In college I took a creative-writing course in which the visiting professor was Kingsley Amis, then celebrated as one of Britain's Angry Young Men. One of his first questions was who were my favorite writers. J. D. Salinger, naturally, fell trippingly off my tongue; I added Tennessee Williams and backed them up with somebody like Joyce or Melville as a measure of my deep erudition (neither of them could I read with a gun to my head). "Anyone else?" Amis asked.
This is an article from the June 7, 1976 issue
"Well," I said, "Red Smith."
Naturally, Amis wanted to know who this Red Smith might be, and I explained that he was a syndicated sports columnist. Amis nodded and managed to contain himself, but a short time later a friend in England sent me an article Amis had written about his American experience. He devoted much space and many jibes to the typical American boy who had actually cited a sports columnist as a favorite writer.
This all came back to me the other day when Red Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He is 70 now. Given the grace and style of his work, the sustained excellence, this honor is only about 25 or 30 years overdue. If Red Smith had not written about sports, but about politics or theater or architecture, the judges would have been falling all over him by 1950. It shows the prevailing attitude toward sportswriting that Smith had to join The New York Times and become venerable before he could win. For the Pulitzer judges, sportswriting is still déclassé.
Although the sports section takes up a healthy portion of any newspaper and is widely read, only three Pulitzers—and one special citation—have been awarded to sportswriters in the 60 years of the prizes' existence. In contrast, almost every year since 1922 one of the tiny number of the nation's newspaper editorial cartoonists wins a Pulitzer. Moreover, in the last 40 years, the only two sports Pulitzers have gone to Times columnists—which is rather like reserving Pulitzers for Supreme Court coverage for the National Enquirer. Before Smith, Arthur Daley, a nice enough man of modest ability, won one in 1956. Overlooked was Jimmy Cannon, a cocky, often abrasive person who frequently wrote to excess but with a verve, style and originality that uplifted his whole profession.
It is petty of me to say this—I must, to make the larger point—but Smith's present work hardly merits an award, although he has shown an almost adolescent militancy of late, passionately espousing the players' cause in their continuing struggle with the owners. But on the whole, the words merely hum along now, an old tune, instead of singing, as they once did. I'm happy justice has been served, even 25 years late, but what a continuing insult to newspaper sportswriters it is that when the Pulitzer committee deigns to give a sports award—once every blue moon—it makes something of a hash of it.
This snub of the sports pages is an ongoing injustice. Consider Jim Murray, the humorist of the Los Angeles Times. For nine of the last 10 years the newspaper sports-writers of America have named him the best in the country. Can you imagine the political writers voting such an honor to a peer nine out of 10 years, and having the Pulitzer committee overlook their choice? Or consider Dick Young of the New York Daily News. Unlike Murray or Smith, Young is not renowned for his style, but he is an incisive reporter, and his column is a brilliant original, newspapering at its best. If they are lucky, perhaps Murray and Young will someday be pensioned off to the Times so that they might be discovered by the Pulitzer judges.
But it is even more of a failure of the Pulitzer not to annually recognize general newspaper sports reporting. Never mind columns. Columns (except for the very few literate ones) tend to drag the whole profession down. Sports columns are often batted out by tired hacks who take up space under their picture predicting scores and writing PR for their golfing pals, the local coaches. But it is this stylized drivel that most people (apparently including Pulitzer people) think of whenever they think of "sportswriting."
Indeed, in many respects the sports column is an anachronism, an institutionalized fragment, a garbage pail for spoiled anecdotal hors d'oeuvres. As a day-to-day staple, the column is dated, and a new sports-page trust is apparent in papers like the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times—not surprisingly, the papers with the top three sports sections in the country—where the best young writers are often assigned to produce long, thoughtful and provocative pieces on genuine athletic issues. It is no longer the cap on a newspaper sportswriter's career to become a columnist. Many of the more talented reporters would rather take the time to pursue important sports topics in depth than be the glib dilettante who hangs around the dugout and jots down the manager's bons mots to pass on to the readers. Newspaper sportswriting will move up in esteem when the column is taken for the bagatelle that it is.
In the meantime, the Pulitzer people should realize that on some newspapers sportswriting is every bit as professional and artful—if not more so—than what is found in the general news columns. Such recognition is overdue.