Bob Smith

This article was written by Warren Corbett

Bob SmithBob Smith was a shortstop with a strong arm and a weak bat who made himself into a pitcher when he was 30 years old and lasted 15 seasons in the majors. He was stuck on losing teams for most of his career, so naturally the highlight was a defeat. In 1927 Smith pitched and lost a 22-inning complete game, the third-longest marathon feat in major league history.

Robert Eldridge Smith was born on April 22, 1895, in Rogersville, in East Tennessee, to John and Jennie Smith. The family moved to Atlanta when Bob was small. John Smith, a railroad man, died in the early 1900s, leaving Jennie with two sons and three daughters. After his older brother drowned, the teenage Bob became the family’s chief breadwinner. He was working as a delivery boy for a drugstore at 15. When he got older he worked as a switchman on the Southern Railroad and as a machinist in a Ford assembly plant. In 1917 he married Margarete Frances Philips.

Bob played sandlot and semipro ball as a third baseman and pitcher. He spun a perfect game for the powerhouse West Point, Georgia, team, baffling batters with an emery ball. Professional scouts were more impressed with his hitting.

Smith was nearly 26 when he signed his first professional contract, but claimed to be three years younger. He repeated the 1898 birth date until long after he retired. He corrected the record in an interview with historian Eugene Murdock in 1977: “If they had known I was really 38 when I was telling them I was 35, they never would have kept me.”1

He played third base and pitched twice for his first professional team, Beaumont of the Texas League, in 1921. The next year he moved to another Class A club, New Orleans, where he shifted to shortstop. The Boston Braves drafted him after the season.

Smith stepped into the Braves lineup as the regular shortstop in 1923. Standing 5-foot-10½ and weighing about 165 pounds, he showed good range and a powerful arm. On June 25 he hit for three-quarters of a cycle, with a single, double, and triple, but he didn’t hit a home run all season. His batting line — .251/.285/.309 — was puny in a year when the entire National League hit .286. The ball was lively, but Smith’s bat was not.

After Smith’s rookie year, the Braves acquired Dave Bancroft as player-manager. Bancroft had played shortstop for the Giants’ three straight pennant winners from 1921 through 1923. If the All-Star Game had existed, he would have been the NL’s All-Star shortstop. Giants manager John McGraw reportedly sent him to Boston as a favor to his friend and former star Christy Mathewson, then Braves president. McGraw wouldn’t miss Bancroft; the Giants had another future Hall of Famer, Travis Jackson, ready to take over at short.

Bancroft moved Smith to third base in 1924. In June the manager came down with a bellyache, and doctors diagnosed appendicitis. When they operated, they found traumatic damage. Bancroft had been hit in the abdomen by a pitch that caused internal injuries. He missed more than two months, and Smith moved back to shortstop. This time his bat was weak by any measure: .228/.260/.297.

Besides his throwing arm, teammates remembered Smitty’s fine tenor singing voice and his “drunk act.” Although he drank only an occasional beer, he entertained the Braves — and once horrified the team owner — with a convincing imitation of a stumbling, mumbling drunk.

With Bancroft back in the lineup in 1925, Smith took up residence on the bench. After he pitched batting practice one day, coach Dick Rudolph, a pitching mainstay on the 1914 Miracle Braves, convinced Bancroft to try Smith on the mound. He was unimpressive in two relief appearances before he got an emergency start against Pittsburgh in the second game of a doubleheader on July 18.

The Pirates, on their way to the pennant, had a lineup stacked with .300 hitters. Smith stifled them for 11 innings, allowing one run on six hits, as the Braves pulled out a 2–1 victory. With his club in last place, Bancroft put his newfound pitcher into the starting rotation. Smith finished 5-3 with a 4.47 ERA, just a little worse than league average.

For the next five years Smith was a dependable pitcher on a losing team. In addition to his fastball, he featured a curve and a change-up that was his best pitch. He never had a winning record, but his ERA stayed close to the league average. He worked more than 200 innings every season while striking out only about 2.5 batters per nine innings. The Braves couldn’t rise above sixth place. “Playing on that last-place club you never had a chance for big thrills,” he said.2

Smith’s big thrill came on May 17, 1927, when he faced the Cubs in Boston. It didn’t begin well. Chicago took a 3–0 lead into the sixth inning before Smith started the Braves’ comeback with his bat. He singled and scored on Bancroft’s single. In the seventh catcher Shanty Hogan’s double brought home two runs to tie the game.

After giving up the three runs, Smith held the Cubs scoreless for 16 innings. He pitched his typical game — or 2 1/2 games — allowing 20 hits and nine walks while striking out only five. The Braves’ defense converted four double plays, and the Cubs left 19 runners on base.

