SABR

Doug Smith

This article was written by Michael Foster.

The weather in Boston had been nothing short of miserable all week. It had arrived just in time to stifle weekend Independence Day festivities, and the heat and humidity enveloped the Hub like a blanket and sent citizens by the thousands clamoring for area beaches in search of relief. At nearby Camp Bedford, cavalry horses at the 1st Squadron Army camp became so unruly that all work was suspended at noon, and that morning, July 10, the Boston Globe reported the week’s fifth heat-related death. With nowhere else to go and no relief in sight, hundreds spent the evenings camped out on the Boston Common, or headed for rooftops in a vain attempt to secure a decent night’s sleep. Morning forecasts predicted a break in temperatures and scattered thunderstorms that afternoon, but by 9:00 AM, temperatures once again surged toward 90 degrees under a blazing sun. In Boston it just didn’t get any worse than this.

Two weeks had passed since 20-year-old Douglass Smith, a hard-throwing left-hander, and the pride of Turners Falls High School, boarded a Boston & Maine train and made the 85-mile trek east from his home in central Massachusetts to Boston. Blond with a winning smile, he was hardly physically imposing, standing only 5-feet-8 and weighing in at 168 pounds. Indeed, not unlike Boston Red Sox ace Joe Wood, who had arrived in the city a baby-faced rookie three years earlier, Smith looked barely more than a boy. In both cases, however, appearances were deceiving. For beneath their prep-school veneer, both men were as tough as nails and would stand toe-to-toe with anyone. Both had pitched against grown men from the time they were 14. Both had traveled widely and pitched for a variety of town and semipro clubs. And, most significantly, both possessed cannon-like arms.

When Red Sox owner Jimmy McAleer heard that Smith had arrived in town and was over at the South End Grounds watching Brooklyn whitewash the Braves, he grabbed the contract the club had prepared for Smith and raced over to the ballpark to secure a signature. Clearly amused by the sight of McAleer at a National League game, when it reported the signing the next day the Boston Globe mused that it was “probably the first time in league history an American League president has gone to a National League ball park to secure a player’s signature to a contract.”i After what he had gone through to bring the young firebrand to Boston, however, McAleer was not about to take any chances.

The league-leading Red Sox returned to Boston three days later, and Smith looked on from the bench as the team toyed with the New York Highlanders, scooping up five victories in six tries. On July 2 he accompanied the team to Philadelphia. He looked on as Boston dismantled baseball’s world champions four times in six heavily attended contests over the holiday weekend, and after an 11-5 Red Sox rout on July 6, the team took the train back to Boston. Despite the abysmal temperatures that greeted them on their arrival, everyone was delighted to be back on home territory for a 17-game home stand.

St. Louis was first on tap. The hometown Red Sox were as sizzling hot as the temperatures, and with back-to-back wins over the Browns on July 8 and 9, they elevated their record to 53-24 and extended their lead over Washington to 6½ games. Sensing a sweep and his club’s 11th straight victory over their hapless guests, manager Jake Stahl tabbed Hugh Bedient to take the mound in the series finale against 38-year old veteran Jack Powell.

By the time Bedient and the Red Sox took the field that Wednesday afternoon, the temperature at newly opened Fenway Park topped 97 degrees – a high mark for the week. Bedient got leadoff hitter Burt Shotton on a pop foul to catcher Bill Carrigan to open the contest, but things went downhill from there. A three-run home run by Frank LaPorte gave St. Louis the lead and brought an abrupt end to Bedient’s day. Larry Pape fared no better in relief, coughing up a run in the third and a second in the fourth before turning the ball over to Ray Collins. All the while, the 16-year veteran Powell handled the mighty Red Sox lineup with apparent ease, yielding three hits and a run to open the contest but settling in and stifling Red Sox bats through the next four frames. The Red Sox got to him for a run in the sixth, but by then the Browns had already pounced on the southpaw Collins for three more tallies to bring the score to a lopsided 8-2.

