This article was written by Ralph Berger
In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the protagonist is invisible to the society he moves around in. More specifically, he’s invisible to white society. Hilton Smith was invisible not only to the white major leagues, but he was almost invisible in his own Negro leagues. He was under the shadow of Satchel Paige, his flamboyant teammate on the Kansas City Monarchs. Try as he might, he couldn’t get out from under Paige’s luminous figure. Even so, Hilton Smith quietly stayed within himself and achieved the goals he set for himself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, now pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs, Hilton Smith.” Cheers arose from the grandstand and bleachers-not for Smith but for Paige, whom Smith was relieving. Satchel, having pitched his mandatory three innings, graciously acknowledged the hurrahs of the crowd and left to take his shower. Smith, a quiet unassuming person, settled down to his task and pitched a strong game. It was his fate to follow the celebrated Paige and thereby not receive the accolades he deserved. Many fans only knew Smith as Paige’s shadow. He deserved better. Bob Feller felt that Smith was a better pitcher than Paige, and that Smith had probably the best curveball in the Negro leagues.
Smith sometimes felt unhappy about constantly being Paige’s shadow; indeed, a number of ballplayers were none too enchanted with Paige. However, to keep things going smoothly, they never said so in public. An unwritten rule pervaded the Negro leagues that no one should diminish the other. Smith followed that rule and was sufficiently intelligent and grounded to endure the vagaries of baseball life even though the limelight fell on Satchel Paige. Paige, sensing Smith’s frustration, asked Hilton if he could relieve him instead of the usual practice of Smith relieving Paige.
Actually, there were times when Hilton Smith and Booker McDaniel actually pretended to be Paige when Paige for some reason or other failed to show up to pitch. Finally, Smith and McDaniel, fed up with this act, refused to take further part in the charade. Paige’s joining the Kansas City Monarchs in 1940 seemingly undermined the roles of Hilton Smith and Chet Brewer. The Monarchs, a solid team with Midwest moorings, suddenly morphed into the Satchel Paige all-stars and became more like an Eastern Negro League team. But to those knowledgeable about the game Hilton Smith was still the “Money Pitcher.”
“I won 161 games and lost only 32 but most people do not even know of me. I took my baseball seriously. Doing the job and being the best pitcher I could be was my aim. I’m taking nothing away from Satch, he produced and could clown around and get away with it. Being in the shadow of Paige really hurt me but there was nothing I could do about it. My personality was opposite of that of Satch. I never did crawl out from under his shadow.”
Galveston, Texas, known for some horrific hurricanes, was a port of entry for newly arriving immigrants. About 150 miles away in the town of Giddings, a small German settlement, Hilton Smith was born on February 27, 1907, to Mattie and John Smith. A teacher, Hilton’s father regarded education highly and sent Hilton to Prairie View A&M while encouraging him to play baseball. Hilton stayed there for two years and pitched on the baseball team. His father encouraged him to pursue a baseball career. The Depression was in full swing when Smith entered professional baseball, and he was happy to have a job playing baseball.
Smith joined the Austin Black Senators in 1931. The Austin team was considered a farm team for the Negro leagues. He was noticed when he pitched the Black Senators team to a 4-3 victory over the Chicago American Giants. In 1932 Smith took his talent to the Southern Negro League, where he pitched for the Monroe (Louisiana) Monarchs until 1935.
Smith took time out from pitching long enough in 1934 to marry Louise Humphrey. The couple had two sons, Hilton and DeMorris.
In 1935 and 1936 Smith pitched in the National Baseball Congress League, compiling an unbeaten record of 5-0. In the fall of 1936 he barnstormed with the Kansas City Monarchs, who became charter members of the Negro American League in 1937.
