SABR

John L. Smith

This article was written by Andy McCue.

The headline on John Lawrence Smith’s New York Times obituary called him a “noted chemist,” a label the unassuming executive would have appreciated. It wasn’t until later that the story mentioned he was a part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. To the non-baseball world, Smith had made his name an executive of Charles Pfizer & Co., and especially for his role in leading the Brooklyn company’s successful effort in pioneering the mass production of penicillin. His leadership was critical in moving Pfizer from a chemical supplier into an international pharmaceuticals giant. But, to the baseball world of the late 1940s, he was the pivot on which the ownership of the Dodgers balanced.

Smith was born in Krefeld, Germany February 10, 1889, as Johann Schmitz, the son of Gottfried and Johanna Dollbaum Schmitz. Krefeld was a center of the German velvet industry and Gottfried moved his family to Stonington, Connecticut in 1892 to pursue opportunities in Stonington’s velvet mills. While they spoke German at home, the family formally changed its name to Smith in 1918, presumably as the result of anti-German agitation during World War I. John, who was naturalized in 1908, used the Anglicized version from the time he entered the working world at age seventeen.

Gottfried and his four other children remained in Stonington, mostly working in the mills, but John had larger ambitions. In 1906 he moved to New York City, looking for work as a chemist. He found a job as a laboratory assistant with Pfizer in Brooklyn and began to take classes at Cooper Union. While working and studying, Smith found time for baseball (which he said he played poorly) and track, where he did better. It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in sports.

In 1914 Smith got his degree in Chemistry, married Mary Louise Becker, and moved to E.R. Squibb, where he oversaw the development of a large-scale ether-making facility at their New Brunswick, New Jersey plant. In 1919 he returned to Pfizer, becoming Plant Superintendent. He would remain at Pfizer the rest of his life.

The Pfizer company Smith rejoined specialized in producing chemicals used by food and beverage manufacturers as well as druggists, as it had since its founding in 1849. Smith would push Pfizer to a much stronger emphasis on research into both chemistry and production methods. In the 1920s John McKeen, who would succeed Smith as Pfizer’s president, described the man who had recently hired him.

Smith was “neat, orderly, and impeccably dressed. Seated at his desk, his daily attire was an immaculate high-starched collar and a four-in-hand necktie in the fashion of the day. In his daily visits through the plant, Mr. Smith appeared with sleeves rolled up, no collar or tie, and delved into the operations, moving into all areas, including those that were hot and humid as well. He was personally on hand for the start-up of any operation and kept an eye on any new construction in progress. He worked long hours, nights and Saturdays, was acquainted with all details of the operations, and was a thoroughly competent scientist.”

By 1929 Smith was a vice president of the firm and living the upper middle class life. As his responsibilities grew, Smith showed an eye for people as well as research and management. Smith’s benevolence with the employees was balanced by a driving desire for results. By the 1940s Pfizer employees were working on a revolutionary product and process, one that would cement Smith’s place in the world of pharmaceuticals.

In 1928 Scottish physician Alexander Fleming noticed a mold in his laboratory that destroyed bacteria. He sought funding from the British government for further research, but was denied. After World War II began in late 1939, the government began to re-examine research proposals to identify those that might help win the war. Suddenly, there was money to continue Fleming’s research, which soon confirmed the antibiotic properties of penicillin.

With many pressures on its own economy, the British turned the possibilities of penicillin over to the U.S. in early 1941, and Washington sought the help of American chemical companies. Pfizer wanted to explore adapting the deep-tank fermentation process. There was intense pressure not only to produce it, but to produce it in useful quantities. Eventually, after much trial and error, the deep tank fermentation process began to produce in quantity. By D-Day, it was just under 40,000 cases worth of production per month. Half of the world’s penicillin was coming from Pfizer’s Brooklyn plants, and the price per dose had dropped from $20 in early 1943 to $1. The company’s first public stock offering was oversubscribed and the shares value soared on Wall Street. Smith’s reward was Pfizer’s presidency in 1945.

By then Smith had embarked on his baseball career. He was fifty-six by the time of this promotion and his days of baseball playing and track were behind him. But his interest in sports had never left him.

One of his favorite ways to relax was to spend an afternoon at Ebbets Field watching the Dodgers. He was encouraged in this relaxation by George V. McLaughlin, president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, which served as the bank for Pfizer, and most of Brooklyn’s largest companies.

McLaughlin was deeply entangled with the Dodgers and must have seen Smith as a possible solution to one of the team’s problems. The problems had started with the death of Charles Ebbets in 1925, which left ownership evenly split between Ebbets’s heirs and the McKeever family. For over a decade after Ebbets’s death, the two camps squabbled and moves to repair the team’s deteriorating financial condition died in 50-50 votes.

