Mike Smithson, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound righty, pitched in eight seasons as a big leaguer from 1982 through 1989. He won 15 games for the Minnesota Twins and led the AL in games started in both 1984 and 1985, and finished his career with the Boston Red Sox, who had originally selected him in the fifth round of the June 1976 draft out of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; he was there on a basketball scholarship but tried baseball and made the team. He had good speed, but control and consistency were his key issues during his time in the Red Sox chain.
Billy Mike Smithson was born on January 21, 1955, in Centerville, Tennessee (in Hickman County, about 60 miles west of Nashville). The town’s population grew from 1,532 to 1,678 from 1950 to 1960. Among other things, it was the birthplace of country music entertainer Minnie Pearl. St, Louis Cardinals right-hander Dan Griner (1912-1916) was a Centerville native as well.1
Smithson’s parents were Billie, a machinist for General Shoe at the time of the 1950 census, and Margaret (née Scott), who worked as an office clerk for Columbia Credit. Both were Tennessee natives. An older brother, Don Smithson, was born in 1946. The family also owned a farm.
Mike Smithson starred at Hickman County High School at Centerville, being named an all-state athlete twice in basketball, football, and baseball. When he went to the University of Tennessee, the basketball program was strong. The team made it to the NCAA tournament in 1976.2 Smithson was on the varsity squad as a forward, but noted, “Unfortunately for me, I played behind Bernard King, so I didn’t see a lot of playing time. He’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame.”3
Smithson was in his junior year when he was signed to play professional baseball, by Red Sox scout George Digby. He later calculated that he had actually lost money signing with Boston, because he thereby forfeited the scholarship that would have seen him through his senior year.4 He had not determined a major: “I hadn’t really decided what I was going to do but Education was basically where I was headed.”
After signing, Smithson was sent to pitch for the Winter Haven Red Sox (Florida State League, Class A), where he was 4-3 with a 3.09 ERA in 11 games. The following year, 1977, he married Jennifer Lynn Parker (whom he had met in college) in February. He then returned to Winter Haven and built a record of 13-8 (2.77) in 25 games. He worked three innings in one game at Double A with the Bristol (Connecticut) Red Sox of the Eastern League and was hammered for seven runs.
His entire 1978 season was with Bristol; he had a better experience, though it was still a struggle, as witnessed by his 4.56 earned run average. He struck out 86 but walked almost as many (76). In one game, Smithson “had the embarrassing experience of wild pitching two runs home while working on only one batter in a 4-1 loss to Jersey [City].”5 His record was 11-10; he hit nine batters.
Smithson put in another year with Bristol in 1979. When the team needed relievers, he volunteered for bullpen duty; only 13 of his 48 games were starts. He cut down on the walks, but his ERA edged up to 4.70. He had 11 saves in the second half of the season. .6
One might not have guessed he’d be promoted, but his 1980 and 1981 seasons were in the International League with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. In 1980, he appeared in 50 games (8-12), starting just twice and recording an ERA of 2.91 in 99 innings. Red Sox scout Lee Stange, a former pitching coach, said in July, “All that keeps him from the big leagues is mental right now….When he’s right, it’s no contest with him. He could well be ready next year.”7
In 1981, he was back with Pawtucket, and his ERA jumped almost a full run, to 3.86 in 91 innings, a number similar to his previous year’s total. There’s good reason to believe it was because of a change in role. Though he worked entirely out of the pen, he got into just 34 games – in long relief, 5-9 while working an average of 2.67 innings per appearance.
“That was a strange year,” he recalled. “I got shuffled around. But we had a good little team in Pawtucket. Luis Aponte was on that ball club. He was the main reliever. I got stuck in a long reliever role and was pitching sporadically. It was nobody’s fault. That’s just the way baseball works sometimes.”
