When I was a kid of 20, I jumped from the Baltimore Sun circulation department to the morning sports desk on the fifth floor of the paper’s offices at 501 North Calvert Street.
I’d just returned from a road trip to Chicago to interview Studs Terkel and see the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field. My job in sports was formatting each day’s racetrack results as they moved across the AP wire, back when the paper of record devoted an entire page to the ponies.
My desk was near renowned newspaper artist Jim Hartzell, who created the original Oriole “bird” when the team moved here from St. Louis in 1954. Close by was assistant features editor James K. Bock, soon to post to the Mexico City bureau of The Sun when the paper had reporters around the world.
I was on the desk less than a month when Keith Moon – nonpareil drummer for The Who – fatally overdosed on Heminevrin, prescribed to help the 32-year-old with rampant alcoholism.
One of the characters who feverishly called the desk for hot-off-the-wire results was beloved Orioles’ team trainer Ralph Salvon. When the phone rang on September 8, 1978 it wasn’t a railbird but a rock-and-roll compañero who’d accompanied me to Chicago that summer to say, “Keith Moon died.”
Eager to quit writing for the City Paper for a full-time reporter’s gig at The Sun, I told Bock of Moon’s demise and asked if I might file a remembrance of the great and troubled drummer.
Write it up, he said. I did and Bock put it on Page B-6 a few days later below an AP story out of London about a forthcoming toxicology report. “The sound of The Who may belong to Pete Townsend,” I wrote. “But the fury of The Who was Keith Moon.”
When I showed up for the 4-to-midnight shift the next day, there was a sheet of copy paper waiting for me. On it, the assistant sports editor – Seymour S. Smith – listed the tracks running that day.
At the bottom, Seymour scribbled, “Nice piece on the late, famed drummer.” I had it framed, not knowing that Seymour did likewise for the entire staff whether they covered duckpin bowling or the Orioles.
Headline and byline of Alvarez remembrance of Keith Moon, September 1978.
While the glory of the British Invasion is indelible, this story is about Seymour, who died at 93 last year and of whom I do not say lightly: Next to my father, Seymour Stanley Smith was the kindest, most thoughtful and generous man I’ve ever known.
It’s also about the dilemma of a documentarian: No matter how good you are, you can’t be in two places at once. And delegating assignments to others doesn’t count.
For half of my career, I’ve chased musicians – Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, Nils Lofgren, Joey Ramone and Dion DiMucci among them – to get as close to the thrill as possible. The rest has been spent at kitchen tables across Baltimore, sipping coffee while taking down the life stories of my working-class relatives as well as the strange, the obsessed, and the weird.
If I hadn’t followed Johnny Winter around the country for 40 years, I might have celebrated the life of Morris Martick before the fabled Mulberry Street restaurateur died in 2011.
Had I not spent so much time with oddballs from the Block, the foot of Broadway and the Congress Hotel when it was a flop, I’d have published more portraits of the legends who passed through town: Sun Ra at the Famous Ballroom in 1978, Otis Rush ripping up the Knights of Columbus hall in Hamilton in the early ‘90s and, in 1981, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald at Pier Six.
My sadness last year at Seymour’s funeral was freighted with regret that I’d never gotten to know him beyond our time in the newsroom and his love of basketball. In 1979, he edited an interview I did with Pistol Pete Maravich, one of my childhood heroes, and ran it in the Sunday paper.
At the time of his death, Seymour had been retired for more than 30 years and – widowed in 2018 from his beloved Eunice Silverman – resided at a Mount Washington senior community. We never talked about our shared hometown, Crabtown on the Patapsco. Alvarez regrets the error.
After the service, I interviewed Seymour’s 87-year-old brother, the retired ophthalmologist Morton E. Smith of St. Louis. From Mort, I learned that their South Baltimore childhood was kith-and-kin to the tales I’ve been spinning forever.
“Our father was Israel Zditovsky back in Russia and became Irvin Smith when he landed on Ellis Island in 1912. He had a tailor shop at 1137 South Charles street called Smitty’s,” said Mort, a half dozen years younger than Seymour.
The old family shop is now Kim’s Day Spa, indicative of how far the neighborhood has diverted from its working class, maritime roots.
“Our store was catty-corner from Shane’s shoe store where we lived on the second floor,” said Mort. “After a few years, my parents bought a house a block away at 1230 South Charles Street. Dad died in 1959. A few years later Mom moved to Northwest Baltimore.”
Assimilation was the name of the game for most of the 20th century and though their parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what was going on, English was the rule.
“We think Mom [the former Mary Greenberg] came from somewhere in Czarist Russia. She came to the U.S. as an infant and we never knew when she was born.”
The neighborhood, said Mort, was largely Catholic – both Irish and Polish, “with a Jewish pawn broker named Sol down the street and Tony the Italian barber. There was also a Chinese restaurant and it seemed like all the men were longshoremen with funny nicknames.”
Proud of their Jewish heritage, the Smiths were not particularly religious. Irv was crazy for the crab imperial at Haussner’s in the heart of Highlandtown and didn’t mind waiting in the line that went around the block to get in.
Seymour and Mort – who enjoyed many a BLT sandwich growing up and ate steamed crabs with their parents – were most likely bar mitzvahed at the Rodfe Zedek synagogue in the unit block of West Hill Street between Charles and Hanover streets.
“I never went to services again after that,” said Mort. Not long before Seymour died, there was a High Holidays dinner at the senior community and a staffer encouraged him to attend. When he begged off, the staffer said, “You’re Jewish aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Seymour, according to Mort. “But I’m not that Jewish.”
What he was crazy for (in addition to horrible puns) was sports – all sports with a special passion for basketball.
“The only sport that Seymour didn’t teach me was lacrosse,” said Mort, noting that in his Depression-era childhood, Cross Street Market was a two-story building (destroyed by fire in 1951) with a basketball court on the second floor. “That’s where Seymour taught me to play basketball.”
In 1944, age 16 and too young for the Second World War (he would serve with distinction as an Army corporal in Korea), Seymour was hired as a $17 a week copyboy when The Sun had offices at Baltimore and Charles streets. In 1947 he was made a sportswriter, soon covering the original Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.
Interviewed upon his retirement in 1990, Seymour said, “Maybe it’s because I’m older, but it was romantic in the old days. It was like something out of an Edward G. Robinson movie. Gin bottles in the desks. I don’t remember hearing anyone say, ‘Stop the presses,’ but it was like that.” The greatest guy anyone had the good fortune to know? Seymour was like that.
Rafael Alvarez recently returned from the Mississippi Delta where he reported on the tornado that destroyed Muddy Waters’ hometown of Rolling Fork. He can be reached via email@example.com