Hal R. Smith’s seven-year major league career (1956-61; 1965) overlapped with that of fellow catcher1 Hal W. Smith (1955-64), who is remembered for his crucial home run in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series. The Hal Smith discussed here was a two-time All-Star, best known as a skilled defensive receiver.
Smith impressed many knowledgeable baseball people. Joe Garagiola said, “What set Hal apart was his cannon arm and daring, something that you can’t teach a kid.”2 According to Gene Mauch, “[Hal] has the finest arm of any catcher in the league.”3 Smith led National League catchers in highest percentage of runners caught stealing in both 1959 (32 of 76, 42%) and 1960 (34 of 66, 52%).4 He committed only 33 errors in 3,090 chances.
He was no slouch with the bat either, as a .258 average with 23 homers in the majors show. Yet against some of the National League’s premier pitchers, Smith had some loftier numbers. He hit .364 including a grand slam home run against Sandy Koufax; .373 against two-time 20-game winner Johnny Antonelli; .353 versus Pirates right-hander Bob Friend; and .308 against Don Newcombe. Smith faced Warren Spahn 81 times. He had 18 hits, including five for extra bases, seven walks and just two strikeouts. After his playing days, Smith was asked about his favorite park. “Wrigley Field,” he responded.5 Cub hurlers Moe Drabowsky and Glenn Hobbie might have had something to do with that. Smith hit .333 against Drabowsky and .286 versus Hobbie.6
Harold Raymond Smith was born on June 1, 1931, in Barling, Arkansas (in the Fort Smith metro area). His parents were Ronald and Katherine (née Wray) Smith. Ronald, a former schoolteacher, owned and ran a small grocery store with a gasoline pump in front. The shop was a popular stop for the locals and its likable owner was elected mayor of Barling. Katie Smith tended to the children and, when absolutely necessary, helped out in the store.7 Hal had three sisters: Virginia, Nancy, and Becky. His three brothers – Ron, Jr., Herbert, and Tommy – played baseball as well. Tommy, also a catcher, originally signed with St. Louis in 1961. He played in the Cardinals organization until 1968 before being traded to Houston. When the Kansas City Royals began in 1969, they selected him. He finished a 10-year career in that organization, reaching as high as Triple-A.8 Ron, Jr., an infielder, played minor league ball in the Giants organization. Herbert was a catcher in American Legion baseball.9
As a boy, Smith spent hours every day throwing a baseball at a Dr. Pepper sign painted on the side of the family store. He played sports on Barling’s vacant fields and shagged balls for the semipro team on which his brother played. Basketball was his sport while attending Fort Smith High School. The school did not have a baseball team. He played one season of basketball at Fort Smith Junior College (1947-48) and was described as “an excellent ball-handler who showed up well at guard and was fast with the footwork.” The college, like his high school, had no baseball program.10
Smith’s first experience in organized ball was at third base, playing for the American Legion’s Fort Smith Randall Victors. In 1948, the Victors competed against the Little Rock Doughboys for the Arkansas state championship. By then, Smith had been converted to catcher. Though his team lost the championship, he was singled out for praise. “No official award was made, but most of those present at all tilts believed Harold Smith, Fort Smith catcher, to be the tourney’s outstanding performer. His hustle, rifle-like arm, and field generalship fired the Victors at all times. The strapping 17-year-old backstop also mace-mauled tournament pitching at a .422 clip.”11
The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals showed interest in him. He had grown up a Cardinals fan idolizing Stan Musial, so on September 23, 1948, he agreed to sign with St. Louis scout Freddie Hawn.12 In the spring of 1949, Hawn accompanied Smith to the camp of the Houston Buffaloes, the Cardinals’ AA team, in Seguin, Texas, where Buffs manager Del Wilber was instrumental in teaching him proper footwork behind the plate. Smith was assigned to the Class D Albany Cardinals in the Georgia-Florida League. In 99 games, he hit .224 with one home run and 31 RBIs. Led by future big league pitcher Vinegar Bend Mizell, the Albany Cardinals finished 96-42, 11 games ahead of the runner-up.13 Smith and Mizell became close friends on and off the field.