Smithson was part of the 1981 PawSox team that played in “the longest game” – the 33-inning marathon against the Rochester Red Wings. He threw 3 2/3 shutout innings, from the 15th until giving way to Win Remmerswaal in the 18th. Afterward, he quipped, “Not only does my earned run average drop, but I make it into the Hall of Fame, too. I always figured the only way I’d make it was as the tallest or ugliest pitcher in Red Sox history.”8
The Red Sox clearly gave Smithson a long look – over six years in their minor league system. They always saw potential but felt he too often “had trouble getting the ball over the plate. He had a good arm, but he was wild,” recalled Ralph Houk, Boston’s manager from 1981 through 1984.9
Smithson, by then 27, joined the big club for spring training in 1982. But on April 9, the day before the regular season began, he was traded to the Texas Rangers for left-handed pitcher John Henry Johnson.10 Smithson welcomed the move, saying, “I felt like I was getting buried in the Red Sox organization.”11 He later noted that he couldn’t blame Boston for having traded him. “When I was with them, I had only one pitch.”12
The Rangers placed him with the Denver Bears of the American Association, and he put in another year of Triple-A ball – primarily back in the role of starter, where he had always wanted to be. Starting 24 of his 29 games for the Bears, Smithson built a record of 11-7 (4.54). He had won eight of his last 10 games when he was brought up to the big leagues, where he made his debut on August 27.
Darrell Johnson was the Rangers’ manager, having taken over from Don Zimmer midway through the season. The Rangers were in sixth place (of seven) in the AL West, as they had been for most of the year. In a Friday evening start at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, Smithson threw a complete game, allowing just three runs. He gave up eight hits and walked three. The first of the runs scored when leadoff hitter Al Bumbry doubled and third baseman Glenn Gulliver followed with a double of his own. Smithson allowed a solo home run to Ken Singleton in the fifth, and a third run on a walk and a pair of singles in the eighth. He lost the game, 3-1, as Jim Palmer allowed but one sixth-inning run.
On September 1, in Kansas City, Smithson earned his first major league win, a complete-game 7-3 victory over Paul Splittorff and the Royals. In the third inning, he hit both Amos Otis and Frank White with pitches. The next time Otis came up, in the fifth, he flung his bat on three consecutive swings. None of them was directly at Smithson, but Otis was nevertheless ejected. Smithson said the pitches had slipped, but with a five-run lead he told the umpire he wasn’t going to get baited into any overreaction. “This is my first big-league win and nothing short of a hurricane is going to upset me.”13
He won his next start, against the Twins in Texas, then lost three in a row before picking up his third win, a 4-1 complete game against Oakland. He was hit hard in three outings, including his final start, when he gave up five runs in just a third of an inning at Anaheim Stadium. He finished the year with a 5.01 ERA and a 3-4 record in eight games.
In 1983, after pitching for Caguas in Puerto Rican winter ball, Smithson started 33 games for the Rangers, beginning with Opening Day, a no-decision in a 5-3 win over the White Sox. To be able to pitch on Opening Day was an honor; as he explained, “That was my first spring training with them. A college teammate of mine, Rick Honeycutt, was one of the starters and Charlie Hough was another. They both got hurt in spring training, so Doug Rader said, ‘You’re going to be the Opening Day starter.’”
Weirdly, three of Smithson’s first 10 starts were rained out.14 He won his first three decisions but finished at 10-14, although he brought his ERA down to 3.91. He was hit hard in some games, but in seven starts, he worked seven innings or more without giving up more than one earned run.
Smithson was named the Rangers Rookie of the Year, but that December, the Rangers traded him to the Minnesota Twins for left fielder Gary Ward, packaging right-hander John Butcher and a minor leaguer with him.15 Smithson became a mainstay in the Twins rotation for the next three seasons.
He led the American League in starts in 1984, with 36, but also led the majors in home runs surrendered (35). The Twins were a contending club, finishing tied with the Angels for second place in the AL West at 81-81, only three games behind first-place Kansas City. Smithson was 15-13 with a 3.68 ERA. Only Frank Viola (18-12) had more wins for Minnesota. (Butcher was third, with 13 wins.)
