This article was written by Jim Sandoval
His baseball ability was once described as good mouth, no hit. Not known for his bat but a solid glove man, Jimmy Smith built an 8-year major league career with his wit and his mouth. Referred to as “Serpent Tongue,” Smith rode a great ability as a bench jockey to remain on rosters while compiling a lifetime .219 lifetime batting average. He was a better slugger off the field than on, participating in numerous fights both in and out of uniform.
Smith’s most famous heckling experience led future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins to try to start a fracas with Smith in Game 3 of the notorious 1919 World Series. The New York Tribune described it this way: “Jimmy Smith, who has a hard head and a wonderful flow of language of a sort, undertook to disturb the equanimity of the Sox second baseman.”
Smith’s feistiness continued into middle age. Not happy with his daughter’s choice of husband, he provoked the man into a fight at the christening of Smith’s grandson. The son-in-law in question was boxing champion Billy Conn. Conn’s injuries from the skirmish, including a broken hand, delayed his rematch with champion Joe Louis. Smith escaped without a scratch.
Jimmy’s parents were James Smith, who emigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland, and Katherine (O’Donnell) Smith, who emigrated from Wales. Katherine was born in Ireland and moved with her family to Wales at age 5 before the family immigrated to the United States. James Smith worked as a blacksmith in the J & L Steel Mill in Pittsburgh. He and Katherine raised six children; Margaret, Helen, Jimmy, Katherine, Mary and Thomas.
James Lawrence Smith was born May 15, 1895, in Pittsburgh. He was raised in the Greenfield section of town, identifying with this section so closely that his tombstone refers to him as “Greenfield Jimmy.”
On his World War I registration card Jimmy was described as having grey eyes and light brown hair although other accounts call it blonde. He was about 5’10” and 160 pounds, small but strong.
In April 1913 Smith began his baseball career playing for his local university, Duquesne. Jimmy was an infielder and in accounts of 8 games that are available he contributed 4 triples and 2 doubles. That summer he played with a semi-pro team in St. Marys, Ohio, returning to play there for the summer of 1914 as well.
Smith returned to the Duquesne ball club for the 1914 season. About a game against Indiana University (of Pennsylvania) the Duquesne Monthly said: “Phelan and Smith were the heavy hitters for the Varsity. Smith hit for a home run that was declared by the Indiana officials the longest hit ever made on their campus.”
Late in the season of 1914 Joe Tinker, manager of the Federal League Chicago Whales club signed Jimmy to a professional contract. He made his major league debut on September 26th, going 0-1 at the plate. He had one assist and one putout at shortstop.
He got his first start on October 8, the last game of the season. The game was played at Weeghman Park, built for the Federal league team prior to that season. It was later to be called Wrigley Field and is the only Federal league still used by a major league team. Starting at shortstop he went 3-4 with a double, scored a run and handled 8 chances in the field. During his short time with the Whales in 1914 (3 games) he hit .500, 3 hits in 6 at bats.
For the 1915 season it was announced that Tinker would move to second base for the Chicago Whales so the 19-year-old Smith could play shortstop. Tinker was said to be banking heavily on the development of Smith. The Sporting Life quoted the President of the Chicago club Charles Weeghman, who said of Smith: “if someone were to offer 15,000 for his release [I] wouldn’t accept it. I think he is the most promising recruit I have ever looked at in my life.”
Smith began the 1915 season with Chicago and was in the lineup on a regular basis. He did miss two weeks when spiked in the hand by Grover Gilmore on a steal attempt of second base. In August he suffered one of the stranger injuries in baseball history. The Wilkes Barre Times Leader said that “Smith leaped for a hot one, lost his balance and doubled backwards wrenching the muscles of his neck and spiking himself in the back of the head. Smith was knocked out completely. He will be unable to play for an indefinite period.”
Jimmy played 95 games for the Whales before being traded to the Baltimore Terrapins along with Harry Fritz and cash for Mike Doolin. He hit .217 with 4 home runs for the Whales and added 1 home run for the Baltimore club. Combined he hit .207 for the season. His home runs were hit against Bob Groom, Jack Quinn, Tommy Vereker (a grand slam), Mysterious Walker and Nick Cullop.