Later in life, Mizell recalled his professional debut at Albany. “It was almost six weeks after I joined the club that I pitched. Up in Americus, Georgia, one night, sixth inning, score was 15-0 we was getting beat…Hal Smith was the catcher. He goes behind the plate and caught all my warmup pitches with a little effort and that first hitter up was feeling cocky, leading 15-0. So he dug in about knee deep and Smitty gets down and gives me the sign: fastball. He and I know that’s the only pitch I had. Needless to say, I was a little bit nervous. Nobody knew this but me: when I put my foot on the rubber my foot would shake. It wasn’t fear at all, just that nervous tension when the adrenaline flows, and so I’d take it off the rubber. When I cut that first pitch loose I threw it right over everything. Smitty come running out to the mound and he said, ‘Mi-Mi-Mi-Mizell, are you nervous?’ And that hitter got way in the back of that batter’s box. That next pitch was about a foot over and a foot behind his head…Later, when Hal Smith and I were both with the Cardinals, he told me, ‘You know, I was as nervous as you were that night until I realized I was the safest man in that whole ballpark.’ He said that’s the only time he ever looked behind him and saw people lying behind their seats.”14
In March 1950, Smith married telephone operator Carolyn Treece. He received a $50 raise, upping his salary to $250 a month. As the 1950 season began, he was originally assigned to Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Piedmont League, but after two games, management sent him instead to the Class D Hamilton, Ontario, Cardinals in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League. The location allowed the newlyweds to honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Smith joined future major leaguers Ken Boyer, Stu Miller, and Pidge Browne on the team. Hamilton, 68-57, finished in third place, 13½ games behind the first-place Hornell Dodgers. Again, Smith finished the season hitting .224. But, world events were about to temporarily detour his career.
The Korean War was at hand. Smith volunteered to join the United States Air Force. After completing basic training at Shepard Air Force Base in Texas, he was transferred to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. It was the spring of 1951. Smith was assigned to Special Services, the recreational squadron. However, after only six months in uniform, he was granted a release and returned home. Carolyn was pregnant (she gave birth to Sandra in July), and her parents were ailing. Smith took a job with the Dixie Cup Company in Fort Smith while playing semipro ball for the South Fort Smith Smokers. The new father began thinking of leaving baseball in order to support his family. Fortunately, he persevered. Hal contacted Freddie Hawn, who helped place Smith with the Class A team in Columbus, Georgia, at the end of the 1951 season. However, Smith quickly became homesick and returned to his family without having appeared in a game. That winter he worked at the Fort Smith Boys Club.
The Cardinals’ management knew Smith’s value and were not willing to give up on him. In 1952, they assigned him to Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the Class B Interstate League. Smith played in 11 games before being sent on August 7 to the Single-A Omaha Cardinals in the Western League. Omaha’s starting catcher was going on two weeks of Army reserve duty and Smith was slated to fill in. According to Smith, Omaha manager George Kissell “took a liking to me and kept me there in Omaha for the rest of that year.” In 20 games, he hit .255 with one home run. Defense was his strength. His strong, accurate throwing arm made would-be base stealers think twice before taking off. He was a superb handler of pitchers. After another year at Omaha, Kissel recommended sending Smith to the Cardinals’ Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) club. However, management had other ideas. He reported instead to the Houston Buffaloes, managed by Dixie Walker. After .259 season, he was advised by Walker that, in order to make it in the majors, he would need to improve his offense. Smith agreed to play winter ball in Mexico. He, Carolyn, Sandra, and his second daughter, Sharon, headed to Guadalajara. But winter ball did not provide the desired promotion. In 1955 he was back in Houston. But this time he hit .299 with seven triples and eight home runs, and drove in 67 runs. Smith showed everyone, including Buffaloes’ manager Mike Ryba, that despite never having played at the Triple-A level, he was ready for the big leagues.
During the off-season, Smith received the good news. The Cardinals had added him to the 40-man roster. “When I got to spring training in 1956 and saw Musial for the first time as a teammate, he came up and it was like you had known him all your life. When he shook hands with me then, it was my greatest thrill in baseball. I kept thinking, ‘Is this real?’ I just can’t describe that feeling because it’s something that you’d dreamed about.”15
His big-league debut came on May 2, 1956, at Busch Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Manager Fred Hutchinson called on him to pinch hit for Lindy McDaniel in the bottom of the fifth inning. Flustered, Smith grabbed Musial’s bat and strode to the plate without a helmet or hat liner. With Rip Repulski on first base and two outs, the Cardinals trailed, 6-3. Smith drilled Jack McMahan’s fastball into left-center for a stand-up RBI double.
