All four of the men by the name of Bob Smith who have played in the major leagues were pitchers, but only one of them was from Vermont. A 5′ 11″, 160 lb. righthander, the Bob Smith from the Green Mountain State pitched in 17 games over three seasons, two of them in the Federal League. He started only one game and finished his major-league career without a single win or loss.
The son of a Canadian-born lumberman, Robert Ashley Smith was born in the Central Vermont village of Woodbury on July 20, 1890. He went to high school at Barre’s Goddard Seminary, which also produced Dave Keefe and Louis “Crip” Polli, other Vermont big leaguers. Bob’s family had moved to Hardwick by the time he entered Tufts University in September 1910. He attended Tufts for only one year, but he left his mark in the school’s record books by striking out 14 batters in a May 1911 game against Bowdoin College.
Smith went professional later that summer, signing with Vancouver of the Class B Northwestern League. He pitched sparingly and was winless in four decisions. Evidently unimpressed with his performance, Vancouver assigned his contract to Boise of the Class D Western Tri-State League. Smith had his winningest season as a professional for Boise in 1912; still, his 11 wins paled in comparison to the 22 of teammate Carl Mays. Mays went on to win 208 games in the majors but is best-remembered for throwing the pitch that killed Ray Chapman.
After spending the winter in Riverside, California, Smith tuned up for the 1913 season by pitching for a local team. In a spring-training exhibition against the second team of the Chicago White Sox he caught the attention of Kid Gleason, then a White Sox coach but later the manager of the 1919 Black Sox. In the words of the March 25, 1913, issue of the Boston Globe:
Here is what happened to Bob. Up in Red-lands, California, the other day, Kid Gleason was managing the White Sox Colts and he couldn’t keep his eyes off the opposing pitcher. The White Sox won the game, 3-1, through no fault of the boy on the mound. The game over, Kid “kidnapped” the lad and took him back to Los Angeles for Jimmy Jimmy Callahan‘s approval. It was found that Bob be-longed to the Boise, Idaho, club so Callahan bought and signed him on Gleason’s approval.
Smith started the 1913 season with the White Sox, making his major-league debut on April 19. In relief of starting pitcher Frank Lange, he gave up three runs on three hits and three walks in a 9-2 loss to the Cleveland Naps. After that dismal outing, Chicago sent him to Minneapolis of the American Association where he went 0-3 in nine games, last appearing on June 26. Whether he was hurt at that point or sent to a team in a lower-classified league is unknown.
Early editions of The Baseball Encyclopedia list a pitcher named Robert M. Brown who appeared in 15 games in 1914 for Buffalo of the Federal League, a short-lived third major league that competed for players with teams in Organized Baseball. For years baseball historians tried in vain to find biographical information on Brown, but in 1991 Bill Haber, a member of SABR’s biographical committee, realized that Brown was in fact Robert Ashley Smith playing under an assumed name. The key to Haber’s solving the mystery was the following article entitled “Unholy Compact and Well Broken” in the March 18, 1915, issue of The Sporting News:
Robert A. Smith, pitcher, will perform with the Buffalo Federal League team this year under his right name. Last year he pitched for Larry Schlafley’s outlaws under the name Brown and therein lies a story from which Mike and Joe Cantillon of the Minneapolis American Association Club can draw the moral that Federal promises and pledges are made only to be broken. Perhaps they have already learned it.
The story of how the Federals broke faith with the Cantillons and violated a promise not to take any players from the Minneapolis team is thus told by a writer in the Buffalo Enquirer.
There was an agreement made last spring that the Federals would not bother any of the players in the American Association and particularly none of those claimed by the Minneapolis Club, presided over by Mike and Joe Cantillon. Dick Carroll, now with the Brooklyn Federal Club, but then the big man in the organization of the Buffalo Club, was tipped off to Bob Smith, a member of the Minneapolis Club. Carroll quickly signed Smith to a two-year contract and ordered the youngster to report for spring training at Danville, Virginia. When Manager Larry Schlafly learned that he had taken one of Cantillon’s players despite the agreement made to keep away, he was in a predicament. He had Smith signed and he wanted the youngster, yet he did not want to show that he had openly violated his agreement with Minneapolis.
Smith was let in on the manager’s difficulty and solved the problem by assuming the name of “Brown,” which was as common as his own. While Bob had played with the Minneapolis Club, he was not well known to the players this far East. Frank Delahanty and Nick Allen, who had played on the Minneapolis Club but were free agents when they went to the Buffalo Federals, were the only players who knew the identity of Brown.
However, during one of the games at Baltimore, Brown was unmasked by a fan who had known the young pitcher in Minneapolis. He had seen Smith in uniform, but when he called at the Emerson Hotel that night he found that the register showed only a Bob “Brown” on the Buffalo team. The fan, however, located Smith and apparently kept his secret, for Cantillon never made an effort to get Smith back.
Just before the Buffeds left for the training camp at Athens, Georgia, this spring, Manager Schlafly announced that Pitcher Brown would be Pitcher Smith on the score cards this summer. Larry is now satisfied that the agreement entered into with Cantillon a year ago does not go this year.
On April 19, 1915, the second anniversary of his lone outing with the White Sox, Smith made his first and only appearance of the season for Buffalo and what turned out to be his last in the major leagues. He pitched one inning and gave up two earned runs on one hit and two walks, after which the Buffeds optioned him to Springfield, Massachusetts, of the Colonial League, a minor league affiliated with the Federal League. Smith lost all four of the games he appeared in for Springfield.
Little is known about the life of Bob Smith after 1915. He may have continued to play baseball in the minors but his name is too common to trace effectively. On June 5, 1917, Smith filled out a World War I registration card in Detroit, where he may have been working in the automobile industry and playing in an industrial league, as did many ballplayers of that era.
Bob Smith died of heart disease in a Veterans Administration hospital in West Los Angeles on December 27, 1965. He and his wife, Millie, had lived in the Westlake section of Los Angeles, which at the time was an area of nice apartments but by the end of the twentieth century was inhabited by drug dealers. His death certificate lists his occupation as self-employed real-estate broker. Although there is no indication that Smith ever returned to his native state after his baseball career was over, the funeral home that handled his cremation was located on Vermont Avenue.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.