Dwight Smith entered the major leagues with a bang, thanks to a dynamic rookie season that included clutch hits, a playoff appearance, Rookie of the Year votes, and even a chance to sing the National Anthem. He never matched the success of that first season, but Smith still had a respectable eight-year career in the major leagues that included a World Series championship. Smith played for the Chicago Cubs (1989-93), California Angels (1994), Baltimore Orioles (1994), and Atlanta Braves (1995-96).
John Dwight Smith was born in Tallahassee, Florida, on November 8, 1963. His baseball skills became evident at a pretty early age, but his other natural talent was evident as well — singing. As early as five years old, Smith was singing in a church choir in Varnville, South Carolina, where he grew up. His three older brothers didn’t play sports, but they all loved music. Smith followed in their path.
“I probably sing more than I play baseball,” he said in his rookie season of 1989 “I play baseball maybe seven or eight months a year, but I sing every day. In the car, in the shower, in my room, I’m always singing, trying new things.”1
Smith’s parents were Wallace Smith and Anne Mary “Annie Mae” Grant. They attended Samaritan Baptist Church in Varnville, and Smith’s religious beliefs helped keep him balanced during the ups and downs of a professional baseball career.2 Annie Mary was widowed when Dwight was 7 years old and had to be the sole supporter for four young boys. Smith later said that she was always positive and cheerful and supported him in all his endeavors. When she died in 1985, her last words to him were, “Make the big leagues, Dwight, and cut your album.”3
Smith attended Wade Hampton High School in Varnville. He was a baseball and football player there, but he decided that pursuing baseball would be the best way to get a college scholarship and prepare for a professional career.4 In his senior year, the lefty-hitting outfielder hit .457 with 5 home runs, 16 RBIs, and 25 stolen bases. He signed a baseball grant-in-aid with Spartanburg Methodist College in July 1982.5
Spartanburg College was a good fit for Smith for several reasons. It had the same small-town feel that the easygoing Smith liked. It also had a good music program, allowing him to pursue a major in music. The school’s baseball team made it to the Junior College World Series in his freshman year of 1983.
Smith was one of eight SMC players named to the all-Western Region 10 baseball team in 1984. That summer he was drafted by the Cubs in the third round of the 1984 June Draft-Secondary Phase. Previously, the Blue Jays had picked Smith in the third round of the 1984 Draft-Regular Phase, held in January. He didn’t sign with the Jays, but he did agree to terms with Chicago and reported to Pikeville, Kentucky, to begin his professional baseball career.
Smith hit .236 for the Pikeville Cubs in 1984, with 39 stolen bases in 61 games. He moved up through the ranks of the Cubs minor leagues in orderly fashion, from Rookie-ball Pikeville in 1984 to low-A Geneva in 1985, to A-ball Peoria in 1986 and Double-A Pittsfield in 1987. At every step along the way, his numbers got better and better. The 1986 season with the Peoria Chiefs was the one that made Smith a true prospect; he batted.310 with 22 doubles, 11 triples, and 11 home runs. He stole 53 bases and was rated as a fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the Midwest League, according to a Baseball America poll of team managers.6
During the offseason, Smith would return to South Carolina and sang in talent shows and nightclubs. When asked if he wanted to pursue a music career after baseball, he replied, “I’d like to sing professionally while I’m in baseball.”7
Smith began the 1987 season in Pittsfield by hitting well over .400 through late May. He cooled off but still ended the year with a .337 batting average, 18 home runs, 72 RBIs, and 60 stolen bases. He had a classic Dwight Smith game on June 21. Before the game he sang the National Anthem. Though he had the day off, he came to bat as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning. He walked, advanced to second base, stole third, and scored as Pittsfield tied the game. He won the game in the bottom of the ninth with a long sacrifice fly.8
Smith was the MVP of the 1987 Eastern League All-Star Game, banging out an RBI double in the third inning and stealing a base in the seventh inning. He scored two runs in the 6-0 win. “This is most definitely the highlight of my career,” he said after the game. “But I hope next year at this time I’ll be in Wrigley.”9
He was close. Smith spent 1988 in Triple-A Des Moines and wowing the organization.