Bancroft asked his pitcher a couple of times if he wanted relief. Smith recalled, “I still felt good and my arm didn’t hurt.”3 In the top of the 22nd he walked the leadoff batter and paid for it. A sacrifice and a single gave Chicago a 4–3 lead. The third Cubs pitcher, Bob Osborn, retired the Braves in the bottom of the 22nd to close out the victory.4

Only four men have pitched more innings in a single game, and all did it in Boston. The Braves’ Joe Oeschger and Brooklyn’s Leon Cadore pitched 26 on the same field in 1920 with the same umpire, Barry McCormick, behind the plate. In 1906 Joe Harris of the Boston Americans and Jack Coombs of the Athletics went 24 innings.

Smith’s marathon drew scant praise. Several newspaper accounts called the Cubs’ Osborn the hero for shutting out the Braves in the final 14 innings. Sportswriters love a winner.

Nobody was counting pitches. Facing 89 batters, with all those hits and walks, Smith must have thrown far more than 200. He took nine days off before his next start, then worked in his regular turn for the rest of the season. The rest of his 1927 season followed the same dreary pattern: He lost nine games by a single run on the way to a 10-18 record.

After a last-place finish in 1929, the Braves brought in a new manager, Bill McKechnie, who always fielded strong defensive teams that made pitchers’ lives easier. Smith’s ERA shrank by nearly half a run in 1930, even though it was a historic year for hitters. He turned in the best performance of all his years with the Braves: 10-14, 4.26 with an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 116.

As soon as the season was over, McKechnie traded Smith and outfielder Jimmy Welsh to the Chicago Cubs for a pair of young players, outfielder Wes Schulmerich and pitcher Bill McAfee. The Cubs didn’t know they were getting a pitcher who was nearing his 36th birthday (Smith claimed to be 33), but they couldn’t complain about the result.

Smith joined a club that had won 90 games the year before; it was fitting payback for his years at the bottom of the standings. He made the most of it, posting the best ERA among Cubs pitchers — 3.22, 10th in the league — and a 15-12 record.

He got off to a rocky start in 1932. His ERA climbed to 5.55 in June, and manager Rogers Hornsby sent him to the bullpen. Smith finished 4-3, 4.61 in just 119 innings. His consolation: The Cubs won the pennant, putting the veteran in the World Series. In the opener against the Yankees, he relieved in the 8th with the game already lost and faced five future Hall of Famers. He struck out Red Ruffing, but gave up back-to-back hits to Earle Combs and Joe Sewell to bring in the 12th Yankee run. Then he retired Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Chicago traded Smith to Cincinnati after the Series as part of a multi-player package for the slugger Babe Herman. The deal sent Smith back to the league’s lower depths. He put up a 2.20 ERA in 16 games for the last-place Reds in 1933, but the club waived him in July.

Bill McKechnie, still managing the Braves, claimed him and used him in relief in 1933 and 1934. As Smith got older and his fastball faded, he relied on changing speeds to keep batters off stride. “His skill at controlling the ball and pitching to spots has made him a tantalizing pest to some of the National League’s most robust hitters,” one sportswriter commented. “It has been said after many of his performances that not once did he throw a good ball to hit.”5

In 1935 the 40-year-old Smith again topped 200 innings as a starter and reliever. His 3.94 ERA led the staff, but his record was 8-18. He had plenty of company; the Braves lost 115 games, the most in the National League in the 20th century until the expansion Mets came along. Smith hung on for two more years as a player-coach, finally throwing his last big league pitch at 42. After McKechnie left to manage the Cincinnati Reds, Boston released the ancient right-hander.

Smith was out of work until just before spring training in 1938, when the Jacksonville Tars of the Class B South Atlantic League signed him as manager and occasional pitcher. The team had been disorganized all winter because the owner was sick, and it showed. The Tars were in sixth place in the eight-team circuit in August when Smith left Mike Petroskey on the mound to absorb a 13–0 pounding. Smith said no reliever was available. The next morning he was fired.

For the next 10 years Smith coached under his former Cubs teammate KiKi Cuyler, who managed the Southern Association’s Chattanooga and Atlanta clubs. Smith left baseball in 1948 to run his gas station in Atlanta. He and Margerete had three sons: Robert Jr., Charles, and John.

Smith spent his final years in a Baptist retirement home in Waycross, Georgia, where he was known as “Mr. Bob.” He loved to tell baseball stories even after he had lost the memory of his own career.6 Bob Smith’s marathon ended on July 19, 1987, when he died at 92.

 

Additional sources

Smith, Robert Eldridge. Player questionnaire in his file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.

The Sporting News

US Census, 1900-1940.

 

Notes

1 Eugene Murdock, Baseball Players and Their Times (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler, 1991), 45. Census and draft records confirm the 1895 birth date.

2 Murdock, 44.

3 Murdock, 41.

4 Details of the game from Burt Whitman, “Chicago Wins from Braves in 22-Inning Game by 4–3 Score,” Boston Herald, May 18, 1927: 1; Irving Vaughan, “Cubs Go 22 Innings; Whip Braves, 4–3,” Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1927: 23.

5 Unidentified clipping in Smith’s HOF file.

6 Benny Boggus, undated letter (1986) to Bill Haber, in Smith’s HOF file. Mr. Boggus was the activities director at the Baptist Village retirement home.