SABR

Reggie Smith

This article was written by Jeff Angus.


Reggie Smith was a rookie in 1967 when the Boston Red Sox came back from a ninth-place finish to craft an extraordinary pennant-winning season. The All-Star caliber major league career he completed in 1982 was a great success that has been muddied by other people's expectations (too high) and Smith's media profile (too low).

Smith batted with power and average from both sides of the plate, was a fine center fielder, had superior base-running speed, and had a legendary throwing arm that may have been the best of his era. In the argot of the game, he was a "five-tool player." He took a scientific, analytical approach to the game. His teammates describe him as a man who relentlessly learned to do new things and who strived to be great at everything he did. And the discerning Dick Williams, who managed him in Boston, places Smith on his All-Dick Williams team, a team that includes players from 22 years of helmsmanship and five first-place teams, two of which won World Series.

According to pitcher John Curtis, a teammate of Smith's on both the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, "I will always remember Reg as one of the most complete players I ever saw. ...I know he labored under the weight of everyone's expectations. In Boston, the sportswriters would wonder aloud why Reg wasn't playing up to his demonstrated abilities. ... He once told me that the worst word in the English language was 'potential.'"1 At the same time, Smith was little-known because another outfielder named Reggie with a Hall of Fame career and a gregarious, exhibitionist personality overshadowed the more businesslike Smith in the eyes of national media. Curtis pitched against both and said, "On the basis of talent, I'd take Smith over Jackson any day. I played with both of them, and I wouldn't hesitate to take Smith's overall game over Jackson's showmanship."

In his 8,050 career plate appearances, Smith produced an OPS+2 of 137, batting 37% better than his league's averages, with a batting average of .287, an on-base-percentage of .366, and a slugging percentage of .489. That OPS+ figure is tied for 91st all-time and through the 2005 season, only one switch hitter in baseball history, Mickey Mantle, ranks higher3. He finished his career with 314 homers. He played in four World Series, and in 81 plate appearances in the fall classic, pounded the ball for a .521 slugging percentage with six home runs; his three homers in the 1977 Series were overshadowed by Reggie Jackson's five-homer performance.

Carl Reginald Smith was born on April 2, 1945, in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father, Lonnie, had been a catcher for a single season for the Jacksonville Red Caps, a Negro American League team that went under at the end of that season4. Both his father and his mother, Nellie, were capable musicians5. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child.

Their new neighborhood, then known by its residents as "Zone 61" but now as South Central, had lots of intensely competitive baseball teams, none more so than the eponymously-christened Chet Brewer Pirates. The Pirates were the mission of a man who had been one of the Negro Leagues' greatest pitchers. Brewer dedicated his post-playing career to working with children, using the game as a social magnet to involve them in the community (while kicking some serious axe on the field). Brewer recruited Smith when Reggie was only 15. The youngster played only Sundays for the Pirates -- he worked the rest of the week assisting his father in the family's egg-delivery business. But he worked with the team enough to get some useful training for the professional baseball player way of life. Brewer's old pro teammates would drop by to work with the youngsters and chat with each other about the game and their experiences on and off the field.6 Smith's post-playing career would parallel that of his early mentors.

Reggie went on to play sports at Centennial High School. There, he was an All-California baseball pick at shortstop and won the same honors as a football player7. After high school, he was signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Twins in June 1963. His father was very sick, and while the father wanted Smith to pursue his dream and go to college, the son wanted to help out the family immediately by earning the money he could make in baseball8. Smith started with Wyetheville in the Appalachian League. He was unprotected in the draft, and in December of that year was snared by the Boston Red Sox. He ascended the ladder of the Beantowners' farm clubs, playing for Waterloo (Midwest) and Reading (Eastern) in 1964, and Pittsfield (Eastern) in 1965. The following year he arrived in Toronto, the team's top farm club, where he played for Dick Williams on a championship team. Smith led the league in batting average that year with a .320 mark.

