A LEGACY OF CONSCIENCE AND WIT
In the early days of television. Red Smith was briefly persuaded to step out of his accustomed role as a newspaper sports columnist to do some racetrack commentary on the tube. As the horses paraded into the paddock behind him, Smith, facing the camera, was obliged to describe them while casting backward glances toward the paddock, which isn't an easy task. After a while, he simply gave up, turned his back to the camera and, engaging as always, began contentedly discussing the nags. You're not supposed to turn your back on your audience in TV, which may be why Smith's career in that medium was short-lived, but he was free to do something of the sort in his beloved column. A self-effacing man who remained unimpressed by the Pulitzer Prize and other honors bestowed on him, he just wrote what he saw and felt and invited his readers to take a look over his shoulder if they so desired.
Smith died last week at the age of 76, four days after revealing in his New York Times column his intention to cut his output from four pieces a week to three. He left behind 55 years' worth of marvelous stuff. After the fourth game of the 1947 World Series, in which Floyd Bevens lost his no-hitter and the game as a result of Cookie Lavagetto's pinch double with two out in the ninth, Smith wrote, "The unhappiest man in Brooklyn is sitting up here now in the far end of the press box. The 'v' on his typewriter is broken. He can't write either Lavagetto or Bevens." Twenty-five years later, after Oakland beat the Reds in the World Series, Smith alluded to the congratulatory postgame hugging among the triumphant A's: "And so, as Bobby Tolan contemplates a plunge into the turgid Ohio, we tiptoe silently away from Riverfront Stadium and a love scene of almost unbearable tenderness."
He wrote with as much conscience as wit, and was sometimes biting. To Smith, George Steinbrenner was George III, Bowie Kuhn was "the greatest commissioner since Spike Eckert" and amateur sports officials were amiable oafs who could be found to be "breathing heavily, stuffed shirts heaving from exertion." In the same column in which that last phrase appeared, he also wrote, "The gentlemen who rule our amateur sports have many attractive qualities such as heads." His prose took on an even sharper edge when the Olympic brass decided to resume the 1972 Munich Games following the massacre of Israeli athletes: "Walled off in their dream world, appallingly unaware of the realities of life and death, the aging playground directors who conduct this quadrennial muscle dance ruled that a little bloodshed must not be permitted to interrupt play."
In a profession not always free of backbiting, Smith was revered by his colleagues. He was unfailingly generous in assisting young writers. One of them was Ira Berkow, who as a college student made so bold as to write Smith a letter. A correspondence developed, and, with the older man's encouragement, Berkow became a sportswriter, eventually joining the Times. He wrote Smith's front-page obituary last week. Berkow says the first time he ever took notice of Smith's byline was in 1958 over an account of a middleweight title fight between Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio that included this passage: "When he [Basilio] was declared the loser, he dropped to one knee, blessed himself, remained bowed there for a long moment of prayer. Then he rose, lifted both hands in salute to the crowd, and departed—loser and a true champion."
"I literally cried when I read that," Berkow recalls. "The next time I read one of his columns, I laughed. I was going to be a lawyer until I read Red Smith."
A SHORT STOP IN A LONG SEASON
All right, a little quiz. How many current college basketball players can you come up with whose first names are the same as the surnames of major league shortstops, past or present? The University of Detroit's Aparicio Curry? Easy. San Francisco's Crosetti Speight? Too obvious for words. For full credit, you'd also have to have mentioned the likes of Boston College's Burnett Adams (Johnny Burnett was a shortstop with the Indians from 1927 to '34), Weaver Blondin of the University of the District of Columbia (Buck Weaver hit .272 in nine seasons with the White Sox), Houston Baptist's Boone Almanza (Ray Boone was a sometime shortstop for the Indians and the Tigers in the '40s and '50s), and Alcorn State's Stanley Davenport and Purdue's Russell Cross (the A's Fred Stanley and the Dodgers' Bill Russell are still active).
Sorry, only half-credit for Louisville's Scooter McCray.
Ready for another one? O.K., here goes. What famous athlete recently helped the Mayos top the Tomateros but wants more lettuce?
