SABR

Aleck Smith

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Even after this biography of Aleck Smith was completed, it still remained a challenge to determine whether he batted right-handed or left-handed. He was a member of the 1903 Boston Americans, the team that won the first modern World Series (and the team that was renamed the Red Sox before the 1908 season). Smith played nine seasons in the major leagues, from 1897 with the National League’s Brooklyn Bridegrooms to 1906 with the New York Giants. But he’s one of the few players and one of only two in Red Sox franchise history for whom researchers have been unable to find something as seemingly routine as the side of the plate from which he batted.i We do know he threw right-handed. It might be fair to surmise he hit right-handed, too, since it would have been more remarkable had he hit left-handed or been a switch-hitter, and thus more likely to be mentioned in contemporary press accounts. But we do not know.

There was another obstacle to presenting as full as picture as we would like of the man: Someone named Smith born in New York City. Alexander Benjamin Smith was born there in 1871 – and therein lies another challenge: he’s one of two Red Sox players (the other being Blaine Thomas) for whom we don’t have a date of birth. All we have is the year.

We do not know about Smith’s parents, or his first couple of decades of life. He began his career in Organized Baseball with the Eastern League’s Syracuse Stars in 1894. He was 22 or 23, depending on the month of his birth. With Syracuse, available records show him in one game, with two at-bats and no hits, but we suspect there may have been more to the record than that, because when he played for New Bedford that September he was referred to as “formerly with Syracuse” and was said to be “putting up a good record for the local team, both behind the bat and as utility man.” A mention in an 1896 story said he had also pitched for New Bedford.ii

If 1894 was less than a full season, Smith played a full one for the Scranton Coal Heavers, another Eastern League team, in 1895. He was a little slow to get started but by the end of June, Sporting Life’s correspondent wrote, “Aleck Smith is developing into an A 1 catcher as he gets familiar with the Eastern League players. Local fans no longer see him don the mask and pad with a feeling of dread.”iii Smith appeared in 71 games, batting .298, while almost evenly splitting the time between outfield work and catching.

In 1896 he headed south for spring training in Charlotte with the Brooklyn team, boarding the ferry from Brooklyn to the train station in Jersey City on March 18, and was on the Brooklyn roster in April, but is not listed as playing for the team until the following year. Instead, he played in the Atlantic League for the Hartford Bluebirds – and played quite well at first, witness this comment: “The Wilmington players think that Aleck Smith is the best catcher in the League.”iv On July 5 Sporting Life said that Smith “continues his fine work behind the bat, and Hartford patrons of the game hope that this lively young man will not be recalled to Brooklyn this season.” Smith hit .290 in 86 games for Hartford, and was a good basestealer, with 36 thefts. He had a little power, with four home runs.

In 1897 with the Bridegrooms, Smith hit the only home run of his major-league career, spanning 1,102 plate appearances. He was playing for Brooklyn manager Billy Barnie, who’d been his manager in Scranton in 1895 and at Hartford in 1896. He played in 66 games and hit an even .300 for Barnie in 1897, with 39 RBIs and the one home run. Most of his work was as a catcher (43) games, with 18 in the outfield and six at first base. It was the first of three years Smith played for Brooklyn, though Barnie was gone 35 games into the 1898 campaign.

In 1898 Smith played in 52 games, 26 of them in the outfield, 20 behind the plate, and a game or two each at first base, second base, and third base. He hit for a diminished .261 average, driving in 23 runs. Some of the year he was in Milwaukee, hitting .222 in 12 Western League games.

A glimpse into a bit of Smith’s life off the field was offered by the December 3, 1898, Sporting Life, with him engaged in the sort of work that would never be permitted these days: “Backstop Aleck Smith, of the Trolley Dodgers, is one of the few knights of the emerald diamond who wrestles with sore labor during the offseason. Aleck is employed by a Gotham book maker, and is taking in the winter meeting at Benning. He will winter in New Orleans and assist his employer in a book at the Crescent track.”