In the seventh inning Doug Smith took the mound, facing veteran infielder Frank LaPorte. The youngster was a bundle of nerves, but he kept his cool and held his own. He cruised through the seventh and eighth, scattering three hits without yielding a run, but in the top of the ninth he was lit up for a triple by first baseman George Stovall, who scored easily when Del Pratt lofted a sacrifice fly to deep left field. Hoping to start something in the home half of the ninth, Stahl called a pinch-hitter off the bench, but in the end that move merely deprived young Smith of the opportunity to show what he could do in the batter’s box. In the end, Boston bowed to St. Louis for the first time of the summer, 9-2.

It wasn’t a perfect outing for Doug Smith, but eyewitnesses were impressed nonetheless and all agreed that his future looked promising. “Young Smith did very commendable work while he was on the hill-top,” lauded Boston Herald sportswriter R.E. McMillan. “He had fine speed, a sharp breaking curve and good control. After a year or two of seasoning he will be heard from.”ii The Globe’s Mel Webb agreed, stating that Smith’s “left-hand service looked mighty good. Smith was a little nervous as well he might be in his first day in fast company, but the high school boy came over the shoulder nicely on his delivery and seemed to have a lot more on the ball than mere speed.”iii

Little did anyone looking on that sultry afternoon at Fenway Park imagine that the day would mark the beginning – and the end – of Doug Smith’s big-league career.

• • •

The sixth child of Judah and Elizabeth Moore Smith, Douglass Weldon Smith was born at the family homestead on River Street in Millers Falls, a section of the town of Montague, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1892. Having immigrated to the United States from Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1879, Doug’s mother was a newcomer to the country, but Judah Smith’s family had been in New England for generations, the family roots grounded in the rolling hills along the section of the state that bordered Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Judah and Elizabeth were married in 1881 and soon thereafter settled in Millers Falls, just east of Greenfield. The family had a small farm on which they raised cows, horses, swine, and chickens, and Judah was a hostler by trade and a teamster for the Millers Falls Tool Company. The company had been founded after the Civil War and quickly became renowned for producing top-quality hand tools ranging from drills to miter boxes. Judah drove a delivery wagon for the company for most of his long life. By the 1890s he was a union leader, one of the most recognizable figures in town.

Judah and Elizabeth had seven children between 1881 and 1896: William, Charles, Clinton, Perry (Butch), Ida, Doug, and Alan (Abe). All the children attended the Millers Falls Grammar School, where they studied reading, arithmetic, drawing, history, geography, and physiology. In grades eight and nine, they also took non-academic subjects, such as sewing and seat-caning, and before Doug left the school in June 1910 to enter Turners Falls High School (in another section of town), his final assignment was to sand and refinish his school desk. If they weren’t top-tier students, the Smith boys were strapping farm lads and gifted athletes, each imbued with speed, agility, and a natural-born passion for the national game.

Each Sunday Elizabeth herded her boys up to the village center to the First Congregational Church. Sometimes they went on foot, but more often they were delivered to services by horse-drawn wagon or sleigh, with Judah perched high up in the driver’s seat. Elizabeth was a strict Scottish Calvinist, and she ruled her household full of men with an iron will, tolerating no nonsense from the six-footers in spite of her small size of barely 5-feet-1. The Sabbath was rigidly reserved for church, Bible reading in the kitchen, and a frugal meal. Any other activities she forbade—well, except for one. She had a soft spot in her heart for baseball, and her two youngest boys, Doug and Abe, both knew it.  So each Sunday afternoon, beginning in early April and not ending until the snow flew, out from behind the barn the peace and quiet of the Lord’s Day was punctuated by the periodic “pop, pop, pop” of a baseball smacking into a catcher’s mitt, as young Doug fired one fastball after another to Abe, crouched over a plate 60 feet away.