His first start occurred on May 8 in Busch Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies. Two days before, Willie Mays of the Giants, on his 25th birthday, had stolen four bases in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals. Starting Cardinal catcher Bill Sarni said, “I guess 26,000 people will think I can’t throw.”16 Smith made the most of his chance. With two strikes in his first at bat, he singled to center off Robin Roberts, driving in Bill Virdon. Then, in the sixth inning with Repulski at second, Smith hit a Bob Ross slider into the left-center field bleachers. After the game, the modest Smith told reporters, “Yes, I was nervous facing Roberts for the first time, but they said he’d get the ball over, so I just swung where he pitched it.”17
The starting assignment came somewhat as a surprise. Carolyn, Sandra, and Sharon did not attend the game. However, they were at Busch Stadium the following day, May 9, and saw him hit one out, this time off Phillies hurler Herm Wehmeier.18 The 400-foot blast again landed in the left-center field bleachers. Hutchinson said, “I didn’t think he could hit a ball that far.”19 By the end of the season, Smith had replaced Sarni as the Cardinals’ number one catcher. Despite hitting under .200 over the last two months, he finished at .282 with five homers and 23 RBIs. He decided to play winter ball again, this time with the Marianao Tigres in the Cuban League.
Smith was the incumbent Cardinals catcher as the 1957 season began but missed six games after leaving during the season’s third game with a split finger.20 He returned to action on April 30. The Cards were 9-7 when they visited the Polo Grounds for a two-game series on May 7-8. The Giants won the first game and led the second, 3-0, when Smith came up to face Antonelli in the top of the fourth inning. With two on and two out, he got St. Louis back in the game with a two-run single. It was just the beginning of what was arguably Smith’s finest day at the plate. In the seventh, he hit a two-run homer off Joe Margoneri; the next inning, he singled home two more runs (off Gordon Jones), capping a three-for-five, six-RBI day. The Cardinals won, 13-4.
The season ended with the 87-67 Cardinals in second place, eight games behind the Braves. Smith played in 100 games. He was tough in the clutch, hitting .333 with runners in scoring position. Defensively, he threw out 35% of would-be base stealers (the league average was 40%). On the negative side, his 17 passed balls led the league.21 He was a member of the NL All-Star team but did not see action.
During the offseason, Hal and Carolyn welcomed their third child, Dennis. Smith had become something of a local celebrity in and around his home in Florissant, Missouri. He wrote songs, and played some of them while deejaying on Sunday mornings for radio station KMOX. He was invited to speak at local charitable events and civic organizations. He signed for $10,000 in 1958, but the season turned out to be a letdown for both him and the team. His BA dipped 50 points; the Cards finished sixth. After the season, Smith was part of a 22-game tour to Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines
On May 9, 1959, in St. Louis, Smith had his only multi-homer game. The Cardinals led, 1-0, in the fourth inning. With two on and two out, he hit a Glen Hobbie pitch over the left field fence. His second long ball of the game was a two-run shot in the eighth inning off Cubs reliever Joe Schaffernoth. Despite the offensive eruption, the day turned bittersweet. Smith headed from Busch Stadium directly to a hospital where his eldest daughter, Sandra, was being treated for two broken arms. She had fallen off a swing at a friend’s party. “Some celebration for the two home runs,” Smith said.22
Smith was a member of the 1959 National League All-Star team. He did not play in the first game and went 0-for-2 in the second. In between those games, on July 10 at Connie Mack Stadium, Smith hit what he considered to be his longest homer. “Turk Farrell was pitching for the Phillies and the player before me [Gene Oliver] hit a home run. So I was the next hitter and I swung and hit the ball and actually thought I popped it up. But it went on the roof at that old ballpark in Philadelphia.”23 Another memorable hit occurred on September 22 in St. Louis in a wild game against Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers. The Cardinals came up in the bottom of the first already trailing, 3-0 – but the Dodgers’ lefty, who’d struck out 18 San Francisco Giants three weeks earlier, lasted only 2/3 of an inning. Smith delivered the big blow; his only career grand slam, hitting a 3-2 fastball into the bleachers (oddly, Koufax stayed in to face one more batter before getting the hook). The Cardinals eventually won, 11-10.