"Smith had one hell of an arm, even for a shortstop," Williams said, "he could throw like the devil. He had such a strong arm, (then-Red Sox manager) Billy Herman wanted to make him a pitcher. He was my center fielder and he could really play. At that time he was just learning how to switch hit.

"He was a hell of player. He was moody then,but I had a good time with Reggie."9

Smith was a late season call-up to the big club in '66 and in six games showed little but had a chance to taste the major league experience. He played his first game on September 18, finishing 0 for 5 against the California Angels. Six days later, in Yankee Stadium, he got the first three hits of his career against Fritz Peterson. The Red Sox finished ninth, but Smith had secured a place in the team's youth movement.

Williams inherited the sorry franchise's manager position and planned to install Smith in center field, but Smith's rookie campaign was not to start that way. Williams had also brought in Toronto's Mike Andrews to play second base. Andrews, however, injured his back10 and Smith started the season by returning to his infield roots and playing second base for the team's first six games.

The rookie made important contributions at the plate during the 1967 tussle for the flag though he was only a league-average batter that season (.246/.315/.389 marks for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average in 628 plate appearances). Through May 16, Smith managed only a .180 average and two homers in 89 at-bats and the team struggled, too, with a 13-15 mark that buried them in fifth place. Smith came on for the rest of the season, batting .258 with 13 homers while the team was playing 79-55 baseball.

On August 20, the switch-hitter crushed a homer from each side of the plate to lead his team to a 12-2 pummeling of the California Angels. In the bottom of a scoreless first inning, he came up with two outs and Carl Yastrzemski and George Scott on base. Facing starter George "Lefty" Brunet, Smith smoked a three-run homer as a right handed hitter, plating the runs that would stand up as the winners. In the sixth inning, with pinch runner José Tartabull on first base and the right-handed "Philly Pete" Cimino on the mound, Smith stepped to the plate left-handed and knocked one out11 as a portsider, the first of six times in his career12 he achieved the feat of hitting a home run from each side of the plate in a single game. Smith hit for power in the 1967 World Series, slugging .542 with a pair of homers in his 26 plate appearances (including two walks) while hitting for a .250 average.

In 1968, he led the league in doubles with 37, earned a Gold Glove for his work in the outfield, and clearly bettered the league average offense with a .265/.342/.430 line compared with the league's .245/.316./.343 level. And he made a game-altering catch Dick Williams calls one of the most impressive he's ever seen. On May 8, at D.C. Stadium in a scoreless second inning with the Senators' Ron Hansen on second, Smith ran down a Paul Casanova shot that was headed over the centerfield fence, leaped to the top of the wall, speared the ball and teeter-tottered on his belt at the top of the fence without tumbling out of the field.

In 1969, he had his breakout year. At the age of 24, Smith hit .309/.368/.527 for an OPS+ of 143, the American League's eighth best. He also had one of the best defensive seasons of his career.

His next four years in Boston progressed along a career path most players would envy, garnering ascending OPS+ marks of 128, 130, 143, and 150. In 1970, he notched his career-high 109 runs, and gunned out runners rapid-fire, notching his rifle with 15 assists. In 1971, he launched 30 home runs, his best season total to date. In 1972, at the age of 27, he hit a new plateau for mastering the strike zone; he tallied a new seasonal high for walks while trimming his strikeouts by 23 percent. The following year further trimmed his whiffs by an additional 22 percent.

But while Smith was maturing as a player, there were social challenges the home town threw at African-Americans, and in the big arena of Boston sports, the pressure was amplified. Boston had been the last major league team to integrate, and when Reggie Smith was a rookie in 1967, he was one of the very first African-American players the team had brought up with star potential. Black athletes were sandwiched from above and below by chronic racism and bigotry.

Above Dick Williams and the team's GM Dick O'Connell, the front office and ownership of the organization was notoriously prejudiced. Jackie Robinson, who had played alongside and mentored Dick Williams, and even knowing Williams was not a bigot, publicly stated that he had to root against the Sox because owner Tom Yawkey was "one of the most bigoted guys in baseball."13 Boston Globe op-ed page editor Marty Nolan sarcastically referred to the Red Sox as "The Klavern" a term the Ku Klux Klan used for their regional chapters.