The Smith boys played neighborhood ball at the makeshift field just up the street from home, and from there they graduated to the Millers Falls town diamond. By their teens, the boys made up nearly half of the Millers Falls starting lineup: Butch at second and Clint at third made a formidable left side of the infield, and Abe provided young Doug a steady hand behind the plate. Eldest brother Billy served as the club manager. “Any batter who tried to bunt against us was an automatic out,” Doug later boasted. “Clint and I would rush in. Abe would rush out and Butch would cover first base. It was almost impossible to squeeze a bunt past us.”iv

Doug’s curveball had a bedeviling dip, and, every so often he’d mix in a spitter or other trick pitch for good measure. But it was his blazing fastball that so mesmerized his growing trail of strikeout victims. “He was wild as a hawk,” a Holyoke sportswriter later recounted. “He could blind the batters with his fast one, but he always had difficulty finding the plate.”v By the age of 16, Doug was the undisputed ace of the Turners Falls nine, regularly striking out 15 or more batters in an afternoon. Under the watchful eyes of Coach French, his club squared off against foes from Holyoke to Williston to Orange to Athol. High-school baseball was big business in Franklin County, and when Doug Smith took the mound for Turners Falls, shopkeepers closed their doors and joined the thousands of baseball fans who turned out to cheer their team on. “We had tremendous crowds each time we played in Turners Falls,” Doug recalled a half-century later. “The permanent grandstands were always filled with people who took special trolley excursions from Greenfield and Millers Falls.”vi

For Turners Falls there was no greater a rival than big brother Greenfield, the adjacent town; conversely, by the spring of 1910 there wasn’t a schoolboy baseball fan in Greenfield who hadn’t heard of Doug Smith. The competition between the two communities was beyond compare, and in a move that a century henceforth would have easily disqualified any school from competitive sports, on March 4, a representative of the Greenfield High School Athletic Association, Frank J. Manning, went so far as to extend Doug a personal invitation to leave the Turners Falls Indians and pitch for Greenfield. “Dear Smith,” Manning wrote:

I don’t know you very well, and you don’t know me either. But just the same I’m going to give you a piece of advice that you can take or leave. I have heard that you were thinking of coming over here to school, and I would like to show you the advantages of such a school. I’m telling you, Smith, you’re making a big mistake if you stick to a jerk team like [Turners Falls]. It’s only going to hold you back.

Leave your studies be the last of your troubles because we can fix that here, too. vii

Doug had no intention of pitching for any high school other than Turners Falls, and he laughed off the invitation and tossed the letter into his growing collection of clippings, box scores, photos, and other memorabilia that he kept with meticulous care.

Of course, just because he would not pitch for Greenfield it did not mean he would turn down other opportunities, particularly when money was involved. By the spring of his junior year, Doug was regularly crossing the border into New York state to pitch semipro and community ball, all the while pitching for Turners Falls High. “Team managers paid by the game, and Smith, always in demand because of his ability, pitched frequently,” Greenfield Recorder writer Neil Perry later recorded. “In high school he often hurled two games during the week, took a train to a small town in upper New York state for a Saturday game with a touring semipro team and returned to Turners Falls Sunday at 3 a.m. and would be on deck that afternoon to pitch.”viii Occasionally those semipro contests turned rough – Doug vividly recalled having to fight his way out of Brattleboro, Vermont, more than once – but at $75 a game, it was undoubtedly worth it. “I made real money in semipro baseball,” he admitted. “That was a lot more than players in Class C and D ball make today.”ix

As it happened, Doug’s forays into New York state proved instrumental to his big-league future. During the summer of 1911 he accepted an invitation to pitch for semipro Cohoes (near Albany) in a series of exhibition contests against locally born New York State League all-stars. Doug was beaten once during that four-game stretch, but he mowed down the all-stars in the remaining contests, scattering nine hits and striking out an eyebrow-raising 50 batters in a three-day stretch. It easily shattered the standing record and caught the eye of several big league scouts.

Catching wind of Doug’s performance in Cohoes, Pat Moran, a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and a Fitchburg native, was among the first big leaguers to approach him. Moran was followed by the Boston Braves, who in February of 1912 sent scout Jack Dorsher to Turners Falls to watch Doug burn over a few pitches in the high-school gym. Eldest brother William handled all negotiations, and during the spring of Doug’s senior year he accepted an offer on Doug’s behalf from Moran and the Phillies. William cemented the deal by signing a statement on the back of a National League contract, promising Doug’s services to Philadelphia.