Again, Smithson won his first three decisions. Again, there were several solid starts (six) of seven innings or more with either one or zero earned runs. He threw his first shutout, against the Rangers, a 1-0 six-hitter at Arlington Stadium on September 15.16
There was also a frightening moment on May 27, when he was knocked unconscious by a Jim Gantner liner that struck him on the back of the neck. As Smithson recalled, “The Brewers had a tough lineup, but Jimmy just seemed to own me. When I released the pitch, I knew I’d made a mistake to him. Everything happened in slow motion. All I had time to do was duck my head, and it just knocked me right off the back of the mound.” He was out for five minutes, but left under his own power, taken to a hospital for observation.17
Smithson’s 1985 season was similar in wins and losses (15-14), but with an elevated 4.34 ERA. The 124 earned runs he allowed (in 257 innings) led both leagues. He hit 15 batters, also leading the majors. His 37 starts were the most in the A.L. The Twins were 77-85, finishing fourth. Among his wins were three shutouts, against the Mariners, Indians, and Red Sox, the latter a 1-0 win at Fenway Park on August 24.
He threw 198 innings in 1986, with 33 starts and one relief appearance, finishing 13-14 for the 71-91 Twins. His ERA climbed to 4.77. There were, as in 1985, eight complete games, one of them a shutout of the A’s. It was not a satisfying season for Smithson, though, something he acknowledged early the next year: “Mentally, I wasn’t here last season. I don’t know what it was, but there were times I was beaten before I even walked to the mound.”18 He also attributed some of the problem to being asked to resume pitching one game after a two-hour, 20-minute rain delay. “It broke me down, like a race horse. I wasn’t the same.”19
One moment, however, really stood out. Pat Sajak, host of television’s Wheel of Fortune, said on air that he was from Minnesota and always wanted to throw out the first pitch before a Twins game. He was invited to do so on June 11. There was a simulated Wheel of Fortune game featuring Roy Smalley, Frank Viola, and Kent Hrbek. Smalley said that if he won, he wanted a date with the show’s hostess, Vanna White. However, White couldn’t make it to the game, so there was a stand-in: a mustachioed Mike Smithson – who towered over the 6-foot-1 Smalley and wore a black evening gown and blonde wig onto the field.20
The 1987 season was Smithson’s last with Minnesota. He worked in 21 games (20 starts) but missed most of May and all of August. During the first stretch, a sore right elbow landed him on the disabled list. On July 30, with an ERA standing at 6.17 ERA and just one win in his last 14 starts, Smithson was optioned to the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers in hopes he could turn things around. The Twins, who’d returned to contention, brought in veteran Steve Carlton to help with the stretch drive.21 Smithson was 2-3 in six starts for Portland, with a 4.97 ERA. He called that time “the worst baseball experience I’d ever been in.”22
He was recalled on September 2. After four appearances that month, he brought his Twins ERA down to 5.94, and finished 4-7. But he had returned from Portland too late to be eligible for postseason play. The Twins finished first, beat the Tigers in the ALCS and won a seven-game World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals. Sadly, Smithson had to sit it all out. He did later receive a ring, via UPS.23
As had been the case for a couple of years, there was talk of trading Smithson, but nothing eventuated. That December, the Twins released him. In January 1988, he signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, but reported to spring training as a non-roster player. He did well and made the team, envisioned as the #5 starter.24 The first six weeks or so, however, he worked out of the bullpen. Rookie Steve Ellsworth had earned the last slot in the starting rotation. And Smithson didn’t get much work. “The only guys you can blame,” he said in early May, “are Clemens, Hurst, and Oil Can. You can’t blame the manager [John McNamara, who would soon be replaced by Smithson’s old Pawtucket skipper, Joe Morgan]. I’m the long man on the best staff in the American League. There just hasn’t been much of an opportunity to pitch.”25