In February of 1916 Smith was signed by his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. He was described as “an 18 year old who got a chance with the Chicago Feds last year. He is as fast as a lightning streak and a sensational fielder. The Feds found him a bit too young and weak at bat.” It was thought that Smith could become the replacement for the aging Honus Wagner.
In May injuries and illness to Pirates players gave Smith a chance to play. This necessitated shifting Wagner to first, and using Jimmy Smith at short. “Smith is still untamed. He possesses possibilities, but would be better off for another year or two in some good minor league company… Smith has tried his hand at second and third base for the Pirates and he falls short in either place.”
In June The Sporting News commented that: “Jimmy Smith is another ex-Fed who has been found wanting, though he is still on the local roster. Smith is a willing youth, but he is very green, and has not yet learned to ‘play the ball,’ rather than allowing it to play him. Moreover, he is weak relative when it comes to hitting, and it is questionable whether he will ever develop sufficiently in this department to assure him a permanent berth in the major circuit. It would not be surprising to hear of his release before the season closes.”
Later that month manager Frank Chance of Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League sent a telegram to James Callahan asking him his price for Smith. The Pirates decided instead to retain the rights to Smith and that summer released him on option to Toronto of the International League.
He returned to the Pirates in September, seeing action in 17 games upon his recall. He hit .188 in his two stints with the Pirates that season.
Smith was reserved by Pittsburgh for the 1917 season. He spent the off season of 1916-17 selling skates and other sporting goods for a Pittsburgh department store. The December 30 edition of the Sporting Life said: “if he can hit .235-.240 he will be good enough for any team as he sure can field.”
In February of 1917 the Wilkes Barre Times Leader said: “Smith, Federal Leaguer, has been relegated back to Toronto by the Pirates, who were amazed at his salary demands. There is one thing this boy has that is needed in the big circuit and that is nerve.”
The Sporting News in March said he was offered a contract commensurate with a .222 average in the International League. It went on to relate that Smith became angry and flew off the handle at once. He was then released back to Toronto on an optional agreement. He might have stuck with the Pirates if he agreed to the contract.
Smith’s time in Toronto was often chaotic. Smith told his family the story of a fist fight he had in a hotel lobby with his manager, Nap Lajoie. In July he got into a dispute with the Toronto management when his father was ill and the club would not let him return home. He went home anyway, was suspended but subsequently was reinstated. Smith’s father passed away later that year.
However Smith’s season in Toronto was not all negative. While playing there he met Nora Bailey. He married her and they raised four children; Mary Louise, James Jr., Thomas and Nora.
In August he obtained his release from Pittsburgh, he then signed with the New York Giants. Smith debuted with the Giants on August 24, playing shortstop and going 1-2 at the plate. He played 36 games for the Giants, hitting .229. He did find a kindred soul in Giants manager John McGraw. Both were little guys, feisty and tough.
The Giants went on to win the pennant that season, facing the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The Sox, made up of most of the same players Smith would face in the 1919 series, defeated the Giants 4 games to 2. Among Smith’s teammates were Slim Sallee and Bill Rariden who would join him on the 1919 Reds ball club. Although on the World Series roster, Smith did not get to play.
In February of 1918 the Giants sold Jimmy to Boston of the National League. Again an utility infielder he played in 34 games that season, hitting .225 with one home run off Gene Packard. He had 3 three-hit games including July 1, 3-4 with a triple, on August 26 in the second game of a doubleheader he went 3-3 with a triple and August 8 went 3-4 with a double.
In February of 1919 he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, along with cash, for Walter Holke. In March it was rumored the Reds might trade him to Indianapolis for Sam Crane. In the 1919 season Smith again served as a backup infielder, playing in 28 games and getting just 40 at bats. He did bash out another home run; oddly enough it was again off of Gene Packard.
In a tense game in August of 1919 the second place Giants who were chasing the Reds for the pennant let their frustrations show. Rube Benton was ejected by umpire Ernie Quigley after striking Reds pitcher Dolf Luque. Luque had tagged him hard in the chest as Benton ran towards first base. Most of the other players got involved in the fracas. George Burns of the Giants and Smith were singled out by the newspaper reporters for their wrestling around the field.