Elected captain of the club in his senior year, Doug was focused far more on his final season with Turners Falls than with his future in the big leagues. Behind his fastball, the Indians whipped nearly every opponent they faced that spring, jumping out to first place early in the season with a 5-0 victory over Orange in front of 1,200 raucous hometown fans and never looking back. In the fifth game of the year, against Athol, Doug tossed a no-hitter and struck out 20, and while his team was defeated four times that season, it easily outdistanced its Franklin County League opponents to earn a trip to the Connecticut Valley High School championship.

Once again Doug and the Turners Falls Indians would face Athol. After they split the first two contests of the series, there was no question who would take the mound for Turners Falls in the series finale in Athol. Doug pitched well that day, but Athol nicked him for two runs through eight innings. Behind solid pitching, Athol nursed a 2-1 lead into the top of the ninth, when suddenly Turners Falls began to rally. “There were two men out,” Doug recalled in an interview in the spring of 1913. “One of our men, Morgan, was on third and I was on first. Thomas hit high a line drive that should certainly have been good for two bases and would have given us the lead, and in all probability the game.”x But it was not meant to be. In a brilliant defensive play, Athol’s shortstop lunged to his right and snagged the drive with his bare hand, giving Athol the game and the championship. The season, and Doug’s high-school baseball career, came to a heartbreaking end.

A few days after the defeat, Doug received his diploma from Turners Falls High School and set his sights on the majors. Phillies president Horace Fogel rightly thought he had the talented youngster already in the bag, but in early June he learned that Doug now had other ideas in mind.

A few weeks earlier, former Red Sox manager-turned-scout Patsy Donovan arrived in Millers Falls to watch Doug pitch for the town team. Doug had a solid afternoon, striking out 18 opponents and leaving Donovan thoroughly impressed. After the game Patsy approached Doug and persuaded him to abandon Philadelphia and come to Boston. Attracted to the idea of joining a strong club nearer to home, Doug readily agreed.

Fogel wasted no time in contesting the legality of Boston’s claims on Smith, and the Phillies appealed to the National Commission to nullify his contract. A week after Smith’s debut against St. Louis, the commission handed down its decision, ruling in favor of the Red Sox. “[A] statement of Smith’s brother and guardian, written on the back of an unsigned contract, pledging his brother’s services to Philadelphia ... constituted no contract,” the Globe reported the following day.xi The matter was closed.

• • •

Doug had barely stepped off the mound at Fenway on that hot July afternoon when he learned he was to be shipped to the Lowell (Massachusetts Grays of the Class B New England League. It was a logical move for both parties. Boston’s prolific pitching lineup already included veteran left-hander Ray Collins, and keeping a rookie left-hander on the bench in the midst of a serious run for the American League pennant made little sense. Had they won their case in front of the National Commission, perhaps the struggling Phillies might have put Doug to work on a regular basis, but in Boston there was but no question that he would be farmed out to the minors for further grooming.

The only provision Smith had inserted into his Red Sox contract stated, “Player not to be sent to any minor league club without his consent.”xii Undoubtedly believing he would be back in Boston to pitch at some point, Smith had no trouble with the move, and on July 16, six days after his debut with the Red Sox, he made his first appearance as a member of the Grays against New England League rival Lawrence. Smith gave up five hits, while striking out four and yielding two runs before being pulled in the fifth with the score tied, 2-2. He hit a batter and was charged with a balk. In October he was back at Fenway Park (though this time not in uniform) to watch the thrilling eighth and deciding game of the 1912 World Series against Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants. “I am sure,” Smith later recalled, “that the greatest play I ever saw on the ball field was the catch that Harry Hooper made off Doyle….”xiii

After a long, cold winter back in Millers Falls, Smith prepared for a return to Lowell in the spring of 1913. In February he was featured as a guest columnist in the Boston Globe, in which he (or, more likely, a Globe sportswriter) relayed “unusual feats on the baseball field” for winter-weary fans.xiv Six weeks later, he headed off to spring training.

