Sunday, July 25, 2021

Kings Get in Free

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

A Boy Scout who fainted in the intense heat was the first ‘casualty’ of the 1948 Olympic Games. Courtesy of Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum, UK.

In an afterword for American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, Terence Smith relates the story his father used to tell about how he became an “accidental sportswriter.” Twenty-three-year-old Walter Wellesley Smith was the newest employee working the copy desk at The St. Louis Star, where he edited articles and wrote headlines. One day Frank Taylor, the newspaper’s editor, fired half of his six-member sportswriting team after finding out they had been accepting payments from a promoter hoping to hype local boxing events. “Looking around for a replacement,” Terence writes, “he called my father over and supposedly the following conversation ensued”:
Taylor: Do you know anything about sports, Smith?
Smith: Just what the average fan knows, sir.
Taylor: They tell me you’re very good on football.
Smith: Well, if you say so.
Taylor: Are you honest?
Smith: I hope so, sir.
Taylor: What if a fight promoter offered you $10, would you take it?
Smith (long pause): $10 is a lot of money, sir.
Taylor: Report to the sports editor Monday.
Smith’s first big assignment was a road trip to cover the St. Louis Browns during their 1929 spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, and his articles on the team began to appear under the byline “W. W. Smith.” A few years later, when he became a reporter for the Philadelphia Record, the slot man at the copy desk took it upon himself to publish Walter’s stories under “Red Smith,” the nickname colleagues and friends knew him by, and Smith kept the byline for the remainder of his career.

In 1945 Smith moved to the New York Herald Tribune. Shortly after his arrival he was added to the team of reporters covering the World Series. When Smith asked what they wanted him to cover, the paper’s sports editor, Stanley Woodward, told him to “write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway.” In other words, as Daniel Okrent explains in the introduction to American Pastimes, “keep your senses open and alert, and you’ll find something that no one else is paying attention to. This couldn’t have been a revelation to Smith—he’d been doing just that for years—but he liked the sound of it, and for the rest of his career quoted Woodward frequently.”

“An intense focus on the sideshow to the main event was essential to Smith’s craft,” Okrent continues. “Not the roaring cars hurtling around the Indianapolis Speedway, but the faces and clothing and refreshment choices of the crowd in the infield. Not the punch that knocked out the champion, but the look in his eyes as he struggled to rise from the canvas.” “Kings Get in Free,” presented below, is a perfect example of such a story; reporting on the 1948 Summer Olympics from Wembley Stadium in London, Smith’s eye zooms in on George VI of England, maintaining a royal poise while watching over the spectacle of the opening ceremonies in 97-degree heat.

The 1948 Olympics became known as the “Austerity Games” because, three years after the war, London was still a city of bombed-out buildings, food rationing, and economic hardship; male competitors were housed in military barracks, women athletes stayed in college dorms, and most of the events took place in Wembley and the nearby Empire Pool rather than in specially constructed facilities. Although the participants complained heartily about the food, and while the heatwave, followed by rain and mud, wore down competitors and audiences alike, the games were largely considered a success, a harbinger of recovery.

One of the track events was marred by an incident that has been largely forgotten, yet it proved to be a harbinger of a different sort. The men’s 4 × 100 metres relay was won with a time of 40.6 seconds by the U.S.A. team of Barney Ewell, Lorenzo Wright, Harrison Dillard, and Mel Patton, but a judge disqualified them because he thought the first baton handoff had been made outside the 20-metre passing zone. The awards ceremony proceeded with the runner-up team, Great Britain, receiving the gold. The American team protested the decision after the ceremony and soon learned that the Olympics documentary film crew had captured the moment in question. Three days later, stills from the footage were produced and examined by the judges, and the images proved without a doubt that the pass had occurred well within the bounds marked on the track. “The jury then declared the Americans undisqualified,” Red Smith wrote in a subsequent column. “Thus the United States triumph was accomplished in 68 hours 37 minutes 40.6 seconds. This is not an Olympic record.” Smith then added, “It was not only the first reversal of a decision involving victory in any Olympic competition; it was also one of the few times within living memory that the movies definitely settled a disputed point in any sport.”

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Smith’s column, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Kings Get in Free
London, U.K., July 29, 1948
England’s biggest track meet in forty years opened this afternoon with a pageant of nationalism, an orgy of oratory and a paroxysm of symbolism but no running, jumping, or bulging of the biceps. The recorded casualties were a half-dozen Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts who fainted under the malevolent sun which beat upon Wembley Stadium with padded brutality.

King George VI, perspiring royally in his gold-braided sailor suit, and his missus, Queen Elizabeth, in some yards of pale blue fluff with a large, floppy hat to match, got in on passes (no tax or service charge). About eighty-two thousand cash customers paid up to two guineas apiece ($8.40) to watch the stately and magnificent rinky-dink that set off the games of the fourteenth Olympiad.