The 1899 season saw Smith shuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Baltimore, with a side trip to Washington’s roster. On March 11, at the beginning of spring training, he was assigned to John McGraw’s Baltimore Orioles by the renamed Brooklyn Superbas. It seemed he was too successful there, working at first base. A few weeks later, Brooklyn’s Ned Hanlon called him back, which Hanlon apparently had the right to do. So on April 2 he was sent back to Brooklyn for Pat Crisham and George Magoon.v Midway through July, on the 14th, Smith was traded again – this time with Dan McGann – to the Washington Senators for Deacon Jim McGuire. This move wasn’t popular with Smith, either. The Washington Post said he wanted to be traded or sold to a different club. “Washington is not up to Aleck’s speed as a catcher, so he claims, though he had a monopoly on this opinion.”vi Senators manager Arthur Irwin did suggest that Smith suffered from a bit of a “swollen chest,” adding, “I don’t know of any team in the League that wants him, with the possible exception of Baltimore.”vii

One place Smith said he’d be willing to go was to Baltimore, and around August 5, something was worked out and Baltimore purchased him again, from Washington.

With all the comings and goings, Smith put together a bit of a mixed season: for Brooklyn, he hit for a .180 average in 64 plate appearances, while for Baltimore he hit .383 in 130 plate appearances.

And then in 1900 it was back to Brooklyn again, albeit for only seven games – in a year in which the team finished first in the National League standings. Smith departed New York with the team for spring training in Augusta, Georgia, and he apparently earned his moniker for the way he carried himself. Smith was “looking more like as if he was bound for an afternoon stroll on the rialto than for a training trip to sunny climes.”viii

Smith knew he was on the market; it wasn’t any secret, and he was one of 11 players named as available.ix The season started poorly for Smith, with a “finger out of gear.”x He had 27 plate appearances and a .240 average, built on six singles in 25 at-bats, and then in early June was “loaned out” to Hartford (where Billy Barnie was managing again), but he declared “[I] don’t propose to be farmed to any cheap country team.”xi There was a stalemate. Brooklyn manager Hanlon terminated Smith’s salary but he still refused to report to Hartford.

The Cincinnati Reds said that Smith approached them about playing, but when they expressed interest, “he was coy about going to Cincinnati, and insisted that he would prefer to remain where he could promenade on Broadway and go to the races once in a while.” The writer added, “They can’t keep away from it. Once their wings get singed in the flame they will fly for its light. Smith was too good a catcher to remain idle. I suppose his case may come up before the new Association when it gets down to working order. On the face of things he appears to be the victim of a tyrannical and arbitrary rule. And yet isn’t the ball player smart enough to realize that the owner has got to have some assets to encourage him to remain in the business.”xii Brooklyn was apparently willing to make the trade, but Smith wouldn’t agree to go – he “wasn’t in ball playing humor.”xiii

Smith played in 26 games for the 1901 New York Giants, who had “recaptured” him, hitting just .141, the lowest average in his career.xiv He had a bit of a different experience, selected as one of two umpires in a game on June 29 against Chicago when the regular umpire failed to arrive by game time. Christy Mathewson had begun his major-league career in 1900, pitching in six games, but in 1901 he enjoyed his first full season and won 20 games. A month into the season, some of the credit for his initial success was given to Smith: “Much credit is given to Broadway Alec for coaching Matthewson [sic].”xv

In 1902 Smith he divided his time between Providence and Baltimore. As late as May 17 he hadn’t yet landed a job. In June he signed with Newark, but it was with Providence that he played in 16 games (hitting .288). He wound up with Baltimore and drove in 25 runs in 41 games, with Sporting Life observing, “Broadway Aleck Smith is playing the game of his life for the Orioles. He is hitting, catching and throwing well, and letting the ponies run without having a financial interest in them.”xvi