Smith made his first 1913 appearance for the Grays in the second game of the season, on May 1, allowing two hits, with three strikeouts, a walk and a hit batsman in the final three innings of a 12-4 defeat to Portland. Six days later he was nicked for two hits but no runs in one inning of relief work in an 8-7, 11-inning victory over Fall River. On May 13 he was shelled over 5⅓ innings, giving up seven runs on nine hits, two walks and a hit batsman in a 12-5 loss to Lowell. Two weeks later, on May 30, 1913, he gave up a walk and a hit but recorded no outs in the four-run Lawrence sixth.

Suddenly, the name D Smith disappeared from the Lowell Grays roster.

Diehard New England League fans in Lowell doubtless knew of Doug’s sudden departure from the club, but official word did not appear in the sports pages for nearly two weeks. In a brief note in its sporting briefs on June 17, the Brockton Times revealed that, against his doctor’s advice, Doug had quit the Grays and joined the Eastern Association Springfield (Massachusetts) Ponies. “Smith ... quit Lowell,” the paper chided, “claiming that his physician ordered him to do so on account of a weak heart.”xv

“A weak heart.” That was the official explanation. But like so much of what was passed off as fact in the local sports columns during the era – such as sportswriters’ routine use of “malaria” to explain the sudden absence of players who had contracted any number of sexually transmitted diseases – the Times’s claims that Smith quit Lowell voluntarily and that he suffered from a tragic physical ailment were pure myth. The truth behind his departure from Lowell, as it turns out, may have had nothing to do with his health and everything to do with his family.

Perhaps the enemies Smith had made as a hard-nosed, hard-throwing pitcher in Turners Falls had finally found a way to get revenge, and bring his major-league career to a screeching halt. Grandnephew Tom Gessing said Doug just felt he could make better money in “free-lance” pitching around New England rather than for a Red Sox farm team, but there’s another, more sinister story rooted in small-town oral history that could still be heard almost a century later. In 1913 someone in Franklin County whom Smith later recalled as “a fellow by the name of Kufleski” penned a letter to the Red Sox alleging that Smith had no right to play in Boston, Lowell, or any other big-league city for that matter. The letter had nothing to do with baseball skills but everything to do with racial prejudice. The writer of the letter alleged that Douglass Weldon Smith had “black blood.”

As Smith later told the story, shortly after receiving the information, the Red Sox dispatched someone to Franklin County to look into the matter. If the story is true, what they uncovered in Millers Falls that day was a genealogical puzzle that, a century later, remained something of a mystery.

It was quietly well-known around the village in the 1880s that Doug’s father, Judah, was different. He was an imposing figure, well over 6 feet tall, and well respected in town. Family historians have determined that he descended from southern Connecticut river Indian tribes, probably a mix of Narragansett/Nehantic and/or Pequot. Judah was raised by his Indian mother, Betsy Strong, and his stepfather, Charles Scott I, a dark-skinned man of Pequot and African lineage. Tribal history shows that these tribes were clearly tri-racial (Indian/white/black). Certainly the letter writer and later the Red Sox investigator were able to locate Smith’s extended family, many of whom were dark-skinned, and subsequently raised the color barrier issue. That might well have been more than enough for the Red Sox to put an end to Doug’s professional career.

The mystery remains to this day, but with the rapid advances made in genealogical research, the descendants of Betsy Strong hope to uncover the truth, and share the findings in a book. Whether the Red Sox did any diligent research in Franklin County is open to question. Family members in modern times said the club never actually spoke directly to Judah Smith or to his family, and that the decision to terminate Smith’s contract was based purely on second-hand information picked up in Millers Falls. “Judah was very close to his half-sister Sarah Sharpe Barnes, who lived in nearby Greenfield, and who was very dark-skinned,” said David Brule, Smith’s grandnephew. “When Doug separated from the Red Sox, the persistent story around town, and even now more than 90 years later was that Doug was part black, and therefore he was let go.”