The King earned his free ticket, though. The gentry and the costers who bought theirs had only to sit and swelter in the great, steaming, concrete cauldron. His Majesty had to stand at rigid, humid attention for fifty minutes, which is the equivalent of clutching a strap on the East Side subway from Parkchester to Fourteenth Street; he had to salute the flags of fifty-nine nations carried past the royal box. He had to make a sixteen-word speech. Never were the hardships of the monarch business more amply demonstrated although, admittedly, the hours and salary are usually very good.

Besides sitting and sweltering, the cash trade beat sweaty palms red, yowled and chanted and waved flags as the musclemen of their countries marched by. For let there be no mistake about it, these Olympics are the amateur sporting world’s clearest expression of nationalism.

It was the desire of the games’ founder, it says here in the program, that “the spirit of international comity be advanced by the celebration of chivalrous and peaceful contests,” and Lord Burghley, the reformed Olympic hurdler who is chairman of the Organizing Committee which runs these games, spoke of “kindling a torch of that ageless and heartfelt prayer of mankind for peace and good will among men.” But when their teams marched in, partisans hollered just as fight fans do for Rocky Graziano, who is no career torch-kindler.

They made clear the sound and healthy point that in the carnival of international competition which the ensuing fortnight will see, the idea is going to be, as it should be, to knock the spots off the other guy.

Wembley Stadium at two o’clock was a cooked gaboon of concrete, its gray slopes packed, its currycombed infield a vivid green encircled by a track of bright red clay. In one section of seats, the massed bands of His Majesty’s Brigade of Guards blared and oompahed. Across the arena, about two-fifteen, a great covey of Olympic brass lined up in the sweaty elegance of silk hats and frock coats.

At two-forty-five exactly (in the king-and-emperor business, punctuality is of the essence) His Majesty came hiking out of a tunnel under the stands, shook hands with Burghley and the president of the International Olympic Committee, a silk-hatted Swede named J. Sigfrid Edström. With these two trailing him, the King then strolled the length of the waxworks, pumping hands with each exhibit. Amid a moderate patter of handclapping, he walked up to the royal box and sat at his spouse’s left, directly under the tote board for Wembley’s dog races.

Out of a runway at the east end of the oval came a Boy Scout with bare knees and a sign reading “Greece.” Being the original Olympic nation, Greece’s team led the march. The Greeks in the front ranks were all bald, obviously committeemen, caterers, and coaches. Their big silken flag, a white cross on a blue field, dipped as it passed the royal box. The King, standing, snapped to salute.

Thereafter, he remained standing as the flags passed in alphabetical order, never once shifting to relieve the heat on his royal bunions, saluting even those flags which were not dipped. About a half-dozen standards were not lowered, either because of national rules, or because their bearers hadn’t been sufficiently rehearsed, or as a form of political criticism. Ireland’s flag was half-dipped; grudgingly might be an accurate adverb. Colombia’s didn’t go down, but its bearer snapped into a majestic goose-step as he passed. By and large, the teams marched better than baseball squads do at the flag-raising on opening day.

The first wholehearted burst of applause came for Australia, first of the United Kingdom affiliates to show. However, the loudest enthusiasm manifested between A and E was inspired by the Danish team, whose claque set off a volley of yells and upped with a regular flurry of red Danish flags with their white crosses. Subsequently, this section boisterously hailed all Scandinavians—the Finns, Norwegians, Swedes, and even Iceland’s team. As each such group appeared, the rooters gave off a chant that sounded, from this seat, like “Yale, Yale, Yale.”

There were big teams and little. Panama was represented by one guy in a Panama hat, not Lloyd LaBeach, the sprinter. India’s team wore baby-blue burnooses. New Zealand’s had what looked like smoking jackets. The Swiss wore caps like lady softball players. The United States got a restrained hand; the last man in our ranks halted to snap the King’s picture.

Well, the King finally got to sit down. He looked on while trumpeters trumpeted, speakers spoke, and attendants released a great mess of caged pigeons, which zoomed and swooped over eighty-two thousand unprotected skulls. The billing promised seven thousand pigeons, or one for every twelfth head, but it looked like maybe two thousand. Chances are the brass didn’t dare turn loose that many squab in this hungry nation. Almost immediately twenty-one guns boomed. Sounded like first day of the duck season off Little Tail Point in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Now a tall young blond in his underwear burst through the entrance and circled the track, bearing aloft the Olympic torch, a blinding magnesium sparkler which hurt the eyes. Theoretically, the torch had been lighted on Mt. Olympus and delivered by Western Union boys running in relays across Europe, with a Ford truck following with a spare torch in case the real McCoy went out. Actually, the torch that appeared here was a ringer, a special oversize job carried on the last relay from a suburb like Bay Ridge.

The torch-bearer dashed up into the stands, brandished his torch on high and dropped it into a tall concrete bird bath—from which red flame arose. That flame will burn throughout these games.

The crowd made with the tonsils. It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.

Originally appeared in the New York Herald Tribune (July 29, 1948) and reprinted in Out of the Red (1950). Copyright © 1950. Reprinted by permission of Terence Smith.

This selection is used by permission. To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.