulate, and I think that this association has helped me to have a younger and fresher view.

My sympathies almost always have been on the side of the underdog, or the guy I think is the underdog. There was a time when I was more inclined to go along with the establishment. It may be because I'm no longer traveling with a baseball club and no longer exposed to the establishment day in and day out. I supported the players this past season when they went on that historic thirteen-day strike. No that I do a column, I can stand there, a little removed, and look at what the Charlie Finleys and Bowie Kuhns are doing.

When I first heard about Marvin Miller—the players' man—I didn't hear anything favorable. I heard complaints from owners and club executives about how these ball players were putting themselves into the hands of a bloody labor organizer, a steel mill guy. I remember hearing one player, Dick Groat, saying he was in Pittsburgh and how he saw some of the results of union operations and that he wasn't in favor of it. He voted against employing Miller, as some other ball players did.

Then I began to hear that Miller is a pretty smart guy, seems like a nice guy. The owners and the hierarchy, like the league presidents and such, were beginning to be very discreet in their remarks about Marvin. I had never met him until the winter baseball meetings in Mexico City, in 1968. I introduced myself. Since then, when there has been a newsworthy dispute in baseball—and there have been a lot of them—I have found I get straighter answers from Marvin than from anyone else I know in baseball. I have yet to find any trace of evidence that he's ever told me an untruth.

There have been times when he has said, "I think I had better not talk about that now," which is understandable. I don't doubt for a moment that he knows he's talking for publication and he's going to tell me what he thinks will look good on his side of the argument. But as far as I know, it's the absolute truth. More honest than most.

I chose this quote not because I think being liberal makes a person morally superior, but as a counterpoint to Young's attitudes. Now, here is another meaty quote, and something that is still relevant today:

I won't deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, "Will you stop Godding up those ball players?" I didn't realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.

If we've made heroes out of them, and we have, then we must also lay a whole set of false values at the doorsteps of historians and biographers. Not only has the athlete been blown up larger than life, but so have the politicians and celebrities in all fields, including rock singers and movie stars.

When you go through Westminster Abbey you'll find that excepting for that little Poets' Corner almost all of the statues and memorials are to killers. To generals and admirals who won battles, whose specialty was human slaughter. I don't think they're such glorious heroes.

I've tried not to exaggerate the glory of athletes. I'd rather, if I could, preserve a sense of proportion, to write about them as excellent ball players, first-rate players. But I'm sure I have contributed to false values—as Stanley Woodward said, "Godding up those ball players."

I know I "God up" ball players. It's hard not to when you are a fan (see Roger Angell). It seems as if the sporting press--who are not, first and foremost, fans--puff the jocks up, only to delight in tearing them down. But that holds true for our entire celebrity culture, not just the sports department. What Smith talked about is just accelerated, heightened now.

2008-01-03 07:03:12
1.   Alex Belth
Oh, and there is a chapter on Woodward in Roger Kahn's memoir, "Into My Own," which can be had at B+N as a remainder for five bucks these days.
2008-01-03 09:55:09
2.   Matty B
That was a fantastic last quote. As an English Ph.D student over at NYU I feel I should add that not even poets are completely innocent figures: Sir Walter Raleigh (buried next to Westminster Abbey) wrote an interesting, cannonized poem, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," yet participated in violence and possible genocide in South America. Yet people remember and fetishize him as a great poet and explorer (the first to mention the legendary "city of gold" featured in the latest National Treasure movie). Over-fetishization, what Woodward has titled "Godding up," is as inevitable, and I argue as necessary, a human act as breathing. I believe that being sports fans provides people with a conduit, something I think you hint at Alex, through which our often severe daily stress finds release. Thus over-fetishizing ball players sounds like a small price to pay to be able to make it through the day.
2008-01-03 10:06:14
3.   Raf
2 "Thus over-fetishizing ball players sounds like a small price to pay to be able to make it through the day."

I prefer beer and women, myself. If I'm not feeling too self-destructive, I'll attend a baseball practice or three; it's that time of year where we start ramping things up.

I am glad I live in a city that provides so many distractions no matter the time, day, or weather.

2008-01-03 11:17:34
4.   JL25and3
They've taken down the "Happy Holidays" message boards at Yankee Stadium and replaced them with: "42 Days Till Pitchers And Catchers."
2008-01-04 06:46:30
5.   The Mick 536
Berry, berry thought provoking.

I do look at them as heroes, especially if they play for the Yankees, the only team in any sport I really follow and support.

Unlike the generals who work behind the scenes, the ballplayeers like the opera singer who has to hit the note that everyone wants to hear, do their thing in front of our eyes. We shouldn't be mocking them when they fail to deliver, but we are entitled to shed a tear or two and announce, "say it ain't so." Their job is to serve the game and me. When they disappoint, either through a lack of performance or a lack of character, I am entitled to express my dissatisfaction. The higher the standard I set, the more forgiving I should be. After all, they don't really live on Mount Olympus.

We have to g_d them up, though. What else can you say about a guy who gets the bat, down three, in the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded? He couldn't find himself in that position by calling for the ball. His AB came up in the natural order of the game. He thinks he can do it. He is special. It is more than a game.

We demand performance. If he performs, he trancends. If he fails.... It is so extra worldly. As good as jazz, yes.

2008-01-04 07:18:00
6.   Raf
5 We have to g_d them up, though.

Not necessarily. As fun as a diversion baseball can be, at the end of the day it's only a game. If I were to deify someone (and I don't), it would have to be someone on the force (Finest, Bravest) or in the service.

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