The family story of Smith’s departure may be just that: family lore. He had struggled that spring with Lowell, and by early June more than one writer wrote that he was “uncertain” with the Class B club. “Duggy Smith has got the build and the heaving ability of a good mound artist but there seems to be something lacking in his work,” the Lowell Sun wrote. If he shut his eyes he could come as close to the plate as he did last Friday [May 30, 1913].”xvi Perhaps indeed there was no conspiracy, and Smith was let go not because of a question of race but rather of ability.

 

• • •

If he was bitter over being dumped by Lowell, Smith wasted no time in moving on. After a brief stay with the Springfield Ponies during the summer of 1913, he jumped to Springfield’s Eastern Association rivals, the Meriden (Connecticut) Hopes, where he went 8-8 in 18 games. He joined Eastern League New Britain (Connecticut) in 1914, dropping 20 of his 26 decisions, but his brilliant performance over Independence Day weekend against Hartford (a four-hit, 4-1 complete game) remained one of his most cherished memories of “those wonderful years” of baseball. “Why, in my day if a player got hurt he just squirted a little tobacco juice on the wound and kept on playing,” he scoffed decades later. “Now a fellow will pull a muscle, get an x-ray, and get into whirlpool baths for a week and stay out of the lineup for three weeks.”xvii

The following summer, Doug signed on with the Colonial League Springfield Tips, where he worked 19 games, pitched 139 innings and notched a 9-6 mark. Still filled with barrels of speed but periodic bouts of lost control, he walked 100 batters, and his woeful .058 batting average marked a low point for his career at the plate. When he wasn’t obliged to throw for Springfield, he could usually be found on the mound for Millers Falls or hurling semipro ball for Billy Lubby’s Twin State League team at the Park Villa Driving Park in Turners Falls.

Smith had made good money over the years throwing against a variety of Class B New York State League clubs. In the spring of 1916he signed on with a club in the league, the Syracuse Stars. He remained with the club long enough to amass an 8-8 mark in 16 appearances, and hit .324. He had to have been pleased to see his batting eye return that summer, but without question the highlight of the season (and quite possibly, his career) came on a warm afternoon in July, when Syracuse played an exhibition contest against Smith’s former teammates and baseball’s reigning world champions: the Boston Red Sox.

It was not the first time a big-league club traveling through New York state had stopped to take on the Stars. Smith had been slated to take the mound in a heavily publicized exhibition contest with Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and the Chicago Cubs earlier, on June 11, but the game was called when heavy rain swept across the region. On July 23 a second opportunity presented itself when the Red Sox, passing through en route to Cleveland, agreed to stop in Syracuse and play an exhibition contest. Syracuse tapped Smith to take the mound.

Trailing the New York Yankees by 1½ games with a 19-game Western swing looming, Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan was in no mood to play his regular lineup. Still, veterans Hooper, Janvrin, Henriksen, Gardner, and Cady got into action. Babe Ruth was rested and ready to take the mound, but Carrigan opted to sit Ruth for the meaningless contest in favor of Ernie Shore.

Syracuse fans anticipated a great game, and they weren’t disappointed. Smith “twirled a magnificent game,” as did Shore. The first score didn’t come until Boston pushed a run across in the fifth. When Carrigan pulled Shore in favor of 23-year-old Sam Jones, it was all Syracuse from there on. The Stars pounced on Jones for four runs in the fifth, and that proved the difference. Smith ran into trouble in the sixth, allowing two men on with no one out, but he worked his way out of the jam and cruised to a 5-2 victory. “Douglass Smith twirled baffling ball throughout,” the Post-Standard lauded the next day. “The Syracuse left-hander... fairly covered himself with glory.”xviii

In the numerous interviews he gave in years to come, Smith said nothing of that memorable day in 1916 when he tamed the world champions. If nothing else, it was a rare opportunity to take some measure of revenge on a franchise that had dumped him so unceremoniously three years earlier, and in the years to come he and his brother Abe did not mince words when it came to the Red Sox. “Our grandfather, Abe, hated the Red Sox,” recalled another of Doug’s grandnephews, Tom Gessing. “He was a Yankee fan, which is a very unusual for people from Massachusetts.” David Brule said, “Our uncle always said that both Doug and Abe didn’t want anything to do with the Red Sox. There were some bad feelings.”xix

Revenge was sweet indeed, and for one day at least, Doug Smith was the king of Syracuse. That too, however, would pass. Three weeks later, the Stars released him, ironically to make room for his former Boston teammate Buck O’Brien, who himself had been dumped by the Red Sox nearly a year after they had disposed of Smith.

