If you're a sports fan of a certain age who loves good writing, you'll be hard put to find a book that will give you more pleasure than To Absent Friends from Red Smith (Atheneum, $17.95). There's a problem with that endorsement, though. The words "of a certain age" imply that you have to be old enough to remember most of the people Smith wrote about. I meet that test, but I'm not at all sure you won't find his cast of characters delightful even if you've never heard of them. There were a few who were strangers to me, but I was happy to meet them.
To Absent Friends is—there's no getting around it—a collection of obituaries, in the guise of 179 newspaper columns assembled by Smith shortly before his own death early this year. But they are not mournful. "Dying is no big deal," Smith once said. "The least of us will manage that. Living is the trick." And it's the lives, not the deaths, of his subjects that he chose to commemorate.
Not that these are capsule biographies. You'd have to look elsewhere to find out when Smith's subjects were born and whether they had happy lives. Smith's forte was the anecdote, the sharp vignette that reveals something about each.
In his foreword, Smith denied that he subscribed to the creed de mortuis nil nisi bonum. "If I write that somebody was a great guy, that's how I found him," he said. And in truth that's how he found a surprising number of them. But even those who were never mistaken for models of virtue usually get a warm send-off. Take Jake Powell—a pretty fair outfielder with a very careless mouth. His problems peaked with a blatantly racist remark during a radio interview that attracted national attention. This, unfortunately, was how I remembered him. What I didn't know was what Jake had done to try to atone for his sin. Red Smith knew, and when Powell died, that atonement was what Smith recalled.
In only one or two instances did Smith have trouble finding a good word to say about the deceased. Walter O'Malley was a tough case, and Avery Brundage nearly defeated Smith, but he managed to concede that, in spite of everything, "Avery wasn't an evil man."
As with any collection of short pieces, you probably won't want to read To Absent Friends straight through. Best to save it for that odd hour when you want to be thoroughly entertained without having the slightest demand on your social conscience. Still, I found myself picking up the book every time I got near it. Because the entries are short, you can open it anywhere and find something appealing. As a result, I'm not quite sure I've read all of them yet, but I intend to keep at it until I do. From Georgie (The Iceman) Woolf (1946) to Joe Louis (1981), there are no dull characters in this book. And even if there were, Red Smith didn't let them stay that way.