SABR

Elmer Smith

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

It is often said that no matter how many times a person may go to the ballpark, chances are good they might see something occur that they had not seen before. That experience is even more enhanced if the achievement or the play is of the record-setting variety. The 26,884 patrons who pushed through the turnstiles at League Park in Cleveland on October 10, 1920, witnessed a day of “firsts” in World Series history.

With the best-of-nine Series tied at two games apiece, Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson selected spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes to face Cleveland’s Jim Bagby in a rematch of Game Two. In that contest, Grimes had little trouble dispatching the Indians in a 3-0 shutout to even the Series at a win apiece. Now he was being called on again to deliver the victory on enemy soil.

But the drama was short-lived as Cleveland loaded the bases in the first inning on consecutive singles by Charlie Jamieson, Bill Wambsganss, and Tris Speaker. Up stepped right fielder Elmer Smith, who had not fared well in Game Two against Grimes, going hitless in four at-bats. But the left-handed Smith led the Indians with 12 home runs in the regular season, including two grand slams. Grimes threw his money pitch, offering two spitballs that Smith swung at badly and missed. After throwing a pitch for a ball, Grimes fired a fastball down the middle. Smith connected solidly, sending the baseball high over the right-field fence, clearing the attached screen, and across Lexington Avenue. The crowd cheered with delight, as the Tribe took an early 4-0 lead, a lead they would not relinquish. It was the first grand slam in World Series history.

In the fourth inning Bagby connected on a homer, a three-run shot. The home run was the first by a pitcher in the World Series and ended Grimes’s day. In the fifth inning the Robins got consecutive singles from Pete Kilduff and Otto Miller. Clarence Mitchell stepped up to the plate and the relief pitcher hit a liner to second baseman Wambsganss. Wamby moved to his right, leaped, and snared the liner. The runners were moving, and Wamby stepped on second base, turned, and tagged a shocked Miller for the third out. The Robins catcher was not the only one caught off guard. The whole park fell silent, trying to figure out what had just unfolded on the field. Then an eruption of cheers echoed through the autumn air. Almost a century later it remained the only unassisted triple play in a World Series.

About his big swing, Smith said, “It was a straight fast one about chest high I crushed over the fence in the first round with the bases full. I wasn’t a bit nervous, though I had missed a couple of spitters and I was in the hole with two strikes and one ball charged against me and I knew that these three lads on the sacks were pulling hard for me to deliver, while I couldn’t help but feeling the excitement in the stands. That home-run pitch was just what the doctor ordered. I hit it as squarely on the nose as I ever hit any ball and I could feel it was destined to travel the way it cracked off my bat.”1

Elmer John Smith was born on September 21, 1892, in Perkins Township, Ohio. He was one of six children born to George and Mary Smith. A short time after Elmer’s birth, the family moved to Milan, Ohio, about 50 miles west of Cleveland. George Smith owned a sheep farm in Milan, and Elmer attended school there. Elmer was a three-sport star in high school (baseball, football, basketball). He played baseball on various semipro teams around Milan. Elmer would wryly comment about Milan, “It has produced two great men – myself and Thomas Edison.”2

Smith’s efforts on the diamond started him on his professional baseball career. His first stop was with Adrian of the Southern Michigan League, a lower-class independent league. Smith played for Adrian in 1911 and 1912, then moved on to Duluth of the Northern League in 1913. There he hit .287 and smacked 13 home runs. Duluth manager Tom O’Brien, a former Clevelander, recommended Smith to Cleveland Naps owner Charlie Somers. The Naps purchased his contract and Smith finished the season with Toledo of the American Association.

Cleveland liked the way Smith played in the outfield. Like Boston’s Tris Speaker, Smith would often play a very shallow center field, close to second base. Like Speaker, Smith would take off running at the crack of the bat to nab long drives to the outfield. But it was determined that Smith would benefit from more seasoning in the minor leagues in 1914. He began the season at Waterbury of the Eastern Association. Under the tutelage of Lee Fohl, Smith showed his ability with the lumber, hitting .332 with 41 doubles.

His strong showing earned him a call-up to Cleveland. The Naps were on their way to losing over 100 games and finishing last in the American League. Smith made his debut on September 20, 2014. He made the most of his opportunity, batting .321 in 13 end-of-the-season games.

Manager Joe Birmingham was high on Smith’s prospects to replace Nemo Leibold in center field, as Jack Graney and Joe Jackson had the left- and right-field positions locked up. “There’s a kid that’s going to be a wonder some day,” Birmingham said of Smith. “He is one of the most natural hitters I have ever seen, and I guess I’ve watched a few in my day.”3 The Indians (renamed after the 1914 season) started the 1915 season at 12-16 and Birmingham was replaced by Fohl. Leibold won the center-field job, but there was a great push to get Smith into the lineup. Jackson was shifted to first base so that Smith could be employed in the lineup on a consistent basis.