Over the winter of 1902-03, Smith and Ed Delahanty frequented the New Orleans race tracks, and Smith signed with the New Orleans team. He was catching for New Orleans in the mid-April preseason, but had a fingernail torn off, and was forced to take a few weeks off.xvii Following a pattern of him being called upon when a big-league club had a sudden need for a catcher, Smith was called on by the Boston Americans after Duke Farrell was injured, and by mid-May he’d been signed to the team. He appeared in only 11 games (he was backup to Lou Criger, and he also suffered a dislocated thumb during a game on July 2), but he hit for a .303 batting average during the 11 games. Smith also did a fair amount of coaching while with the team. The team was paying $500 a month both to Jake Stahl and Smith, and decided that Stahl was the man to keep. Smith was released in the first part of August. He stayed in Boston for a while, hoping to sign on with the Boston Beaneaters, Boston’s National League team.

Though he wintered in New Orleans again, Smith was still hoping to sign on with the Beaneaters. Instead, he connected with the Chicago Colts and joined the team on June 1. He started off nicely with them but played in only ten games. He hit for a .207 average, and enjoyed one big moment, filling in at third base in a game against Boston on August 20. He enjoyed a headline: “Alec Smith the Hero” for his long drive to left field that brought in the only run of the 1-0 game.xviii

In 1905 Smith never secured a position with a team in the majors and, as far as we can tell, with any team – even an independent team. He did attend the winter meetings in December 1905 and went to Memphis to work out with the New York Giants, where an incident occurred on March 1 that was described in the racially insensitive language of the era. While batting, Smith “sent a hot line drive that doubled up a colored pickaninny, landing the boy completely out and inflicting injuries that may result fatally.”xix There is no word about the fate of the young boy, and no mention as to whether Smith was batting left-handed or right-handed, but he did make the Giants and played in 16 games, appearing in his final game on October 5.

In August 1907 Smith made the newspapers when he was “charged with tempting race riders,” as the Washington Post headline read. He was banned from the race track at Saratoga, New York, effectively banished nationally from any track under the control of the Jockey Club. The explanation was that “Smith’s influence with certain riders was not thought to be of a sort that would help racing.”xx A year later, however, it was reported that he had been “completely exonerated and returned to good standing.”xxi

Smith was also no stranger to pool halls, and a 1910 New York Times article listed him as one of the competitors in a November billiards tournament in New York.xxii

Smith died suddenly on July 9, 1919, in his home at 2465 Broadway in New York, his death reported as due to “athletic heart.”xxiii He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also consulted with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Information regarding his specific date of birth and handedness as a batter would be very welcome.

 

Notes

i The other one is Pop Rising.

ii Sporting Life, October 6, 1894. The mention of him pitching for New Bedford appeared in the April 11, 1896, issue.

iii Sporting Life, June 29, 1895.

iv Sporting Life, June 6, 1896.

v Boston Globe, April 3, 1899.

vi Washington Post, June 21, 1899.

vii Washington Post, June 23, 1899.

viii Boston Globe, March 21, 1900.

ix Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1900.

x Sporting Life, April 14, 1900.

xi Sporting Life, June 16, 1900.

xii Sporting Life, August 4, 1900.

xiii Sporting Life, November 17, 1900.

xiv Sporting Life, April 13, 1901.

xv Sporting Life, May 18, 1901.

xvi Sporting Life, September 13, 1902.

xvii Sporting Life, April 18, 1903.

xviii Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1904.

xix New York Times, March 2, 1906.

xx Washington Post, August 9, 1907.

xxi Washington Post, August 27, 1908.

xxii New York Times, November 22, 1910. The February 8, 1911, Times reported on another tournament.

xxiii Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1919. The New York Times obituary provided Smith’s street address, and said that “after he retired from baseball he was one of the regular patrons at the metropolitan race tracks.” New York Times, July 10, 1919. The newspaper added that for several years Smith had been a close friend of Manager [John] McGraw.”

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