The hero behind the legend
The story behind a better-known baseball story. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tonight in Los Angeles, and I’ve got a great classic baseball story to share to mark the date.
It’s about a forgotten hero of the game — someone who wasn’t allowed to play for reasons that will soon become apparent, but who was a big part of a big milestone: the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decision to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate the game.
This is the story of Wendell Smith, a groundbreaking Black sports writer in the 20th century. (His story was shared in the 2013 Robinson biopic, 42.) Sharing the story today is Lorna Grisby, a talented writer who was also a colleague of mine back in the day, when we were both reporters at the New Haven Register newspaper.
As a footnote, Smith was posthumously awarded the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 1993, recognizing the best and most accomplished baseball writers. Ironically the award is now renamed the BBWAA Career Excellence Award, after people pointed out Spink's efforts during his lifetime to keep baseball segregated.
The hero behind the legend
by Lorna Grisby
Growing up in Detroit one hundred years ago, he pitched sandlot games and played baseball with Henry Ford’s children at the automobile mogul’s home.
In high school, he was an All-City baseball player. At 19, he pitched a shutout for his American Legion team, prompting Wish Egan, a scout for the Detroit Tigers, to tell the young player he wished he could sign him.
But, that wasn’t an option. The year was 1933 and this gifted pitcher, Wendell Smith, was Black. Baseball’s major leagues were still operating under the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” by which team owners refused to sign any Black players.
Smith’s motto might as well have been, “If you can’t join them, beat them.”
He decided that if he couldn’t play in the majors, he would write about baseball and pave the way for other Black players in the process.
Smith enrolled in West Virginia State College where he played for the baseball team and edited the school newspaper.
Graduating in 1937, he landed a job with the Pittsburgh Courier, which was the largest Black newspaper in the country at the time. From that perch, he slowly worked to erase baseball’s color line. He was an unflinching critic of anything and anyone he believed impeded integrating the sport—from Black people who bought tickets to the very major league games that shut out Black players, to white sports figures who used stereotypes to keep them out, and Black players he believed were unprofessional.
The guy was on a mission. In 1939, he interviewed 50 National League managers and players. Fully 75 percent did not object to the potential desegregation of the game.
In 1945, he arranged a Boston Red Sox tryout for three players from the Negro leagues, among them Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs.
The tryouts proved fruitless. But on the way home, Smith stopped in New York to press the case with Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, telling him Robinson was the Black player best suited to make it in the majors.
Rickey hired Robinson, who played for the Dodgers’ minor league club for the 1946 season before debuting in the majors on April 17, 1947. And, Rickey also hired Smith (who was still a writer with the Courier) to travel with Robinson during both seasons and help him through the transition.
Years later, Smith told columnist Shirley Povich that although Robinson wasn’t the best player from the Negro leagues, he had the right combination of temperament, comportment, experience playing before large crowds, and pedigree (including a college education and honorable service as an army officer during World War II) to face the challenges of integration.
Later, Smith and Robinson had a falling out. Accounts differ on why, but they reportedly didn’t speak for years. Meanwhile, Smith was crossing color lines too.
In 1947, he was hired by the Chicago Herald-American (later the Chicago American), becoming one of the first Black sportswriters at a white newspaper. He continued writing for the Courier as well, and in 1948, he became the first Black member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Ever the activist, in January 1961, Smith launched a campaign to desegregate baseball’s training camp facilities by chronicling the experiences of Black players. When Birdie Tebbetts, former player turned vice president of the Milwaukee Braves, claimed the Braves’ Black players were fine with segregated facilities, Smith eviscerated him, writing:
“When Mr. Birdie Tebbets [sic] was a major league catcher, he was acknowledged as a competent receiver but never considered dangerous at the plate in a crucial situation. On the basis of his reception to the nationwide protests over the deplorable conditions which Negro players — particularly his own — must tolerate in the South during spring training season, one can only conclude that Mr. Tebbets [sic] is still a weakling when the chips are down.”
Ten years later, Smith was among 10 men named voting members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues. He was also elected the first Black president of the Chicago Press Club in January 1972.
Jackie Robinson died on October 24 of that year. Fortunately, he and Smith had mended fences and Smith, ghostwriter of Robinson’s 1948 autobiography, wrote a tribute to his old friend in his Chicago Sun-Times column.
Suffering from pancreatic cancer himself at the time, it was the last article Smith ever wrote. He died a month after Robinson: November 26, 1972.
7 other things worth knowing today
Three men who were convicted as teenagers in 1995 for killing a subway token clerk after setting the booth ablaze, and spent decades in prison, are going free after prosecutors say New York police detectives elicited false confessions from them. (NYT)
The U.S. Army needs to recruit between 27,000 and 33,000 new soldiers over the next 11 weeks to meet its annual goals, one of the biggest shortfalls in years. (Army Times)
The Perseid meteor shower is underway and stargazers in America will get the best views next month, according to the American Meteor Society. This year, they will peak between August 11 to 12. (CBS News)
Sylvester Stallone is going after the producer of the Rocky movies, saying after 47 years he wants the rights to the franchise so he can pass them onto his children. (ShowBiz411)
On second thought, after yesterday's newsletter: Over 1,000 people have died in Spain and Portugal from heat-related causes as an unprecedented heat wave moves through Europe. (Axios)
Related: Britain's Royal Air Force on Monday shut down take offs and landings at Brize Norton air base, the largest air base in the country, because the runway was melting due to extreme hot temperatures. (Reuters)
Also related, this is the sight and sound of ice cracking at Mont Blanc in France. Authorities asked people not to travel to part of the mountain due to the risk of rockfall, as melting glacier ice (due to Europe's heatwave) loosens boulders. (Irish Times/Twitter)
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