Owner Somers needed cash flow for his struggling team. Low attendance as a result of the disastrous 1914 campaign and the sale of the team’s most popular player, Nap Lajoie, contributed to a growing number of cobwebs on the turnstiles at League Park. Reports circulated that some failed investments also landed Somers deep in debt. He initially had a contract dispute with Jackson in 1915, but successfully signed the slugger to a three-year deal. Jackson was on the trading block with a contract in tow, and the Cleveland club sent him to the White Sox for three players and $31,500.

Exit Joe Jackson, enter Tris Speaker, who was in a contract stalemate of his own with the Red Sox. Somers sold the club to James C. Dunn, who made an immediate impact when he acquired Speaker in April 1916. With the addition of Speaker and Braggo Roth, who came over in the Jackson deal, the Indians were given a spark on offense. Roth took Smith’s place in right field, and Elmer was deemed expendable. On August 18 Cleveland was in third place, trailing Boston and Chicago, 3½ games off the pace. Fohl felt that he needed some help with his pitching staff and dealt Smith and utilityman Joe Leonard to Washington for pitcher Joe Boehling. The Senators also included outfielder Danny Moeller as part of the deal.

Smith initially scoffed at being dealt to the Nats. He was not thrilled about leaving his hometown and a team that was in the pennant race for one that was not. Fohl told him, “I hate to have you go, Elmer. You were with me at Waterbury and I feel almost as if you were my own son. But we need a southpaw pitcher (Boehling) more than we need a hard-hitting outfielder and we have been forced to sacrifice one department of our team in order to strengthen another.”4

Smith’s time in the Nation’s Capital was for the most part uneventful. He did make his mark on August 24, when he hit a grand slam off Chicago’s Red Faber in a Nats 8-3 victory. It was no ordinary homer. Sporting Life described the ball as “clearing the right field wall by several yards and landing on a porch some distance across the adjoining alley, from which it bounded into a tree and lodged there.”5 Smith was the first player to hit a fair ball over the wall at Griffith Stadium.

His Herculean effort aside, Smith could not crack Washington’s outfield of Clyde Milan, Sam Rice, and Mike Menosky in 1917. He was dealt back to Cleveland for $4,000 on June 13, 1917. He finished out the season as a reserve outfielder.

World War I was raging in Europe, and Smith was drafted into the US Army. He made the rank of sergeant, was sent to France, and missed the entire 1918 season. Many articles in the US press told how the French were picking up the game of baseball in great numbers. Smith debunked these stories in an article in Baseball Magazine, writing them off as pure propaganda. “The French are slow, very slow, in learning the angles of baseball,” he said. “They try hard, try earnestly enough, largely because they think it pleases our fellows to have them do so. But they don’t get the hang of it; they are extremely backward, they don’t understand the game at all, and there are not more than two or three ball clubs of French soldiers.” As for baseball after the war, Smith was optimistic. “As to the game at home – I think it will come back all right and it is quite probable that it will start again in the spring. We have Fritz hanging on the ropes, and a few more stiff uppercuts will finish him forever – so why shouldn’t there be baseball next season?”6

A deal on March 1, 1919, solidified the Tribe and enabled them to make a strong run at the pennant. Roth had worn out his welcome in Cleveland. He was a bit of a malcontent, who occasionally locked horns with manager Fohl. With Cleveland in the pennant race in 1918, Roth had been suspended in mid-August for the remainder of the season. Fohl accused Roth of “not keeping in condition.” The March 1 swap sent Roth to Philadelphia for third baseman Larry Gardner, outfielder Charlie Jamieson, and pitcher Elmer Myers.

Smith reclaimed his right-field spot, and Gardner, a teammate of Speaker’s in Boston, manned the hot corner. Fohl was replaced by Speaker as manager in mid-July. The team went 40-21 under Spoke; they finished in second place to the White Sox by 3½ games. Smith paced the Indians in homers with nine and hit .278 for the year.

Speaker had an outfield full of talent for 1920, including Graney, Jamieson, Smith, converted pitcher Smoky Joe Wood, Joe Evans, and Speaker himself. Although the left-handed-swinging Smith was inserted into the lineup mainly to match up against right-handed hurlers, he still led the team with 12 home runs. Overall, he had his best offensive season, batting .316, driving in 103 runs, and smacking 37 doubles.

Cleveland battled with Chicago and New York for the pennant. Adversity hit the Tribe on August 16, when shortstop Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch from the Yankees’ Carl Mays, and died within a few hours. Chapman’s job was taken over by Joe Sewell. Speaker kept the team on its course, guiding the Indians to a 20-6 record in September. They were aided when seven White Sox players were indicted near the end of the season for an alleged conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, which they lost to Cincinnati. Chicago owner Charles Comiskey banned the players for the balance of the season, and, as it turned out, the rest of their careers. Chicago had won 10 of 11 games before the suspensions, and went 1-2 in its final three games, finishing two games behind Cleveland.

The Indians won the World Series, the first in the franchise’s history, five games to two. They were powered Stan Coveleski, who won three games in the best-of-nine Series. Smith and Bagby were the only players to homer in the series. Elmer led the team with five RBIs.

Cleveland’s first baseman, Doc Johnston, was dealt away on waivers after the 1921 season. Although the hard-hitting George Burns was an able replacement, Speaker favored a first baseman who could flash the leather. He acquired Stuffy McInnis from Boston, who had committed only one error the previous season. The price was steep: Cleveland sent Smith, Burns, and outfielder Joe Harris to the Red Sox for McInnis.

