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American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, edited by Daniel Okrent, afterword by Terence Smith; Library of America, 560 pages ($29.95). “I’m just a working stiff, trying to write better than I can” was one of the tropes Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith offered to the world to explain his 800-word art. Even more famous is the Red Smith line that even historian Daniel Okrent – who edited and wrote the introduction to this invaluable Smith omnibus – would find nowhere in print under Smith’s byline: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

He never wrote a book. Mostly, he wrote sports columns, which is why, says his son Terence Smith in his afterword, he and his pal, racing columnist Joe Palmer, would sit around Palmer’s study – Red with his scotch and soda, Joe with his bourbon and branchwater – and pray “Give us this day our daily plinth.” A plinth, you see, is, as Terence explains, “the base of a column.” Red Smith’s refusal to write a book hasn’t stopped others from writing books about him. The trouble with the legend of sportswriter Red Smith – or any other daily functionary in the journalists’ raffish trade – is that if you collect a lot of his life work in a 500-plus page fiesta like this, you’re seeing it all, plain, wheat and chaff. It’s not just individual lines that can be excised from columns and showcased like great lines from poetry – his reference to a boxer in the ring “being separated from his intellect” or describing Stan Musial getting his 3,000th hit as “a grown man in flannel rompers swinging a stick on a Chicago playground.”

The ruthless truth is that bulk is not Red Smith’s friend here, the way it would be for a writer of more variety of subject (think, for instance, of those 500-plus page omnibuses of John Updike’s nonfiction pieces). It begins with his 1975 reminiscence of buddies Frank Graham and Grantland (“Granny” he called him) Rice. Its end is his farewell column from 1982 in which he said of the athletic ability of jockey “Bill” (we call him Willie) Shoemaker that, after 32 years riding horses, he was “still at 96 pounds and will beat your pants off at golf, tennis or any other game where you’re foolish enough to challenge him.” Not sportswriting, though. That was Red’s game. – Jeff Simon