In 1938, with the death of the last McKeever brother, McLaughlin persuaded the heirs to bring in Larry MacPhail to run the team. MacPhail put together the pennant-winning 1941 team and substantially reduced the team’s debt, then left in late 1942 to join the Army.

McLaughlin got the board to hire Branch Rickey, and suggested Rickey hire a young lawyer named Walter O’Malley, a McLaughlin protégé who was very good at managing troubled properties. These moves solved the Dodgers financial problems, but that was only the beginning for McLaughlin. The Dodgers had paid back the bank’s loans, but Brooklyn Trust also operated as trustee for both the Ebbets heirs and those of Edward McKeever. He had a fiduciary duty to protect their interests, and a duty to the bank to get back the money he had lent the heirs against the value of their shares. They wanted to cash out, and he had to find buyers who would satisfy the heirs, get the bank repaid and not do anything that would tarnish the bank’s reputation for protecting one of Brooklyn’s most popular institutions.

Smith, McLaughlin decided, was a key piece of the puzzle. The afternoons at Ebbets Field introduced Smith to Rickey, who had the brains and experience to run the baseball operation, and to O’Malley, who had the business acumen. The problem was that Rickey had no capital and O’Malley only a modest amount. With the explosive growth of Pfizer, Smith had plenty.

McLaughlin also knew the sale had to be structured properly. The deadlocks between the Ebbets and McKeever groups had hamstrung Dodger management for over a decade. He had to find a mechanism that would avoid deadlocks within the board and insure that somebody truly controlled management.

In those conversations at the ballpark, McLaughlin broached the idea that Smith and O’Malley buy Edward McKeever’s shares. Smith says he insisted Rickey be added to the group. Brooklyn insurance man Andrew Schmitz, another Brooklyn Trust client, was added as a fourth partner. In November 1944 the group made the purchase. That led to part two of McLaughlin’s plan—that the group should buy out the Ebbets heirs as well, giving them not just an investment, but control. When Andrew Schmitz decided he wanted out, the Smith-Rickey-O’Malley triumvirate bought his shares and the Ebbets shares as well in August 1945.

For Smith, the Dodgers were a hobby, a chance to relax. He thoroughly enjoyed his spring training trips, going swimming or piloting a wheeled buggy powered by a sail around the nearby beaches. He accompanied the team to Havana, Venezuela, and Panama. At times, he sailed a boat from New York to Vero Beach for spring training.

Smith would invite colleagues, customers and others to his Ebbets Field box for a little relaxation. One frequent guest was Alexander Fleming himself. After World War II, Pfizer brought Fleming to their Brooklyn plant at least once a year. Smith, ever the good host, took him to Ebbets Field. Fleming was intrigued by the game and wound up with quite a collection of Dodgers-autographed paraphernalia. Smith was also active in charitable activities, such as the Brooklyn Industrial Home for the Blind, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Eye and Ear Hospital, and the Brooklyn Y.M.C.A..

At Pfizer, Smith was fending off an attempt at unionization and presiding over the transition of a chemical company selling to other firms into a pharmaceuticals manufacturer selling consumer products. The basis for the transition was the development of a research capability under Smith’s leadership and the profits generated from penicillin. The research already was bearing fruit. In 1948, a Pfizer chemist invented tetracycline, the first of the broad spectrum antibiotics. As Terramycin®, it became the first drug to be marketed to the public under the Pfizer name. In later decades Pfizer would turn out such breakthrough drugs as Lipitor®, Zoloft® and Viagra®. Smith would move from Pfizer’s president to chairmanship of the board in 1949.

While Pfizer dominated his time, he also made room for weekly meetings of the Dodgers ownership and it soon became clear that he was the balance wheel between the poles of Rickey and O’Malley, two talented, ambitious men who each wanted control of the team.

Over time, Smith would come to side most often with O’Malley. But, he’d also contracted lung cancer, and a February 1950 operation took him out of circulation for a couple of months. When he returned, he was weak. He died July 10 of that year. His shares passed to Mary Louise, whom Smith had clearly placed in O’Malley’s camp.

Mrs. Smith’s position was complicated by the size of her husband’s estate, probated at $4,116,241, half of which, including the Dodgers stock, was willed to her. With O’Malley’s ability to use the Smiths’ vote to control the team, Rickey knew his days were numbered and began the process which led to O’Malley’s buying him out.

Mrs. Smith eventually sold out to O’Malley as the team was leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles. She remained a Vero Beach spring visitor until her death in 1961. John and Mary Louise Smith are buried in Stonington.

 

Sources

Mines, Samuel. Pfizer: An Informal History. New York: Pfizer, Inc., 1979.

Rodengen, Jeffrey L. The Legend of Pfizer. Ft. Lauderdale: Write Stuff Syndicate, 1999. 

The Pfizer Scene (company magazine).  

Obituaries in New York Times and Sporting News.

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