The team itself was cliquish, but not cliquish by perceived ethnicity. Smith's closest friend and fishing buddy14 was Yastrzemski, and Curtis suggested, "Race relations in the clubhouse actually weren't that bad. It was the front office where all the bigotry was festering. I don't recall any of my teammates making a racist remark about Reggie while I was in Boston."

Many of the fans in Boston shared Yawkey's racial views, but practiced a different, less refined way of expressing it. According to pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Smith used to receive hate mail that started with a racist epithet and then got worse. Playing in the outfield, he had to wear a batting helmet to protect himself from hard objects being thrown by his own team's fans.

Curtis elaborated. "He said some people in the bleachers would throw batteries, heated coins, and other projectiles at him. He also told me about a night when some hooligans drove up to his house and emptied the garbage cans he'd placed by the driveway all over his front lawn. That's when I began to understand that Boston was a different town for him than it was for me."

Smith hadn't been prepared for the intensity or texture of many Bostonians' primitive hate for people based on race. He'd grown up in Los Angeles when neighborhoods there were more integrated and social mores more relaxed. Like an anthropologist, he had the outsider's perspective on the behavior of this cultural island. Unlike other players, he didn't choose to suck it up and gut it out.

As Howard Bryant explained the situation in his 2002 book Shut Out, "There was no way, Smith thought, that he could not enter the fray... He was expected to produce winning baseball for the home fans, although some were the very people who sought to deny him rights as a person. He did not handle this conflict well, and he waged what was at times was a constant war with the home fans at Fenway."15

In late October 1973, the Bosox traded Smith to the Cardinals as part of a multi-player deal. There are always personal challenges in changing teams (new social structures, new processes, new rules and mores). In addition, in changing leagues, there would be baseball challenges (a different strike zone, lots of new pitchers to learn). But neither the social nor the baseball challenges slowed down his career.

"St. Louis was a much friendlier environment for him," John Curtis opined, "because he had two talented and very proud individuals to look up to there--Bob Gibson and Lou Brock." Smith said he had always felt he was a National League player trapped in the American League16. And as perhaps the single most ferociously competitive African-American athlete in baseball, Bob Gibson was able to provide cover for Smith's intensity, even while reveling in it; according to Curtis, who later joined Smith in moving to the Cardinals. "Gibby used to call him 'Spike'," after the unyielding guard dog in the Bugs Bunny cartoon.

In his first season with the Cardinals, 1974, he totaled his best offensive year yet, an OPS+ of 157 over 598 plate appearances. Traditionalists could appreciate his .309 batting average and an even 100 RBIs. It was a very balanced team, too, with professionals like Gibson and Brock and Joe Torre, effective team-oriented role players like Ted Sizemore, Tim McCarver, and Orlando Pena, and a host of young talent that included José Cruz, rookie of the year Bake McBride, Ted Simmons, Bob Forsch, and Al Hrabosky. McBride's presence in center and Smith's superior throwing arm moved Reggie to right field, where he played most of the rest of his career. The Cards finished second to Pittsburgh by 1 1/2 games, but this premier campaign established Smith in the league. He earned a roster spot in the All-Star game, his third of seven.

His teammates appreciated his skills and his focus.

"It was FUN being on the same team as he was," Forsch said17. "One, he was a POWER hitter and switch hitter... He was big guy, very strong, very muscular. Hard to believe he was that agile. He was very muscular for an outfielder...Plus he also had one of the best outfield arms of anybody. And he was smart as well as strong -- he never threw to the wrong base and kept the double play in order, which, to a pitcher, is BIG.

"He was just strong...and REALLY competitive," Forsch noted. "He had a short fuse with the guys that he played against and umpires."

Sizemore, who as a second baseman might be expected to analyze Smith's approach differently from a starting pitcher, echoed Smith's skills and attitude.