The Reds in 1919 won the pennant, winning 96 games against just 44 losses. They faced off with the Chicago White Sox in what became known as the Black Sox scandal World Series. The Reds won their first World Championship 5 games to 3 in a best of nine series. Smith’s only game action was as a pinch runner in Game 7 for veteran outfielder Sherry Magee.
Smith had another role he played in the series. In a 1946 interview he said his job in the series was to heckle Eddie Collins. He was put on the baselines as a coach throughout the series, coaching at first and third base at different times. The thought was if Smith was ejected the Reds wouldn’t lose much but if Collins, one of Chicago’s most valuable player went out it would significantly impact the Sox. The strategy worked as Smith was able to get under Collins’s skin.
Newspaper accounts of Game 3 reported that Sox second baseman Eddie Collins was in a fighting mood, wanting to mix it up with Jimmy Smith. Smith had been saying things to him and Eddie got sore. “Even peaceful Eddie Collins came near to fisticuffs with Jimmy Smith, substitute infielder of the enemy.”
The Fort Wayne paper described it this way. “Collins was sauntering near the third base line. Smith uttered some joshing utterance. Collins snapped a retort and Smith came back in kind. Their loud tones attracted the other players who came hopping over. Smith incensed Collins finally that Eddie spit at him, aiming the saliva at the grinning countenance of Smith. (Collins missed.) Umpires separated the belligerent athletes, after Collins had apologized to Smith for taking a pot shot at him with a mouthful of saliva.” Smith in a 1946 interview in the Pittsburgh paper related that he landed a left hook to Collins’ jaw that knocked him down and almost started a riot.
He also earned a rare World Series ejection in game 5 when he was tossed by umpire Cy Rigler for arguing from the third base coaching box.
Later in life Smith spoke of hating Judge Landis, who banned eight White Sox permanently from baseball because of their actions in the 1919 series. He didn’t think all of the Black Sox players should have been banned.
Smith was not able to celebrate the World Championship for long. In November the Reds asked waivers on him, with McGraw and the Giants putting in a claim. In January of 1920 The Sporting News reported it was not a sure thing Smith will go to the Giants. It seemed the intention of the Cincinnati club was to send him to Indianapolis in exchange for Sam Crane. Cincinnati was trying to get the Giants to relinquish their claim on Smith,
It appears the Reds were able to reacquire Smith’s contract, possibly when the Giants placed Smith on waivers. Jimmy was then released on option to the Indianapolis club of the American Association
Smith’s feistiness again came to the forefront as reported by the Kansas City Times. “In the fifth inning of the game second baseman Jimmy Smith of the Indianapolis club attacked umpire McGloon after a decision at first base, tripped the umpire and tore his clothes in several places with his spikes. Smith was ejected from the game by a squad of policeman.” It would not be Smith’s last run in with the local constables. On an unknown date during the 1920 season he was arrested in Kansas City for fighting in a Twelfth street restaurant. Jimmy hit .242, playing 146 games for Indianapolis, a career high.
In December of 1920 the Reds finally got their man. They picked up Sam Crane from Indianapolis for Smith, Hank Schreiber and “much money.” Smith did not stay Indianapolis property long.
The January 6, 1921, edition of The Sporting News reported a new Smith deal. “Sicking was a Giant for a few minutes, Smith a Red for the same length of time. Smith was called back by the Reds from Indianapolis because Seattle agreed to accept him as 1 of 5 players to complete deals for Sam Bohne and Lynn Brenton. Jack Hendricks (manager of Indianapolis) sold Smith to Herrmann who transferred him to Seattle. Hendricks agreed to take Ed Sicking for debt owed by the Giants. Reds sold him to the Giants, Giants then released Sicking to Indianapolis.”
With Seattle about to begin training at Pomona, California, the club sent transportation to its players, including Smith at Cincinnati. Smith refused to report. With the Pacific Coast League Seattle club not able to reach terms with Smith he was returned to the Reds. Smith had said unless he was paid more money for playing baseball he would devote his time to other business.
Family stories relate that with the passing of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors he began a second career smuggling whiskey. Late in his ball playing career the family stated he was making about $5,000 from baseball and $20,000 from smuggling whiskey. Part of the time he hid the whiskey in the trunks used to carry the players equipment.
Early in the 1921 season he played with an independent team in Pittsburgh to stay in shape and keep an eye on his businesses. His business in Pittsburgh was his stated reason he did not want to play on the West Coast.