“I don’t know that any player does it better,” said Iowa manager Pete Mackanin.
“He surprised me the first time. He’s awesome,” said teammate Mark Grace.
Of course, they were referring to Smith’s singing ability, but Cubs instructor and Hall of Famer Billy Williams was referring to Smith’s baseball skills when he said, “He’s one of those can’t-miss people. Dwight Smith will be in the big leagues someday.”10
After a strong year at Iowa in 1988, Smith entered the Cubs spring-training camp in 1989 with a legitimate chance to emerge as the starting left fielder. Instead, he was one of the first cuts. Not only did he hit poorly, but his fielding was bad enough that Cubs manager Don Zimmer had an easy time sending him to Triple-A Iowa.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. I read too many papers about Dwight Smith going to have a shot,” said Smith, who frequently referred to himself in the third person during his career. “I learned something from that. I learned that you can’t get the best out of whatever you do if you’re going to press. You’ve got to relax and let it happen.”11
“I saw a Dwight Smith in spring training that I didn’t want to see no more,” Zimmer said. Smith handled his demotion like a seasoned veteran, surprising the skipper. “He said, ‘You put me in the lineup. I’ve got no complaints. You’re not seeing the real Dwight Smith.’”12
The real Dwight Smith made an appearance in the major leagues soon enough. He was batting .325 in Iowa when the Cubs were bitten by the injury bug. The entire starting outfield of Mitch Webster, Jerome Walton, and Andre Dawson all went on the disabled list, and Smith was part of a group of rookies brought up to help fill out the outfield. He made his debut on May 1 in San Francisco. He went 0-for-3 and was thrown out trying to steal a base. He picked up two hits in each of the next two games and was off and running in the majors.
In his first 25 games, Smith hit .365 with 7 doubles, 2 triples and 2 home runs. Even his fielding showed significant improvement. Originally starting in right field to spell an injured Dawson, Smith eventually platooned in left field with Lloyd McClendon for the rest of the season. Even if he wasn’t a Gold Glove candidate, he was no longer an embarrassment. It could have been part of Smith’s growth development. It also could have been the fact that Dawson gave the rookie one of his Gold Gloves in spring training.
“It meant a lot to me as far as my confidence to think someone like Andre Dawson would do that for little Dwight Smith,” said the rookie. 13
Smith’s first career home run came during a 15-3 demolition of the Mets on June 5. He sent a 1-and-0 pitch from starter David Cone into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer in the first inning. He added a double, single, and walk before the game’s end. Zimmer decided to test the rookie the next day by letting him start against lefty Bob Ojeda. Smith responded with another homer, giving the Cubs a lead in an eventual 8-4 win.
Smith, ever the entertainer, even got a chance to show off his singing skills by performing the National Anthem in a game at Wrigley Field on July 21. Like so much of his rookie season, it was a note-perfect performance. He finished his rookie campaign with a .324 batting average, 9 home runs, and 52 RBIs. The Cubs, led by Walton and Smith at the top of the lineup, surprised baseball by winning 93 games and finishing first in the NL East. They lost to the Giants in the NL Championship Series in five games; Smith hit .200 in four games.
Walton was named the NL Rookie of the Year, with 22 of 24 first-place votes. Smith received the remaining two votes and was the runner-up. Realistically, he had the better offensive season than Walton — compare his slash line of .324/.382/.493 and 141 OPS+ to Walton’s .293/.335/.385 and 100 OPS+ — but Walton had a 30-game hitting streak that raised his profile considerably. Walton was quick to credit his teammate for his own success in the majors.