After a fall of local and semipro ball, in 1917 Smith signed on with Bridgeport, Connecticut, of the Eastern League. He notched a 9-10 mark in 26 appearances for the Americans, who rounded out the summer in fourth place at 44-52. Smith clearly enjoyed his work for the club that summer, and when March 1918 rolled around, he wasted no time in leaving Millers Falls for Connecticut to commence spring training.

In May, with the U.S. now in the World War, Smith was drafted into the Army. The Eastern League season was canceled, and on May 26 Smith reported to basic training at Camp Upton, New York. Most young men were hustled through training and shipped off to Europe; for Smith, however, the Army had different ideas. Shortly after he arrived at camp he was ordered to don a baseball uniform and pitch for the 152nd Depot Brigade. He quickly began receiving rave reviews. “Smith has speed, control and lots of stuff,” Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, wrote, “and with a wad of slippery elm in his mouth and a little damp clay on the mound, he can make that old pill do things that no ordinary ball was ever (meant to do).”xx Smith wound up traveling from camp to camp and entertaining soldiers in need of a diversion from the daily drudgery of preparing for war.

On June 5, 1919, just over a year after he entered the military, Private Douglass Smith received an honorable discharge. His release papers read simply: “POSITION: BASE BALL PLAYER. BATTLES: NONE.”xxi

After his release Smith returned to the mound, throwing for the Union Bag and Paper Company in Hudson Falls, New York, against other company teams (International Paper Company, International Wall Company, G.P. Cement Company), as well as against town teams in the region. “Doug said he would always have a warm spot in his heart for the people of Hudson Falls,” a local sportswriter noted at the close of one season. “He enjoyed his stay here more than words could express.”xxii He remained with Union Bag and Paper through 1922, never hesitating to slip out of town for a quick trip back to Millers Falls to pitch for a local nine in need of his services.

Though he turned 30 years old in May 1922, leaving baseball was the last thing on his mind. But that summer he was sidelined by appendicitis. The appendectomy was successful, and Smith recovered fully. However, after the operation the stress of pitching wreaked havoc with his right side. He sat out of the game for two years until in 1924 he felt well enough to try a comeback. In a game in Erving, Mass., near Millers Falls, he pitched ino the sixth inning against Chappie Johnson’s Colored All Stars, but when he awoke the next morning the pain was so intense that he couldn’t get out of bed.

Doug Smith realized that his playing days were over.

• • •

In 1921 Smith had married 20-year-old Gertrude Schworm, who was born and raised in Millers Falls. Gertrude’s father, Jacob Schworm, was a piano case maker born in Germany, and her mother, Fannie Victoria Beltermann, was a native of New York City. The newlyweds purchased a home a short walk down the hill from the house where Doug had been born and raised.

While pitching for Union Bag and Paper in 1919, Smith took an offseason job with the Millers Falls Paper Company. After leaving baseball in 1924 he joined the firm full time. He remained with the company for the next 38 years, retiring in 1962 at the age of 70.

Smith had banked his baseball earnings during his pitching days, and he and Gertie lived in comfort even during the dark days of the Great Depression. Ever fastidious, when he wasn’t at work he passed the time working in his garden, keeping his home shipshape, and manicuring his yard until it was pristine. Not a day passed that the scent of a freshly-lit cigar didn’t waft through the house, and although Doug and Gertie had no children of their own, over the succeeding years his brothers married and produced an abundant crop of nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews, all within walking distance of Doug and Gertie’s home.