In July his contract was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies. He reported, playing the rest of the season, hitting .231 with four home runs in 67 games. Jeff Pfeffer, Bill Sherdel, Pete Alexander, and Johnny Morrison were the victims. The home run off Hall of Famer Alexander was something Smith was extremely proud of the rest of his life.
Soon after joining the Phillies that season Jimmy and some team mates were involved in an altercation. Five Philadelphia players were arrested with four being discharged the following day. The exception was Smith who had to spend an extra day in jail. The charge was disorderly conduct stemming from an incident on the streets of Philadelphia.
Smith, Frank Bruggy, Goldie Rapp, Cy Williams and Clifford Lee were in Bruggy’s automobile. They got in an altercation with 2 pedestrians (Morris Shuster and Theodore Tannebaum) who crossed in front of their motor car as they were driving to the ball park. The players made remarks that reflected on the pedestrians’ ancestry. Smith, Rapp and Williams jumped out of the car; the complainants raced over to a traffic policeman, the players jumped back in the car and took off. Jimmy Smith lived up to his reputation as a slugger and proved it by the manner in which he battered Shuster about the body.
The players were captured after an exciting chase by a mounted policeman and a huge crowd as an impromptu posse. Traffic policeman Fred Fisher on horseback chased the car; the crowd joined the chase until the car was stopped in traffic congestion. The players were calm when Fisher arrested them and then followed on horseback as their car drove to city hall. When the complainants learned who their attackers were they dropped the charges.
In 1922 Smith remained with the Phillies. On August 7 he connected for his last major league home run, off Wilbur Cooper. He played his last game on September 3 at the Polo Grounds against his former team, the New York Giants. It was an eventful game. He hit into a triple play in the 2nd inning, and in his final major league at bat in the 8th he singled off Claude Jonnard. Smith was released by the Phillies after former teammate Art Fletcher was hired as the team’s manager. A fight between the two during the 1922 season led to Fletcher trying to send Smith out west and to the minor leagues.
The locker room fight began with both getting ready for the showers. Smith and Fletcher began fighting but teammates quickly broke it up. A few minutes later, as Fletcher was coming out of the shower and Smith was going in, they bumped at the door and the fight was on again. It was eventually broken up again with some accounts saying the fight lasted as long as 30 minutes. They finally agreed to quit and resume the fight in the clubhouse the next morning. Smith showed up before the 11:00 appointed time and saw a taxi unload Fletcher who was on crutches. That ended it. A few days later Fletcher was named manager of the Phillies and decided to get rid of Smith by sending him to the minors. Jimmy retired instead.
In 1924 The Sporting News reported that Smith had a café in Pittsburgh, more than likely referring to a speakeasy that Smith ran for a time. He sold alcohol during Prohibition, and when Prohibition was repealed, he ran The Bachelor’s Club in Pittsburgh, oft-called the classiest joint in town. He played semi-pro ball in the Pittsburgh area with one team mate being future Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney.
Smith settled down in Pittsburgh to raise his four children. A religious man, it was said of him that he never missed Mass on Sunday. Along with the “speakeasy” business he also invested in a coal company.
By 1940 Smith had befriended an up and coming young boxer in Pittsburgh named Billy Conn. Conn had met Smith’s young daughter Mary Louise at the Smith Summer home in Ocean City, New Jersey. Sparks flew and Conn and Mary Louise were soon in love. Jimmy Smith was very much opposed to the match, believing his daughter too young and like many potential fathers-in-law believing his daughter could do better.
Just before light heavyweight champion Conn was to move up to the heavyweight class to fight champion Joe Louis, the young couple took out a marriage license in May of 1941 in Brookville, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. They hoped by going out of their native Allegheny County they could hide the information from Smith. He soon found out and threatened the local bishop that he better not perform the marriage. Jimmy was quoted as saying: “Champion or no champion, I’ll punch hell out of that fellow and he’d probably be the first one to say I could do it. I hope he wins, but I want him to stay away from my family.”
Although Conn had the license and ring, wedding plans were cancelled. Conn and Mary Louise met with Jimmy and Mrs. Smith and a priest in a 90-minute conference to try to work out their differences to no avail.