“It helped me a lot once Dwight got here. I had someone on my level to chat with. Dwight is a comedian,” Walton said.14
Both rookies regressed in 1990. Smith’s average dropped to .262, and by the end of the year, the slumping outfielder was moved to a part-time role. He was the subject of trade rumors, and once the Cubs signed left fielder George Bell in the offseason, he indicated that he would be open to leaving.
“For personal reasons, I don’t want to leave Chicago. For career reasons, I probably need to,” he said, adding that he would be the same gregarious, fun-loving kid if he remained a Cub.15
The presence of Bell in left field did cut into Smith’s playing time. He appeared in 90 games and hit an abysmal .228. He barely saw left field at all and was used instead as a pinch-hitter and reserve right fielder, giving Dawson extra days off to rest his bad knees. He still had opportunities for heroics, but they were few and far between. He gave Dawson a day off on June 30 when the Cubs battled the Cardinals. With the Cubs down 4-1, Smith launched a game-tying home run off Jose DeLeon to help spur an eventual 7-4 win.
The 1992 Cubs were a much different team, with a new general manager (Larry Himes) and new manager (Jim Lefebvre). Bell had been traded to the crosstown White Sox over the offseason. Despite the new look, Smith was stuck in the same role as pinch-hitter and reserve outfielder. He was even sent back to Triple-A Iowa at the end of April when he was hitting .216, though the demotion lasted only three games. He raised his batting average to .276 by the end of the season in his limited playing time, and his 14 pinch hits from that season are one of the best in Cubs history.16 Still, he couldn’t help but feel that the Cubs had given up on him.
“All throughout my career, I’ve proven I can play day in and day out if I’m given a chance. You see good numbers when I’m playing every day. But Dwight Smith doesn’t burn any bridges. Dwight Smith still has a smile on his face,” he said.17
Smith’s fortunes changed in 1993. While he still wasn’t playing every day, he became a regular center fielder against right-handed pitching and responded with the best season since his rookie campaign. He slammed a career-high 11 home runs and slashed .300/.355/.494 in 111 games. His 343 plate appearances were his most since 1989. After the season, though, his Cubs career abruptly came to an end when the team declined to offer him a contract. Smith, who made $680,000 in 1993 and was arbitration-eligible, was caught in a payroll crunch; the Cubs opted to keep Glenallen Hill over Smith as their reserve outfielder.
Smith was given the news around Christmastime and was understandably hurt at leaving the only professional organization he’d ever known. “It was almost like home — and almost like your parents put you out,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I guess I was a Cub and now I’m a bear. So I’ve got to find my own food.”18
Smith spent the offseason recording a demo R&B album called R U Down. From a baseball perspective, he signed with the California Angels on February 1, 1994. If there were any questions about how his Cubs teammates felt about Smith, they were answered the first time the Angels and Cubs faced off in a spring-training game. The Cubs had fastened a sign on the left-field fence that read “Dwight Smith Field,” and his friends gave him a hero’s welcome on the field. Angels manager Buck Rodgers was caught unprepared for the love-in.
“Amazing. Wasn’t he the fourth outfielder on this club?” he said.19
In 45 games as an Angels left fielder and occasional designated hitter, Smith hit .262 with 5 home runs and 18 RBIs, platooning in left field with Bo Jackson. Smith lost his spot in the lineup when the Angels brought Jim Edmonds to the major leagues. He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles on June 14 for a player to be named later. The Orioles needed a left-handed bat off the bench as they competed for a postseason berth, and Smith made the best of his time there. He hit .311 in 28 games with three homers, as the Orioles finished with 63 wins, 6½ games behind the Yankees in the strike-shortened season. He became a free agent after the rest of the season was canceled. The strike carried over into 1995, delaying the start of the season. Smith signed with the Atlanta Braves on April 12, 1995. The move to the Braves was close to home for him, as he lived in nearby Fairburn in the offseason. It also gave him the opportunity to focus on something he’s missed in his career to date.