"He was always in great shape, very dedicated, had great theories on his hitting -- enough to become a hitting coach," Sizemore said18.. I enjoyed playing with him as a teammate. He was very competitive. He had a short fuse at times, with fans. Other than that he was a special person, though. We've been friends for a long time."

The 1975 and '76 seasons were more frustrating for the Cardinals. In '75 his OPS+ of 137, while very good, was off his '74 mark, and the team was tumbling into third place. Smith played about half his games at first base. In '76, the team sagged further, and through June 15, his OPS+ at 95 was below league average.

But he was still capable of producing, especially in the clutch-- it was on May 22 of that year he hit three homers in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. With his team down 2-1 in the 5th with two out and two runners on, he homered from the right side against Jim Kaat, putting the Cards up 4-2. In the top of the 7th with two out and his team down 6-5, he hit a solo shot left-handed against Ron Reed to knot the game at 6-6. And his third homer won the game in the top of the 9th when he hit his third homer right-handed off Tug McGraw to give his team a 7-6 lead that Al Hrabosky finished off for the win.

The Redbirds front office people feared they might not be able to sign him as a free agent at the end of the season19, so they traded him in June to his hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for utility catcher-outfielder Joe Ferguson and throw-ins.

The Dodgers would prove to be the team that most benefited from Smith's impact. Back in the outfield, he picked up his offense with an OPS+ of 133 for the rest of the season for the Los Angeles. In 1977, he was the team's offensive leader, leading the league in OPS+ with a career best 167, and acting as the hub of an offense with four batters who notched 30 or more homers. His line of .307/.427/.576 is a little less gaudy than it looks -- it was a high-offense year -- but he was still adding to his game, earning 104 walks, a career high. On a team that had excellence all over the field but which had a lack of fire as its limiting factor, Smith's quiet intensity, even turned down a notch in his more comfortable environment, was a blessing. As teammate Dusty Baker said, "Reggie's a foxhole dude. If it was war or a baseball game, there wouldn't be another person I want (more) next to me"20.

Things were changed, easier. According to Curtis, most teammates called him "Carl," his real first name. And he was finally in a place and at an age where his off-the-field life could exist in a more natural way. His passion for taking on new skills (he plays seven musical instruments21) and achieving at them was obvious to his teammates. Davey Lopes, the team's second baseman, described Smith's pursuits:

"He was very intelligent and everything he did, he wanted to become good at doing. He worked hard in the off-season at something new every year.

"He became a pilot. One year it was an airplane pilot, and he got his license. One year it was photography. He's got every lens there is in the world and he's become a master of photography. Then it's cooking. Amazing... Every Spring Training, we'd ask ourselves, 'What's coming next?'22

"Reggie didn't ever settle for doing things half-assed."

The Dodgers won the pennant but lost the World Series to the Yankees, as they would the next season. Reggie Smith's 1978 campaign was close to his previous one; the league's numbers were down as were his, but his OPS+ of 161 was good enough for second in the N.L. At the age of 33, he'd started losing some of his range in the outfield, though his arm was still noteworthy around the league, and he was as close to well-known to casual fans as he would ever be.

Forsch and Sizemore got to observe him as an opponent.

Reggie hit the ball harder from the right side, Sizemore said, but he had a line-drive swing from the right. His left-handed swing gave more lift which resulted in a higher frequency of home runs. Forsch noted that Smith could smoke anything that caught too much of the plate and that his own approach to trying to get his former teammate out was to bust him inside with sliders and then try to get him to swing at a fastball or change-up outside23.

In mid-July of 1979, Smith was injured, an event that truncated his season. His 125 OPS+, while well above average, was disappointing compared with his recent accomplishments. The Dodgers finished 79-83, mediocre enough for third place. The 1980 season saw a great pick-up in his offensive production. His .322/.392/.508 line created an OPS+ of 153, which would have been second in the league if he had made enough plate appearances. His season had ended as a useful player in July, getting no starts afterwards, and only one pinch-hitting and two pinch-running assignments. His career as a regular in the majors came to an end. In 1981, he got 44 plate appearances.

