Why sportswriters rock
Julia Keller

I may very well have been the slowest, shortest and least-coordinated point guard in the long history of basketball, but know this: When it came to reading about the game, nobody beat me.

I couldn’t run or jump worth a darn, but I practically memorized novels such as “Go, Team, Go!” (1954) by John R. Tunis, an exciting account of a tough high school coach and the kids he whipped into shape. And I could quote verbatim the sports columns in my hometown newspaper by a guy named Ernie Salvatore. If you lived in Huntington, W.Va., anytime in the second half of the 20th century, you read Ernie.

That’s not hyperbole; he wrote from the 1940s through the first decade of the 21st century. He had a nimble style and the fearlessness of a great referee: He called ’em like he saw ’em.

I often say, with complete sincerity, that the two greatest influences on my prose style were Virginia Woolf and Salvatore — and that Woolf lady, I’m not so sure about.

All of this is by way of recommending a marvelous new volume of essays about writing devoted to legendary sportswriter Red Smith, who died in 1982. Smith, who wrote for The New York Times, among others, received a lockerful of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, but as the essays in “Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism and Writing” (Andrews McNeel) make clear, he saw himself first and foremost as a reporter.

His advice to young journalists was succinct: “Be there.” And in so many small and medium-size towns across America — towns such as the one in which I grew up — frequently there is a version of Smith, a beloved sportswriter who remains a reporter at heart, who never gets too comfortable in the office, who grinds out multiple columns per week, game after game, year after year.

For me, that writer was Salvatore.

I don’t know if Smith and Salvatore ever met, but I suspect they would’ve liked each other — as long as they weren’t fighting for the last pencil in the drawer. And as I read the absorbing essays in “Making Words Dance,” I thought about the industrious sportswriters at newspapers far less illustrious than those for whom Smith toiled who, despite their relative obscurity, followed his example.

“His columns relied on strong reporting,” is how Robert Schmuhl, author and professor at the University of Notre Dame, who edited this sparkling collection, describes Smith’s core virtue. “Smith was the best at what he did, and his work continues to teach lessons about literary excellence and the craft of journalism.”

To spread those lessons, Notre Dame — which proudly counts Smith among its alumni — initiated the Red Smith Lecture series in 1982. The speakers who arrive on campus to use his work as a springboard for their thoughts on writing are an impressive lot, as “Making Words Dance” — which includes the text of many of their speeches — demonstrates, from the rambling hilarity of Frank McCourt to the serious ruminations on the future of media provided by the likes of Tim Russert, Ted Koppel and Jim Lehrer. My favorite essay is by Jane Leavy, a pioneering female sportswriter.

Also included in “Making Words Dance” are choice columns by Smith. “He thought his columns were very much of the moment,” says Terence Smith, Red Smith’s son, a former New York Times correspondent who wrote the book’s prologue. “Yet he knew, even if he didn’t belabor it, that sports were a very good way to write about the American scene and the American personality.”

I contacted Salvatore, whom I’d never met, right after I joined the Tribune. I was writing a story about the 30th anniversary of the Huntington plane crash in 1970 that killed 75 people, including most of the Marshall University football team. Salvatore had covered the tragedy. He was gracious and helpful, sharing his memories, opening his files.

I always meant to keep in touch, but you know how those things go. And then I read in July that Salvatore had died at 87.

As I read “Making Words Dance,” I thought about metaphors and jump shots, about paragraphs and forward passes, about what it is that sportswriters such as Smith and Salvatore do: They remind us that there is always a clock ticking in the background of our time on this Earth — not just in basketball games — and that a great wordsmith is, in effect, calling for the ball to try the last shot. When the talent is immense, the aim is true.

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