Among his other distinctions, Walter Wellesley ''Red'' Smith was the only sportswriter to be praised by a Nobel prize-winner in the pages of a novel. During the course of ''Across the River and Into the Trees,'' Ernest Hemingway expressed his admiration through an alter ego, Richard Cantwell, Colonel, United States Army. The final sentence in Chapter 15 runs thus: ''He was reading Red Smith, and he liked him very much.''
The judgment holds up 32 years later as one of the sounder moments in a rather erratic book.
Red himself had a pride in his craft but a skeptical sense of his trade. ''The question of what to do with old newspaper columns,'' he once wrote, ''isn't quite the same as how to dispose of used razor blades, but the difference is negligible.''
Nobody, including Red, could have known how many columns he turned out during his nearly half a century of sports writing in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York. On Jan. 11, in what proved to be his last column, he announced to New York Times readers that he was cutting down from four columns a week to three, recalling that in the beginning he had put forth seven a week. ''I loved it!'' he wrote, and remarked wistfully of his shrinking quota: ''We shall have to wait and see whether the quality improves.''
Any suspense on the question belonged to Red, not his readers. The quality was always there. Red reported the facts with casually thorough scholarship, but that was not the object. His form was really the short story. He wrote brilliant opening sentences that established character, plot, and a point of view that extended well beyond sports. Here is how he began a column on Buck Leonard, a black superstar whose career ended before baseball integrated: ''Wearing a store suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a smile that could light up Yankee Stadium, a sunny gentleman of 64 revisited his past yesterday and recalled what it was like to be the black Lou Gehrig on a food allowance of 60 cents a day.''