Smith became a regular on the Kansas City Monarchs in 1937 and in his first start in the Negro American League pitched a perfect game against the Chicago American Giants. Hilton from 1939 till 1942 had extraordinary records: 25-2, 21-3, 25-1, and 22-5. He pitched in six consecutive East-West games, striking out 13 batters. A good hitter, he sometimes played the infield and outfield. He had a .326 batting average in 1944 and 1948. In 1946 he had a .431 batting average. Against barnstorming major leaguers he had a 6-1 record.
Bill James in The New Historical Baseball Abstract called Hilton Smith the best Negro leagues player in 1939, 1941, and 1942, while naming Paige only once, in 1936. One hopes James was merely echoing what perceptive observers of Negro league ball knew at the time. No wonder that Smith could become bitter at times. Nevertheless, he continued to star for the Monarchs until his retirement from the Negro leagues in 1948. He pitched semi-pro ball in Fulda, Minnesota, in 1949and 1950.
Smith and Paige were the standout pitchers on the Monarchs when the Monarchs won five pennants in the first six years of the American Negro League. Like the white American League, the Negro American League was the junior circuit. In 1942 the first World Series between the National Negro League and the upstart Negro American League was played. Hilton pitched once in the 1942 series and twice in the 1946 series. He won one game in each series with a 1.29 earned run average.
A sore arm bothered Smith in 1943, but he recovered from the problem and became a stellar pitcher again.
In 1945 Smith, now a lieutenant in the Army, went to his old boss, J.L. Wilkinson, and urged him to sign Jackie Robinson for the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson and Smith were not permitted to play on the white army baseball teams. But Robinson, a star halfback at UCLA, was accepted to play on the mostly white army football team. After leaving the army Smith was asked to play minor league baseball in the Dodgers farm system. He refused because he said the Dodgers were a decade too late and he would have been paid less.
Smith became a schoolteacher after his playing days were over, and also worked for the Armco Steel Company in Kansas City as a foreman until 1978. Hilton Smith died in Kansas City on November 18, 1983. At the time of his death he was an associate scout for the Chicago Cubs. The Veterans Committee elected Hilton Smith into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2001.
Buck O’Neil, a teammate and close friend of Smith, praised him as the greatest pitcher from 1940-1946. “My land,” O’Neil said, “he would have been a 20-game winner in the Major Leagues with the stuff he had.” O’Neil recounted Smith’s pitching against the likes of Johnny Mize and Stan Musial, who said they had never seen a curveball as good as Smith’s. Teammate Allen Bryant said, “We never told him but he was the best pitcher we had including Satchel Paige.”
Unlike Satchel Paige, who has been written about greatly, it is hard to find much material on Smith. He is mentioned in all the books about Negro baseball but only in small comments scattered throughout the books. His life is still somewhat sparsely accounted for. He was a quiet, studious man in baseball and life after baseball. He spent the last years of his life writing to the appropriate committees at Cooperstown urging them not to forget him and other great black ballplayers he felt belonged in the Hall of Fame.
Maybe the most anyone wants out of life is the fact that he existed and was important to somebody. Recognition from peers is desirable. His peers and others who knew baseball praised Hilton Smith. Sometimes the public only gets to know about those that show great bravado. Hilton was finally recognized when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. But what it all comes down to is that the person feels his own self worth. Hilton Smith felt his value to himself and baseball. Descartes once said, “You cannot prove the existence of another; you can only prove your own existence.”
Hilton Smith Files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884-1955. New York: Citadel Press, 1995.
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994, 2002.
Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men. Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues. New York: Athenaeum, 1985.
Black Baseball www.blackball.com
Black Baseball.com www.blackbaseball.com
Historic Baseball www.historicbaseball.com
Kansas City (Missouri) Public Library www.kclibrary.org
Negro League Baseball Dot Com www.negroleaguebaseball.com
Negro League Baseball Players Association www.nlbpa.com
Negro Leagues Museum www.ebaseballworld.com
Hilton Lee Smith
February 27, 1907 at Giddings, TX (US)
November 18, 1983 at Kansas City, MO (US)
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