“After six seasons, you are looking for rings, not rebuilding. The Braves are where it’s at,” he said.20
With an outfield of Ryan Klesko, Marquis Grissom, and David Justice, there weren’t many opportunities for him to start. He did have plenty of chances to pinch-hit — 82 of his 103 games came off the bench. He didn’t shine as a pinch-hitter, with 16 hits in the role for a .232 average. Thanks to some timely hitting in his spot starts, Smith hit .252 with the Braves overall. One of those starts came against the Cubs on August 27. He went 2-for-3 with a run scored in his return to Wrigley Field.
Smith once again had the chance to sing the National Anthem at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. This time, his performance was noticed by Atlanta resident and Braves fan Elton John. The singing legend was so impressed that he went to the ballpark days later and requested to speak with Smith during batting practice. He also gave him a business card and asked Smith to send him his demo tape.
Smith appeared in all four games of the 1995 NL Division Series against the Colorado Rockies (and sang the National Anthem once). He had two hits in three at-bats, including an RBI pinch hit in Game One that momentarily gave the Braves a 4-3 lead. Atlanta would lose that lead but win the game, 5-4. Smith was 0-for-2 in the NL Championship Series against Cincinnati and had a hit and a walk in three plate appearances against Cleveland in the World Series. His one World Series base hit came off Dennis Martinez in a 4-3 win over the Indians in Game Two.
Smith returned to the Braves in 1996, and he was reunited with his former Cubs teammate Jerome Walton. United on the baseball field at least. The two friends lived around the corner from each other in Fairburn. But they enjoyed being teammates again.
“To be able to come home and play with him is just a blessing,” Walton said. “He really keeps you on your toes, makes the game fun. That’s the main thing I miss about Smitty.”21
Smith struggled through the season, getting just 16 pinch-hits in 69 at-bats and batting .203 overall. The Braves once again finished in first place in their division and made it to the World Series, losing to the Yankees. Smith was kept off the postseason roster.
Smith, now 33 years old, was granted free agency after the season, and for the first time in his career, he found no major-league teams interested in his services. He signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in early 1997, with the idea that he would spend the summer playing with the Mexico City Tigers for a chance to join the Rays in their inaugural 1998 season.22 Instead, he suffered a sciatic nerve injury and never made it to Mexico. He ended up playing for the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League instead, hitting .352 in 74 games there. He returned to the Devil Rays in spring training in 1998, but he was released — on a day that he was scheduled to sing the National Anthem.23 He played in 20 games for the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Orioles, in 1998, to conclude his professional playing career.
In eight major-league seasons, Smith slashed .275/.333/.422, with 497 hits that included 88 doubles, 20 triples, and 46 home runs. He drove in 226 runs and scored 244 times. He hit .273 in 13 postseason games with the Cubs and Braves and was a career .269 as a pinch-hitter, with 87 hits and eight pinch-hit homers. Smith was also considered an all-time great teammate.
“He was the best pinch-hitter in Cub history, and he was the greatest guy I ever saw in a clubhouse,” said Mark Grace. “He has a great sense of humor, kept everybody loose. And he can sing and dance and does great imitations. He’s hilarious. He probably could be a stand-up comic.”24
Smith had some legal problems after his retirement. On September 8, 2006, Smith, 42, was charged with cocaine possession and two traffic violations after being pulled over by Peachtree City police. He was charged with driving on a suspended license and for having no insurance. He was released on $8,000 bond. The Atlanta Constitution reported that he previously was arrested on November 22, 2003, in Tyrone, Georgia, and accused of driving under the influence and possession of marijuana.25 The results of those charges are not known.
By 2020 Smith was mostly known as being the father of Dwight Smith Jr., an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. He also has two daughters, Taylor and Shannyn, and he called his wife, Cheryl, the backbone of the family.
