An Appreciation of Legendary Negro Leagues Chronicler Wendell Smith
ALSO: BASEBALL PHOTO GALLERY FROM A WRITER'S PRIVATE COLLECTION
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“He covered it like a blanket”
Appreciating Wendell Smith
By Jeff Kallman
In 1933, a young black pitcher for Detroit’s American Legion team pitched, earned a win in a playoff game, and was approached by a major-league scout. The scout signed both the pitcher’s white catcher (Mike Tresh, father of future American League Rookie of the Year Tom Tresh) and his white mound opponent . . . but not him, saying he wanted to but for the enforcement of The Show’s color line.
Little did that scout know he’d flipped a switch activating a far more powerful current. That pitcher used the encounter as grist for the mill through which he became maybe the most influential of the numerous black journalists covering the Negro Leagues and prodding for the end of baseball’s disgraceful segregation.
It turned Wendell Smith from a pitcher into a sportswriter. And a gift to his country.
If a superstar is a man compelled by his times strictly to the segregated but influential beyond its boundaries black press, then Smith was one of two superstars in the black press’s baseball firmament. The other, Sam Lacy, the Baltimore Afro-American’s baseball writer, considered Smith the best of the era and beyond.
“Anybody can be a reporter . . . but it takes more to be a journalist,” Lacy once said. “Wendell had that something extra. He was always thinking ahead and never quite satisfied with what he had accomplished.” The Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago American delivered Smith’s reporting and observations. He did not practice his art in vain.
Once upon a time, Hall of Fame slugger/outfielder-turned-Mets-broadcast-lifer Ralph Kiner observed, “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and the rest is covered by Garry Maddox.” As much could be said about the Negro Leagues as covered by Smith. In fact, it was said, almost, by anthologist Jim Reisler in 2012’s Black Writers/Black Baseball, introducing a chapter gathering some of Smith’s choicest Courier writings.
“Smith covered Negro Leagues baseball like a blanket,” wrote Reisler, who put Smith’s smiling visage on the cover of his imperative anthology. “He could be folksy, but direct and forceful when taking on both major-league and black team owners.”
In 1938, Smith wondered in the Courier why black baseball fans continued making their ways to MLB ballparks despite the Show not wanting them on the mound, at the plate, in the field. The question, he wrote, would “probably never” have a satisfactory answer.
Major-league baseball does not want us. It never has. Still, we continue to help support this institution that places a bold “Not Welcome” sign over its thriving portal and refuse to patronize the very place that has shown that it is more than welcome to have us . . .
We have been fighting for years in an effort to make owners of major-league baseball teams admit Negro players. But they won’t do it, probably never will . . . We know that they don’t want us, but we still keep giving them our money. Keep on going to their ball games and shouting till we are blue in the face. Oh, we’re an optimistic, faithful, prideless lot—we pitiful black folk.
Yes, sir—we black folk are a strange tribe!
The writer who saw the 1938 Homestead Grays as the Negro Leagues version of the Gas House Gang (They play the game for all they can get out of it. Every ball game is played as though it meant the difference between life and death) also didn’t suffer foolish Negro Leagues owners any more gladly than mainstream reporters suffered Show owners who hadn’t co-opted them.
For the longest time, Bobby Thomson’s was it/wasn’t it tainted pennant-winning home run in the National League’s 1951 playoff was known as the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. I submit the shot heard ‘round the world should have been the day Smith was drawn to one side by Branch Rickey, then the Dodgers’ president, after a press conference that followed a sham 1945 Red Sox tryout for three Negro Leagues players.
Rickey wanted Smith to recommend black players for the Show. Smith had Rickey’s answer and gave it to him straight, no chaser: “If you aren’t serious about this, Mr. Rickey, I’d rather not waste our time discussing it. But if you are serious, I do know of a player who could make it. His name is Jackie Robinson.”
With a gimlet eye and a pen sharp and lyrical, Smith made a liar of his 1938 self for the greater good of baseball, his people, and all people. (The Baseball Writers Association of America finally admitted him to their ranks in 1947, almost a decade after his career began.) Later in his career, as the first black reporter on the Chicago Herald-American, Smith led the published charge against spring training’s continuing hotel and restaurant segregation.
“He had a vision of an American society,” wrote the Chicago Defender upon his 1972 death,
where ability, skill, and character are the sole measures of a man and not the color of his skin. He pursued that idealism . . . not with the militancy of the new breed of black spokesman, rather with the calm and patient logic of a wise man whose vision was sharp enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He has made his contribution. History will not pass him by.
Almost a full half-century has passed since Smith himself passed to the Elysian Fields. (The sad irony: he succumbed to cancer a shade over a month after his lifelong friend Jackie Robinson was felled by a second heart attack.) Since his passing, the honors that were no less than his due came forth: the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame in 1993, the Red Smith Award (by the Associated Press Sports Editors group) in 2014.
Such honors should have been Smith’s while he walked and worked among us. But if you saw the film 42, at least you got to know a decent small volume of the man behind the legend. Perhaps a better volume would be a single published anthology of Smith’s work alone. Reisler’s chapter should be taken as the appetizer for a meal guaranteed to satisfy, instruct, and delight.
Baseball today struggles with issues from the play of the game itself to the exponentially magnified fooleries of its leadership and the curious decline of an African-American presence—on the field and in teams’ administrations—even as the game is open to so many more, from so many more places and races beyond white America.
Perhaps there might come a new Wendell Smith to address that decline and prod with similar virtuosity on behalf of arresting and reversing it. I say “might” because you can’t reproduce Wendell Smith exactly, any further than you can reproduce a Satchel Paige hesitation pitch.
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived since 2007 in Las Vegas, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born. His email address is email@example.com.
Some Baseball Pix From My Private Collection
By Dan Schlossberg
During more than a half-century of covering baseball, I’ve been able to meet and interview hundreds of baseball personalities — from Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax to Hank Aaron and Joe Torre.
I’ve also been able to take a few pictures to illustrate my work, which has taken me from the decks of paddle-wheel steamboats to the depths of major-league dugouts.
That being said, there’s no better time than now to share some of the pictures I’ve taken along the way.
See how many you can recognize:
Mix & Match: pictured above are Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Jr., Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Zack Wheeler, Fernando Tatís Jr., Ronald Acuña, Jr., Bud Black, and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza together. Copyright 2022 by Dan Schlossberg.
Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been covering baseball since 1969. A national baseball writer for forbes.com, he’s the author of 40 baseball books and a lot more pictures. E.mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cam @camcam1886@DOBrienATL just curious, how does Harris first 30+ games compare to RAJ’s? Harris has to have had a more productive intro to the bigs, right? Exciting to even be able to slightly compare the two!
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