Answer: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela, who pitched for most of the current Mexican winter league season for the Novojoa Mayos, a nickname that refers to an Indian tribe of that name. Two weeks ago Valenzuela hurled a seven-inning no-hitter for a 1-0 win over the Culiacàn Tomateros, whose nickname means tomato growers. Last week Valenzuela was in the news again when salary talks were held between his agent, Antonio De Marco, and the Dodgers, with the club reportedly offering something like $350.000 a year and De Marco demanding $1 million. Despite the $650,000 difference, we assume there's still a better chance that Valenzuela will be tossing baseballs than salads next summer.
PARDON ME WHILE I GLOAT
To judge by the bumper stickers being seen these days in New Orleans, Tulane fans are enthralled by their football team's big win on Nov. 28 over LSU, only the third time the big-city Green Wave had beaten its upstate archrival in 33 years. The stickers read: CULTURE 48, AGRICULTURE 7.
A 20-YEAR DEARTH
The recipient of the 1981 Sullivan Award, presented annually by the AAU to the outstanding U.S. amateur athlete, will be announced at a banquet in Indianapolis on Feb. 15. In our view, the finalist most deserving of the honor is Evelyn Ashford, who won the 100-and 200-meter dashes at the 1981 World Cup in Rome, a double she had also accomplished at the 1979 World Cup. and who lost only one race in those two events during the year. But it certainly wouldn't be a miscarriage of justice if Ashford were edged out by Carl Lewis, the University of Houston junior who in '81 had the best long jump (28'3½") and 100 meters (10.00) ever at sea level.
A victory in the balloting by either Ashford or Lewis, both of whom are black, would represent a breakthrough, because, amazing though it may seem, only four blacks have won the Sullivan since it was first awarded in 1930, none since Olympic sprint champion Wilma Rudolph did so in 1961.
Why have blacks fared so poorly in the Sullivan balloting? There was known to be a lot of white-only sentiment among voters in the 1930s and 1940s, which helps explain why Jesse Owens was passed over for the '36 award in favor of another of that year's Olympic champions, Glenn Morris, who won the gold medal in Berlin in the decathlon. The color line was ultimately broken by half-miler Mal Whitfield, who won the Sullivan in 1954. He was followed by another track star, Harrison Dillard, in 1955, decathlete Rafer Johnson in 1960 and, finally, Rudolph.
There are several more or less credible explanations for the Sullivan's recent lily-white cast. Although football players used to be considered for the Sullivan, the last one to win was Army Quarterback Arnold Tucker in 1946. Apparently on the theory that enough other honors are heaped on them, football players have been excluded from Sullivan balloting in recent years. Similarly, since 1976 no basketball player has been included among the 10 finalists chosen annually by an AAU committee. That year Indiana University's Scott May, who's black, was an also-ran behind Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner. Football and basketball, of course, are sports in which blacks are prominent, but then, performers in golf and tennis, both white-dominated sports, have been excluded on a de facto basis from Sullivan consideration in recent years, too.
In trying to further account for the failure of blacks to win the award, one AAU insider points out that Sullivan voters tend to be partial to "multi-event" athletes, like swimmers, gymnasts, speed skaters and decathletes; indeed, most of the winners since '61 have been multi-eventers. By contrast, boxing, in which it's possible to win only one medal at a world championship or Olympics—and in which blacks excel—has never produced a Sullivan winner.
Still, it's an embarrassment, if not a scandal, that Bob Beamon wasn't even a finalist in the Sullivan balloting in 1968, the year of his electrifying 29'2½" long jump. The winner that year was swimmer Debbie Meyer. And it's cause for raised eyebrows that before basketball fell out of favor with Sullivan selectors, the only two participants in the sport to win the award were Bill Bradley and Bill Walton, both white. And, similarly, that Edwin Moses finished second in 1977 to swimmer John Naber. And that Renaldo Nehemiah was runner-up in 1979 to gymnast Kurt Thomas. As for the 1981 award, some of the 2,000 media people, amateur sports officials and former winners who participate in the mail balloting, which will conclude on Feb. 8, may be tempted to cast their votes for such candidates as swimmer Mary T. Meagher, diver Greg Louganis or figure skater Scott Hamilton. But Ashford and Lewis are the class of the field. Not incidentally, both are also multi-event performers, Ashford excelling in the 100 and 200, Lewis in events in both track and field. The time is right to bring the troubling, two-decade-long dearth of black Sullivan winners to an end.