At the end of that season, he became a free agent and signed with the San Francisco Giants, where Frank Robinson was manager. Coincidentally, Robinson was the only other player in the history of the game who had appeared in both All-Star games and World Series for both leagues.24

In 1983, Smith played in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants and in a dark literary twist of fate, ended his playing career back in a racially hostile environment25. In spite of injury, he produced at a .285/.409/.627 rate in part-time play, with that slugging percentage rivaling the qualified leader's mark. According to the team's owner, Matsutaro Shoriki, it was Smith's contributions that led to the team's pennant. But beanball incidents, an on-field brawl, disputes with umpires' protean strike zones for African-American players, and racial epithets from fans that escalated to a physical assault on Smith and his son all cast a shadow on the contributions he made. The 1984 season was his last, cursed with injuries to wrist, shoulder, and knee, though he still slugged over .500 in his 231 AB.

In 1993, Smith became field coordinator for the Dodgers' minor league operations department. The next year he became the major league team's batting coach, a post he held through 1999. He coached the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team that won the Gold Medal, and was the batting coach for the 2006 U.S. entry in the World Baseball Classic.

According to a Boston Globe article:

"When Smith is not working, he is doing charity work all over the country. Smith visits hospitals, youth centers, cancer centers and helps fund raising through golf tournaments and different activities. 'The community is very important to me and it's a way for me to share the gift that was given to me by being able to play,' said Smith. 'If I can inspire someone or provide a moment of enjoyment or pleasure for someone where I am with them and talk to them that's the least I can do. I try to encourage people and send positive messages.'26"

Smith has turned down major league coaching positions to focus on educational work. He's run a youth baseball camp since 1995 and opened the Reggie Smith Baseball Center in Encino, California, in 1998. The center is an instructional facility for players of all ages and levels, based on scientific approaches to playing the game. And following in the footsteps of one of his key mentors, Chet Brewer, Smith volunteered27 to help MLB's 2006 launch of the Urban Youth Baseball Academy, a facility it is funding to attract inner-city youth to the National Pastime.


Note

An earlier version of this biography first appeared in the book The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium On The Field, edited by Bill Nowlin, and published by Rounder Books in 2007.


Sources

1 E-mail interview with Curtis, 2003.

2 OPS+ is On-base average Plus Slugging Percentage, adjusted for season and home park the batter played in. It's used by sabermetrics enthusiasts as a single number designed to measure batting production. A figure of 100 represents league average, while 137 represents production 37% better than average.

3 Baseball-Reference.Com

4 The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, James A Riley.

5 JockBio.Com profile.

6 "Remembering Mr. Brewer" by David Davis, LA Weekly, June 1997.

7 Baseball Library.Com article by Ed Walton.

8 JockBio.Com profile

9 Interview with Williams, 2005.

10 Interview with Williams, February 2006.

11 Retrosheet.Org

12 The Baseball Page.Com

13 Shut Out, Howard Bryant, Routledge, New York., p.88.

14 JockBio.Com profile

15 ibid., p. 91.

16 JockBio.Com profile

17 Interview, January, 2007.

18 Interview January, 2007.

19 JockBio.Com profile.

20 Bryant, p. 90.

21 Baseball-Reference Bullpen entry by Mischa Gilman

22 Interview with Lopes, June 2005.

23 Interviews, January, 2007. Note: While conceptually, Forsch's approach was echoed by other pitchers off the record, Forsch himself had little success in his otherwise very successful career against Smith, who went 7-for-21 against the Cardinal ace with a pair of homers and a .400 on-base average.

24 Ed Walton, Baseball Library.Com

25 Baseball-Reference Bullpen entry by Mischa Gelman.

26 "A Switch-Hitting Star: Catching up with Reggie Smith", Boston Globe, Jon Goode, November 5, 2004.

27 (Riverside) Press-Enterprise story, March 1, 2006, by Gregg Patton.


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