Smith’s appendectomy knocked him out of competitive action at the age of 32, but the baseball bug never left him, and he skippered the Millers Falls town team for the next three decades. His nephew James “Rusty” Smith began catching regularly for one of Doug’s local teams when he was a 15-year-old, and he remembered that Doug had a fiery fastball late into his life. One painful memory that made Rusty cringe even at the age of 90 was a game in Brattleboro in which the Smith-coached team was leading by five runs late in the game. When an opposing runner stole second, Rusty didn’t try to throw him out, which brought a furious Doug Smith out to publicly chew out his nephew in front of hundreds of spectators. The young catcher remembered feeling about two feet tall with embarrassment. “Who knows,” ranted Uncle Doug, “they could still get six runs and then we’ll lose! Don’t ever let me catch you doing that again! You throw that damn ball!”xxiii

Doug also followed major-league baseball keenly, cheering on his beloved New York Yankees as they won World Series after World Series.

As it had when he was a boy, each spring the “pop, pop, pop” sound of a baseball smacking into a catcher’s mitt drifted through Doug Smith’s kitchen window. His reputation as a rough and tumble former ballplayer may have scared off a few neighborhood kids, who rightly feared treading across his perfectly groomed lawn, but Doug’s arm remained limber well into his 70s, and he always made it a point to “burn a few over” to neighborhood boys and offer up encouragement and advice. “Keep away from the soft ball, play in the little league and never keep track of your wins and losses,” he once said. “Play baseball the way Ty Cobb played it, but have fun at the same time. And finally, quit gracefully when the time comes, for while baseball is a young man’s game, the memories of each game you have played will sustain you throughout the years.”xxiv

And so they did. In 1967 his beloved Gertie died, and though he grieved, he made it a point to send a brief note to the Greenfield Recorder to “express thanks to relatives, neighbors and friends for their many acts of kindness and expressions of sympathy.” For the next six years Doug remained alone, until finally, in September 1973, the family determined that it was time for him to leave. Doug was taken to the Franklin Nursing Home in Greenfield. “I was the only one in the family unemployed at the time, so it was up to me and my aunt to drive him to the nursing home,” David Brule remembered:

As we wheeled him up the walk to the home, a number of the residents were out on the veranda taking the sun. Wouldn't you know, one of the old timers recognized him and called out, "Well, Doug Smith! What are you doing here?" Automatically Doug's fingers went up to touch the visor of his cap, his face brightened in the old winning smile, much as the day he walked off the Field of Dreams for the last time.

 Within three weeks he was gone, like a wisp of smoke. But these April days when baseball fever takes over after the long winter months, there are stirrings out in the pasture, and behind the barn, if you know what to listen for, is the unmistakable sound of a fastball burning into a catcher's mitt. Over and overxxv

On September 18, 1973, Doug Smith passed away, survived by his brother Clinton. He was laid to rest in the Highland cemetery in Millers Falls two days later. He was 81.

 

Notes

i Boston Globe, June 26, 1912, p. 7.

iiAs quoted in David Brule, “From Millers Falls to Fenway, 1912. The Montague Reporter, May 4, 2006, 16.

iii Boston Globe, July 11, 1912.

ivMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

vMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

vi Neil L. Perry, “Baseball still ‘love’ for old Sox farmhand.”Greenfield Recorder. Smith family collection.

viiLetter courtesy of David Brule, Smith family collection.

viiiPerry, op. cit.

ixPerry, op. cit.

xBoston Globe, February 11, 1913, p. 6.

xiBoston Globe, July 18, 1912, p.7.

xii American League Baseball Contract, courtesy of David Brule.

xiiiBoston Globe, February 11, 1913, p. 6.

xivIbid.

xvBrockton Times, June 17, 1913. News clipping courtesy of Dick Thompson.

xvi Lowell Sun, “Diamond Dazzles,” June 2, 1913, p. 8.

xviiMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

xviiiMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

xixAuthor’s interview with David Brule, Don Scott, and Tom Gessing, April 23, 2009.

xxMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

xxi United States Army Release, Douglas W. Smith, courtesy of David Brule.

xxiiMiscellaneous clipping, Smith family collection.

xxiiiRusty Smith interview, courtesy of David Brule.

xxivPerry, op. cit.

xxvMiscellaneous news clipping, Smith family collection.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.