NEEDED: TUTORING IN HANDOFFS
It's no secret that many college football coaches routinely expect their schools to bend their entrance requirements for the benefit of star athletes and then give those jocks all manner of special academic treatment, including, at times, the establishment of sham courses in which the athletes can "hide." Such practices have inspired an anonymous satirical "interoffice memo," copies of which have been causing chuckles in the administrative offices of at least one Midwestern university:
FROM: Chairman, English Department
TO: Head Football Coach
Remembering our discussions of your football men who are having trouble in English, I have decided to ask you, in turn, for help. We feel that one of our most promising scholars has a chance for a Rhodes scholarship, which would be a great thing for him and for our college. He has the academic record for this award but, ideally, should have a good record in athletics, too. He is weak. He tries hard, but he has trouble with sports.
We propose that you give some special consideration to him as a varsity player, putting him, if possible, in the backfield of the football team. In this way, we will be able to show a better college record to the committee deciding on the Rhodes scholarships. We realize that he will be a problem in the field, but, as you have often said, cooperation between our department and yours is highly desirable, and we do expect him to try hard. His work in English Club and on the debating team will force him to miss many practices, but we intend to see that he carries an old football around to bounce (or whatever one does with a football) during intervals in his work.
That's those win-at-all-costs academicians for you. Always trying to make football coaches relax their standards. Such nerve.
DON'T FORGET THOSE ABSENTEE YARDS
The Houston Oilers, a playoff team in 1980 with an 11-5 record, slipped to 7-9 in '81, missing the playoffs for the first time in four years. Early in the season the Oilers traded Halfback Rob Carpenter to the Giants for a future third-round draft choice. The two clubs agreed that Houston would also receive a sixth-round choice if Carpenter gained 750 or more yards rushing. Well, it was that kind of year for the Oilers. Carpenter helped get the Giants into the playoffs and had rushed for 751 yards until Dallas' Harvey Martin stopped him for a three-yard loss in overtime of the Giants' regular-season finale, a 13-10 win over the Cowboys. Carpenter was hurt on the play, which turned out to be his last of the day, leaving him with 748 yards for the season. On the off chance that there had been a mistake in the official stats, the Oilers have asked that game films and play-by-play sheets be reviewed. For whatever it might be worth, which probably isn't much, the Giants indicated they'll be happy to arrange a recount.
PRECIOUS PHRASES, PRECIOUS METALS
The San Francisco 49ers owe their nickname to The Great California Gold Rush of 1849, an event that began with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on Jan. 24, 1848. Super Bowl XVI will be played in the Pontiac Silverdome on Jan. 24. A certain 49er fan can probably be forgiven for claiming, in a note last week to San Francisco Chronicle Columnist Herb Caen, that the coincidence of dates is a favorable omen for the Super Bowl-bound 49ers. Less forgivable is the fact that the fellow's missive included this phrase: "As the 49ers dig for gold in the Silverdome...." That prompted Caen to write, "Hoo-boy, hang in there, it's gonna get worse."
THEY SAID IT
•Bill Hanzlik, Seattle SuperSonic guard, who was shaken up when knocked out of bounds by Dallas' Allan Bristow, apologizing to Sonic Coach Lenny Wilkens for having missed both resulting free throws: "Sorry, but I aimed for the basket in the middle."
•Carol Mann, golfer, on New Orleans Saints Coach Bum Phillips' crew cut: "It reminds me of a good three-wood lie."
•Tim Krumrie, Wisconsin noseguard, on being introduced on TV as a member of the AP All-America football team by Bob Hope: "Looks like nobody guarded your nose."
•Ed Badger, University of Cincinnati basketball coach, asked why the Bearcats don't consent to play a stronger schedule: "I've had a lot of coaches say, 'We'd like to get your little old team on our schedule.' I just say to them, I bet you would, but I think I'll wait until I have a big old team.' "