“She has worked hard to keep us all intact,” he said in 2011.26
Dwight Jr. took his first steps by his dad’s locker in the Cubs clubhouse in Wrigley Field, and he has mentioned that they talk daily during the season.27 Even while Smith was working out in the offseason during his playing career, he was spending time with Dwight Jr. A 1997 profile on the elder Smith mentioned that as he worked on his swing, he put a bat in his four-year-old son’s hands and let him take his swings from a nearby cage.
“I want to be there for Dwight Jr.,” said Smith. “When he hits a home run he can look back over at my face and see how happy I look. He can see Dad out there saying, ‘That’s my son.’”28
Smith passed away at the age of 58 on July 22, 2022.
Last revised: November 19, 2022 (zp)
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com.
1 “A Song in Their Hearts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 8, 1989.
2 Kathleen Myers, “Blue Jays Draft Son of Varnville Baseball Star,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, June 16, 2011.
3 Jerome Holtzman, “No Time Is Down Time for Cubs’ Resilient Dwight Smith,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1993.
4 Bill Everhart, “Dwight Right on Time,” Berkshire Eagle (Northampton, Massachusetts), June 29, 1987.
5 “UNC Arena Construction Set to Begin by August,” Greenville (South Carolina) News, July 16, 1982.
6 Fred Mitchell, “Future Is Green for Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1986.
7 Bill Everhart, “Dwight Right on Time.”
8 Bill Everhart, “Dwight Right on Time.”
9 Bill Everhart, “Dwight Smith MVP in 6-0 National win,” Berkshire Eagle, June 30, 1987.
10 Randy Peterson, “I-Cubs’ Smith Hits Right Chord in Both His Jobs,” Des Moines Register, April 26, 1988.
11 Alan Solomon, “Rookie Leads Cubs’ Assault,” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1989.
12 Bill Moor, “Smith’s Demotion Sparked His Return,” South Bend Tribune, June 7, 1989.
13 Roman Modrowski, “Cub Rookie Earning His Gold Glove,” Times (Munster, Indiana), June 27, 1989.
14 “A Song in Their Hearts,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 8, 1989.
15 Alan Solomon, “Dwight Smith Wants Out — Or Maybe Not,” Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), December 30, 1990.
16 Chris Kamka, “Cubs Stat Mailbag: The Best Pinch-Hitting Seasons in Team History,” NBCSports.com, December 13, 2018. nbcsports.com/chicago/cubs/cubs-stat-mailbag-best-pinch-hitting-seasons-team-history.
17 Randy Peterson. “Cubs’ Smith Just Asks for a Chance,” Des Moines Register, May 20, 1992.
18 Alan Solomon, “Smith Feels Devastated, Says Release by Cubs ‘Hurt Me,’” Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1993.
19 Jerome Holtzman, “Dwight Smith Still Special to His Ex-Cub Mates,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1994.
20 I.J. Rosenberg, “Smith Delighted to Be with a Contender, Even After 74 Percent Pay Cut,” Atlanta Constitution, April 14, 1995.
21 Kevin Langbaum, “Buddies Back Up,” Palm Beach Post, February 20, 1996.
22 Charean Williams, “Devil Rays’ Smith Isn’t in the Mood to Sing,” Orlando Sentinel, March 24, 1997.
23 Kevin Wells, “Devil Rays Daily,” Tampa Tribune, March 26, 1998.
24 Holtzman, “Dwight Smith Still Special to His Ex-Cub Mates.”
25 Kathy Jefcoats, “Ex-Braves player Charged with Cocaine Possession,” Atlanta Constitution, September 12, 2006.
26 Michael Carvell, “Family Prospect,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 5, 2011.
27 Steve Ewin, “Tracing His Dad’s Footsteps to The Show,” The Province (Vancouver, B.C.), August 16, 2002.
28 Delbert Ellerton, “Player Shares Knowledge with Son, Aspiring Stars,” Atlanta Constitution, February 20, 1997.