Again Smith was miffed at the deal, saying, “It’s an injustice to send a player from a second-place club to an organization that is not only disrupted, but disliked by the fans themselves. I prefer to go to any other club in baseball.”7 The Yankees’ owner, Col. Jacob Ruppert, said of the deal, “Those poor fish out in Cleveland ought to have known that we never would have let (Boston owner Harry) Frazee put through any such deal if there were any chance of Stuffy going. If Boston has any good players, they come to New York.”8

Smith’s attitude did not hold him back from performing at a high level. As the starting right fielder, Smith hit .286 in 73 games for the Red Sox in 1922. If he was incensed about the trade, he shouldn’t have worried too much. On July 23 Boston traded Smith and third baseman Joe Dugan to the Yankees for four players and $50,000. Obviously Ruppert made his point. Amid an outcry from the rest of the American League, Boston had sent yet another established star to strengthen the New Yorkers. The list was long, and the Boston fans were impatient with owner Harry Frazee. Dugan followed Babe Ruth, Wally Schang, Carl Mays, Everett Scott, Sad Sam Jones, and Joe Bush from Boston to New York.

Smith played a reserve role for the Yankees, serving mostly as a pinch-hitter with Ruth and Bob Muesel having a solid hold on the corner positions in the outfield. The Yankees nipped the St. Louis Browns in 1922, winning the pennant by one game. However, they were swept by the Giants in the World Series, making it two straight years that the Yankees had fallen to their National League counterpart. There were no heroics for Smith in this postseason. He went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts.

The Yankees changed their address, relocating to the Bronx from the Polo Grounds for the 1923 season. There was no suspense this year, as the Bombers won the pennant by 16 games. Elmer batted .306, driving in 35 runs in just 183 at-bats. His real value was as a pinch-hitter, with 10 hits in 21 at-bats (.476). His lone homer of the season came as a pinch-hitter at the expense of his old pal, Cleveland hurler Stan Coveleski.

The Yankees gained some revenge on the Giants by winning the 1923 World Series in six games. Herb Pennock (also acquired from the Red Sox) won two of the games. Smith saw no action.

To see if there was any interest in Smith, the Yankees placed the 31-year-old outfielder on waivers after the season. To their surprise, he was passed over by both leagues. The Yankees had set their sights on Earle Combs as a replacement for center fielder Whitey Witt. Combs had batted .380 and slugged 14 homers for Louisville of the American Association. On January 7, 1924, New York sent Smith and $50,000 to Louisville for Combs. It was a terrific move for both players, albeit on different levels. Combs became an integral part of the Yankees. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. Smith revitalized his career at Louisville, hitting .334 and smacking 28 home runs and 45 doubles. (The rest of the team combined hit only 42 round-trippers.)

Smith’s solid year for the Colonels earned him a trip back to the major leagues, although this time it was in the National League, with Cincinnati. In 96 games as a reserve outfielder, he tied Edd Roush for the team lead in home runs (8).

Smith’s lone year in the senior circuit was his last in the major leagues. He had a career batting average of .276, 70 home runs, and 541 RBIs. He hit 181 doubles and 62 triples.

Smith was not finished with professional baseball. He joined Portland of the Pacific Coast League for the 1926 season. He led the league in home runs the next two years, with 46 and 40 respectively. His mark of 46 homers was the second most hit in the league to that point. Smith was elected to the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 2011.

After Portland, Smith played with various teams and different leagues until 1932, when he hung up his spikes for good. He and his wife, the former Ruth Hanrath, retired to her hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Smith worked for an engineering firm, Cleveland Trencher Company, until 1959. He enjoyed bowling and fishing in his spare time. In the mid-1970s, Elmer and Ruth relocated to Columbia, Kentucky.

Elmer Smith died on August 3, 1984, at the Summit Manor Nursing Home in Columbia, after a long battle with emphysema. Bill Wambsganss remembered his teammate well. “I’ll always remember him for the way he hit the fastball,” said Wamby. “He was one of the best left-handed hitters of the day. Boy, did he have strong wrists.” Of his tremendous clout in the World Series, Wamby said, “When I saw it from second (base), I knew it was gone.”9

 

 

Sources

Longert, Scott, The Best they Could Be (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2013).

Alexander, Charles, Spoke (University Park, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2007).

Levitt, Daniel A., Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

Baseball Digest, October, 1965

United States Census Bureau

sabr.org/

retrosheet.org/

baseball-almanac.com/

baseball-reference.com/

milb.com/content/page.jsp?ymd=20061214&content_id=41573534&fext=.jsp&vkey=news_l112&sid=l112

 

Notes

1 Cleveland Press, October 11, 1920.

2 Baseball Magazine, December, 1920.

3 Sporting Life, April 3, 1915.

4 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 19, 1916.

5 Sporting Life, September 2, 1916.

6 Baseball Magazine, December, 1918.

7 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 25, 1921.

8 Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1921.

9 Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 4, 1984.

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