Smith finished the season second to Milwaukee’s Del Crandall in the Gold Glove award voting, and tied the Braves’ backstop with a league-leading 32 caught stealings. He was rewarded with a raise to $21,000 for 1960. Smith shined behind the plate for the third-place Cards, throwing out 34 of 65 would-be base stealers (52%) to lead the NL. However, his offensive productivity slipped. In 127 games, he batted only .228. When he hit his first home run on June 26, driving in all four runs in a 4-3 win in Philadelphia, he celebrated by writing a song, coming up with various whimsical titles, including “I Hit a Dilly in Philly, Millie,” “Rocket on the Roof,” “Cape Canaveral Capers,” and “Phillie-Buster from St. Loo.”24
On June 7, 1961, Hal Smith’s career – and life – were about to change. During an 8-6 win over the Cubs at home, while putting on his catcher’s gear, he felt a stabbing sensation around his heart. It wasn’t the first instance of chest pain. According to Smith, he had experienced a “kind of pain in my chest. It felt like if I could burp, it’d go away. But it kept lingering.”25 He ultimately saw a heart specialist, who diagnosed an angina condition. Smith spent 12 days in the hospital, and physicians informed him that his playing days were over.
Bing Devine assured Smith that he had a job in the organization. Following his recovery, Smith spent the remainder of the 1961 season working with young catchers in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, notably Tim McCarver. Johnny Keane had taken over for Solly Hemus as Cardinals manager roughly halfway through the 1961 season. On May 8, 1962, Keane asked Smith to be the Cardinals bullpen coach. Smith accepted but did not return in the same capacity in 1963. Instead, he worked as a minor league catching coach for St. Louis.26
In 1964, Smith became a first-time manager with the Rock Hill Cardinals, a Class D team in the Western Carolinas League. The franchise led the league in attendance and finished second with a 76-51 record, a half-game behind the Salisbury Dodgers. Smith had help. First, the team’s batboy was his seven-year-old son, Dennis. Second, future star Steve Carlton was on his staff. The 19-year-old lefty went 10-1 with a 1.04 ERA, winning promotion to Double-A in midseason (and later the big club, though his big-league debut came the following April). Smith showed his wry wit, saying, “That’s when I became a dummy. I couldn’t manage near as well.”27
Smith’s managerial career in the minors lasted only one year. After the season, Harry Walker asked him to join the 1965 Pittsburgh Pirates’ coaching staff. Smith accepted. He felt that his heart condition was not as serious as the doctors had originally feared; after an extensive physical, he was cleared to pitch batting practice – and for catching duty if needed. Indeed, an emergency arose on July 1 when all three of the Bucs’ receivers were hurt. Smith played in four games as a Pirate from July 1 through July 8. He appeared three times as a late-inning defensive replacement and went 0-3 in his one start. When his family first heard his name announced and saw him come to bat, they were moved to tears.28
Smith remained with the Pirates through 1967. During the ’67 exhibition season, Harry Walker tested Smith again as an active player. On April 4, against the Boston Red Sox, the 36-year-old replaced Jim Pagliaroni as catcher and singled in the eighth inning, sparking a Pittsburgh rally.29 As late as July, the press called him an “ace in reserve,” noting that he could be activated at a moment’s notice. 30 However, the need did not arise. For part of the 1967-68 season, Smith managed Licey in the Dominican winter league before being replaced by Manny Mota.31 In 1968, he joined the Cincinnati Reds coaching staff and stayed there through the 1969 season. He spent the next several years (1970-75) scouting for the Cardinals. He remained a catching tutor too, helping Ted Simmons.
During the 1976 and 1977 seasons, Smith was a coach for the Milwaukee Brewers under former teammate Alex Grammas. On July 20, 1976, he was coaching at first base in County Stadium when Hank Aaron hit the final home run of his illustrious career. Following an unsuccessful season, Grammas and Smith were fired. Smith returned to his home in Texas. However, he was soon back in baseball, scouting for the Cardinals in 1978 in the middle section of the United States. The following year Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico were added to his territory. Smith covered this vast area for 20 years, bringing in at least eight future big leaguers.32 His most notable recommendation, however, came when he urged the Cardinals to obtain Willie McGee (then a Yankees farmhand) in 1981.33
After a 39-year career, Smith retired from baseball in 1997. He and Carolyn moved back to Fort Smith. He spent his time playing golf. In 2002, Smith was elected to the Texas Scouts Association Hall of Fame. In 2005, he became a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Although he played basketball and not baseball for what was then Fort Smith Junior College, the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith Lions elected Smith to their Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 2009, Smith’s biographer, Billy D. Higgins, perfectly summed up his subject’s life. “Hal and Carolyn have six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. As he was in his playing days, Hal remains the dedicated family man. He fought the battles on the field that a professional athlete thrives on, competing against the very best in his sport. But, he found his comfort, solace, and inspiration at his hearth with Carolyn, his children, his close friends, and his extended family.”34
Hal Smith passed away at the age of 82 on April 12, 2014. He is buried at Fort Smith National Cemetery.
