This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Right-handed pitcher George Shelby Smith enjoyed a very good year in the minors in 1925, going 17-5 for the Toronto Maple Leafs . His most outstanding achievement in baseball, he said years later, occurred that year. He hit an inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning of the May 30 game against Rochester, the only run the Maple Leafs scored. Smith held Rochester to one run, too, and pitched a full 18 innings before the game was called, so that Rochester could catch a train.1
That earned him a shot at the big leagues and he pitched from 1926 through 1929 for the Detroit Tigers, and 1930 for the Boston Red Sox. Smith was largely a reliever, starting seven times in 132 games. His final major-league record was 10-8, with a 5.28 earned run average. He hit well, with a .264 career batting average in 93 plate appearances. He was distinctly subpar in fielding, making 11 errors in 96 chances.
Smith was born on October 27, 1901, in Louisville. His mother, the former Wilhelmina “Minnie” Frank, was from Germany; his father, William Wisner Smith, a house carpenter, came from Indiana. George left school after eighth grade and a partial year at Louisville Male High School. At the time of the 1920 census, he was working as an apprentice in the electrical industry. He had one sibling, his older sister Viola.
Smith apparently broke in with the Winchester (Kentucky) Dodgers in the Blue Grass League in 1923.His 21 wins and 196 strikeouts led the league. Scouted by Billy Doyle, his contract had been sold to the Detroit Tigers as early as June for a reported $3,000.2 Smith was described as the “pitching sensation of the league.”3
He was assigned to the Asheville Tourists (South Atlantic League) for 1924 and was 17-15 (4.92).
Before the 1926 season began, Smith married Margaret Bradshaw in February . Her father was a cabinet maker for a furniture factory.
His 55 wins over three seasons in the minors earned him real consideration during 1926 spring training. He made the Detroit Tigers team, and appeared in 23 big-league games – all but one in relief, for manager Ty Cobb. The Tigers posted a winning record (79-75) but finished in sixth place. The team’s earned run average was 4.41 but Smith’s was a very disappointing 6.95, the worst on the squad by far, save for one pitcher who only worked just over 13 innings. He lost his one start, lasting only two-thirds of an inning on September 7 and giving up three runs in a 4-2 loss to the White Sox. By far his worst performance was on August 2 when he gave up six earned runs in the seventh inning of a game against the Athletics, while getting only one out. His best outing was on September 2, working six innings of relief against the St. Louis Browns and allowing two hits and one walk, without a run; that was the one game he won (he was 1-2 on the season.)
He had a much improved season in 1927, lowering his ERA to 3.91 (a bit better than the 4.14 team average) and posting a 4-1 record. He reduced his WHIP from 2.000 to 1.570. The Tigers, now managed by George Moriarty, finished fourth. He worked in 29 games, every one of them in relief. His best game was the next-to-last one, in Boston, when he worked six innings of scoreless relief and allowed only one hit.
Each of the next three seasons saw his ERA increase again. In 1928, it bumped up to 4.42 – just a tick above the 4.32 Detroit team average (the Tigers finished sixth again, under Moriarty). Wins and losses often say little about a reliever’s work; Smith was 1-1. His WHIP was better, though, down to 1.443.
Smith had a winning record (3-2), but with a deteriorating 5.80 ERA in 1929, under new manager Bucky Harris. They were a sixth-place team once more. Smith worked in 14 games. His WHIP was a high 2.187, almost the worst on the club. His last win for Detroit was on June 12, getting the win in a 13-12 game only because his Tigers teammates scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth. The last game in which he pitched for the Tigers came five days later on June 17. He spent the rest of the season with Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, , and fared poorly there (4-12, with a 4.81 ERA).
An unidentified September 1929 newspaper clipping found in Smith’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame says he “never had a fair chance with the Tigers” because every season he’d been sidelined with a sore arm; he’d had what the paper called a “sore arm jinx.” He was popular with his teammates, the article said, and Bucky Harris had envisioned him as a starting pitcher for 1929 but the jinx cropped up once more.
On October 7, the Boston Red Sox – for whatever reason (perhaps out of desperation, given their perennial last-place status) – selected Smith from Seattle in the Rule 5 draft. He was, reported Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald, “highly recommended.”4 He was one of three players the Sox selected; Bill Sweeney and Otis Miller were the other two. Smith trained with the Red Sox in Pensacola, hoping to make first-year manager Heinie Wagner‘s team. He showed well, even earning a subhead in the Boston Globe after the April 11 exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers: “George Smith Proves Effective.”
He relieved in the season opener in Washington (President Hoover threw out the ceremonial first ball), throwing three full innings and picking up the win as the Sox came back with three runs in the late innings to overtake the Senators, 4-3. Smith gave up one hit and walked one, but not a run. It was his best outing of the year. He was even 1-for-1 at the plate, though he got picked off shortly afterward. He appeared in 27 games, two of them starts. He had a no-decision in both starts, despite walking eight batters in the June 24 start, but lost two games in relief, for a final record of 1-2. Smith had a poor 6.60 ERA, worst on the last-place Red Sox team.
Smith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 1931 and enjoyed a little bit of payback to the Red Sox, beating them in an exhibition game on April 6. (The Red Sox actually lost three games in a row to Indianapolis, which didn’t augur that well for playing in the American League in 1931.)
Minor-league records are very spotty for the time. It appears he pitched for the Knoxville Smokies in 1932 and for the Charlotte Hornets in 1933. Pitchers by the name of George Smith are noted with each team, but we cannot be fully confident they are the same George Shelby Smith.
G. Smith of Knoxville was 16-16, with 45 strikeouts and 94 walks. He was reported to have signed with Charlotte on July 5, 1933. If he did pitch at all, it did not show up in the league statistics published in the January 11, 1934 Sporting News. Any additional information on Smith’s later years would be most welcome.
Smith’s last year in baseball was, he reported, 1933.5
At the time of the 1940 census, Smith was living in Louisville and working as a machinist in a tobacco factory.
Smith retired from work as an employee of the U.S. Tobacco Company. He died on May 26, 1981, survived by his wife Margaret and their four daughters, three sons, and 10 grandchildren. He had been a Kentucky Colonel and a member of the Optimist Club.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Smith’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 George Smith player questionnaire, National Baseball Hall of Fame. See an account of the game in the Washington Evening Star, May 30, 1925. The veteran Hank Thormahlen pitched for Rochester.
2 Lexington Herald, June 6, 1923. Smith was to report to the Tigers after the close of the season.
3 The Sporting News, July 19, 1923, 2.
4 Boston Herald, February 22, 1930.
5 George Smith player questionnaire, National Baseball Hall of Fame.