Margaret McFarland Conn, Billy’s mother, passed away on June 27. Shortly thereafter Conn and Mary Louise sneaked away to be married at St. Patrick’s Church in Philadelphia. Jimmy Smith learned about the marriage by phone at his home in Ocean City, New Jersey, and said “I’m still against it and I always will be.” Asked what his new father-in-law thought about the surprise marriage Conn said: “We got blessed all right, but it was the kind of blessing you couldn’t print.”
The Washington Post said a friend quoted Conn as saying he is scared Smith will “try to kill him.” Putting some distance between the feuding families, the Conns left for Hollywood, where Billy was to star in a movie called “The Pittsburgh Kid,” an adaptation of Octavus Roy Cohen’s Kid Tinsel story.
After the christening of the Conn’s first child, David Phillip, longtime family friend and godfather to the baby, Art Rooney, suggested Conn bury the hatchet with his father-in-law. The meeting took place at Smith’s home. Conn, his wife Mary Louise, Rooney, and Milton Jaffe went to Smith’s house. As all were sitting around the kitchen, an argument broke out with Smith yelling at Conn.
Conn related what happened next. “I told him he couldn’t scare me by yelling. Then he said, ‘Oh, so you aren’t afraid of me.’ And I said ‘no, I’m not afraid of you.’ Then he hauled off with a punch and we were off.” Smith landed the first punch and Conn struck back purely in self defense, hitting Smith on the head. Something snapped in his hand and Smith took advantage of the opportunity to wrestle Conn to the ground. Smith began clawing at Conn’s nose and eyes. Friends and relatives pulled the two apart. Mary Louise was cut up and Jaffe scratched. Billy broke his left hand in the fight.
Because of the hand injury Conn was forced to postpone his rematch with Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship. It took time, but Smith and Conn eventually reconciled. Nevertheless, Smith’s strong personality still affected the Conn family. Little David Phillip, a name Smith did not like, soon was called Tim instead.
Billy and Mary Louise Conn’s basement displayed many pictures, mainly of boxing but also a team picture of Jimmy’s 1917 New York Giants pennant winning club. In 1943 both Conn and Smith were nominated for the Dapper Dan Club athletic award as the sports figure that did the most to publicize Pittsburgh. The winner was Bill Dudley of the Steelers.
Grandson Tim relates that Smith loved to play catch with him but was always forcefully coaching him. “He made me run; he was way ahead of his time as far as understanding how to condition athletes.”
Smith stayed feisty into his later years. At about age 70 Smith, who hated motorcycles, got into a fight with a motorcyclist who was in his twenties.
“Greenfield” Jimmy Smith passed away January 1, 1974, at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. He is buried in the Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia 4th Edition. Gary Gillete and Pete Palmer, eds. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2007.
www.billyconn.net including the article “The Boxer and the Blonde” by Frank Deford, first published in Sports Illustrated
www.anb.org American National Biography online
National Association card
Player file: National Baseball Library Hall of Fame Cooperstown, New York
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (all info on Duquesne from Duquesne Monthly: archives, The Gumberg Library, Duquesne University) April, June, July 1913. April-July 1914.
Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum records, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Sporting Life 1914-1922
The Sporting News 1914-1924
Obit: TSN, January 19, 1974
WWI draft registration card
WWII draft registration card
Phone calls and emails Tim Conn (grandson) October 2007
5 April 1915 Dallas Morning News
27 August 1915 Wilkes Barre Times Leader
2 Sept 1915 Kansas City Times
19 Sept 1916 Kansas City Star
19 October 1916 CA Evening
28 February 1917 Wilkes Barre Times
11 September 1917 Evening News
26 February 1918 New York Times
11 March 1918 New York Times
Various issues 1919 Cincinnati Enquirer
15 August 1919 Charlotte Observer
4 October 1919 Chicago Tribune
5 October 1919 New York Tribune
15 October 1919 Fort Wayne News and Sentinel
17 February 1920 New York Times
14 September 1920 Kansas City Times
6 March 1921 Idaho Statesman
9 March 1921 Wilkes Barre Times
17 March 1921 Grand Forks Herald
16 July 1921 Philadelphia Inquirer
16 July 1921 Kansas City Times
17 July 1921 Macon Daily Telegraph
12 May 1942 Los Angeles Times