This biography is largely culled from The Barling Darling: Hal Smith in American Baseball, co-authored by Hal Smith and Billy D. Higgins. Special thanks and gratitude to author Billy D. Higgins, Sandra Woods (Hal’s daughter), Tommy Smith (Hal’s brother), and Dennis Smith (Hal’s son).
Thanks also to Rod Nelson (Chair, SABR’s Scouts Committee), and Rory Costello for reviewing earlier drafts, Evan Katz for fact-checking, and Norman Macht for copy editing.
In addition to those sources shown in the Notes, the author use Baseball-reference.com.
2 Billy D. Higgins and Hal Smith, The Barling Darling: Hal Smith in American Baseball (Little Rock, AR: Butler Center Books, 2009), 73.
3 Higgins and Smith, 177.
4 Mark Tomasik, “Hal Smith: Cardinals All-Star Catcher Made Pitchers Better,” April 20, 2014, https://retrosimba.com/2014/04/20/hal-smith-cardinals-all-star-catcher-made-pitchers-better/.
5 Chris Grant, “Letters from Homeplate,” https://lettersfromhomeplate.com/2017/06/28/hal-r-smith/.
7 Dennis Smith, telephone interview, May 3, 2021.
8 Tommy Smith, email to author, May 4, 2021.
9 Dennis Smith.
11 Higgins and Smith, 27.
12 Higgins and Smith, 34.
14 Norman L. Macht, They Played the Game (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 177.
15 Higgins and Smith, 65. When Tommy Smith signed with the Cardinals in 1961, he had the same memorable experience meeting Stan Musial for the first time.
16 Neal Russo, “Redbird Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 1956: 4B.
17 Neal Russo, “Phillies’ Star Out Early in 9-1 Rout,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 1956: 4B.
18 Higgins and Smith, 73. Two days later, Wehmeier and Smith became teammates following a May 11, 1956 trade. Wehmeier was dealt by the Phillies along with Murry Dickson to the Cardinals for Ben Flowers, Harvey Haddix and Stu Miller.
19 Bob Broeg, “Redbird Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 10, 1956: 4E.
20 “Rookie Bobby Gene Makes Stout Bid as Card Regular,” The Sporting News, May 1, 1957: 11.
21 Over the next four years, Smith dramatically improved. He totaled only 10 passed balls.
22 Higgins and Smith, 158.
23 Higgins and Smith, 160. Note – A newspaper reported Smith hit Farrell’s first pitch, “into the seats near the foul line…” Bob Broeg, “Trailing, Mizell Hits and Starts Rally,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 1959: 6A.
24 Neal Russo, “Cards Home After Smith’s Bat Helps them Break Even on Road; His Homer Nips Phils, Who Split Twin Bill.”
25 Higgins and Smith, 192.
26 Bob Haring, “Hal Smith Has Lots of Heart,” The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), May 19, 1963: 44.
27 Higgins and Smith, 196.
28 Les Biederman, “Hal Smith Fills In as Buc Catcher 4 Years After His Heart Ailment,” The Sporting News, July 17, 1965: 30.
29 “Exhibition Games,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1967: 39.
30 Les Biederman, “Pirate Scoreboard,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1967: 6.
31 Fernando Vicioso, “Fuentes Ties Two Records in One Game,” The Sporting News, December 30, 1967: 47.
32 Smith scouted Armando Almanza, George Bjorkman, Kirk Bullinger, Stubby Clapp, Curt Ford, Sean Lowe, Eric Rasmussen, and Randy Wiles. Smith’s recommendation was instrumental in obtaining (at the time) minor-leaguer Willie McGee from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Bob Sykes.
33 Neal Russo, “He Scouted McGee: Hal Smith Recommended Bonanza Deal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 29, 1982: 3C.
34 Higgins and Smith, 216.