Smithson was briefly sent to Pawtucket, to make room for a returning Bob Stanley and to get more work. However, he was recalled and made his first start for the Red Sox on May 24 – almost 12 years after first signing with the team. It was a loss in which Seattle hammered him for seven runs in just 2 1/3 innings. In his second start, a week later, he threw seven scoreless innings and beat the Angels. On July 19, he pitched 6 1/3 innings of no-hit ball against the Twins. He gave up a couple of hits, and was relieved, but won the game, 5-0. He was in and out of the bullpen but started and won three games in the September stretch drive. “Mike Smithson has meant a lot to this team,” said Joe Morgan. “His ERA (over 5.00) may not show it, but ERAs and statistics do not reflect a man’s value to a team.”26 He pitched short, middle, and long relief, and was a spot starter. “But I don’t return punts,” he joked.27
Smithson’s nine wins (he was 9-6) tied him with Oil Can Boyd for third on the Red Sox. His 5.97 ERA was two full runs above the team’s 3.97. In his 2012 autobiography, Boyd offered an appreciation of teammates Smithson, Sammy Stewart, and Wes Gardner, “all of them raised in the bigoted South.” But it was the era of an earlier generation, not them. “Mike Smithson – you couldn’t get a better guy.” He said the same about the other two, adding that “these were guys who took the time to get to know a person.”28
The Red Sox finished first in the AL East but were swept in four games by Oakland in the ALCS. Smithson pitched in Game Four and threw 2 1/3 scoreless mid-game innings. It was the only postseason appearance of his career.
Smithson had been on a one-year deal and thus became a free agent once more. Boston re-signed him for the 1989 season. “They saved my career,” he said of the Red Sox at the end of spring training. “I don’t care what I do or how I’m used, I just want to be here.” He added that not everybody could be a superstar:“Let the superstars do superstar work and I’ll do the dirty work.”29
It might be more accurately said that the Red Sox prolonged his career. He pitched throughout 1989, starting 19 games and relieving in 21 others. His record was 7-14 (4.95) for that year’s third-place Boston squad. Smithson threw a 10-0 shutout on May 25 – but likely his best game came July 29: eight innings and two hits allowed in a combined shutout of Cleveland.30 Smithson’s season ended by yielding 11 earned runs in the 13 innings he pitched in September.
The Red Sox signed the 34-year-old veteran to another one-year deal on December 13, 1989, but a “procedural snafu” left them unable to retain him. They should have offered him the right to salary arbitration by December 7 and had not done so; they thereby lost the right to sign him at all until May 1, 1990.31 Thus, he was a free agent and signed a deal with the California Angels for about the same money he would have received from the Red Sox.32
The Angels cut Smithson on April 8. His agent spoke with the Orioles. The Red Sox said they would look at him but couldn’t until May 1. Nothing happened. On May 8, he announced his retirement.33 Smithson’s pitching career was over.
What had led to the end? “I’d had left hip problems with the Red Sox my last year and it just got to where I could hardly run anymore. I went to spring training with the Angels and got released. You know, your body tells you when it’s time. My body told me. The Metrodome didn’t help, playing there. That was a tough place to play on and run on, a tough surface.” Smithson later had both hips replaced (his left in 2004 and his right in 2019).
He finished with 204 starts, 41 complete games, a won-lost record of 76-86, and a career ERA of 4.58. Over the course of his career, he surrendered 168 home runs, an average of 1.1 homers for every nine innings pitched.
As an American League pitcher throughout his career, starting after the implementation of the designated hitter and completing his career before the advent of interleague play, Smithson never batted in a big league game. Defensively, he committed 12 errors in 266 chances (.957) over the course of his 240 games (1,356 1/3 innings.)
Had he batted, he would have hit left-handed, his nephew Ryan Smithson said.34 Asked about this, Mike Smithson chuckled, then said, “When I was a youngster, my dad – he never played sports – I was probably five or six, I guess, and we were out in the yard with him throwing to me. I was batting right-handed. And he hit me right in the ear. From that moment on, I turned around left-handed. That’s why I was never a good hitter.”
What came next? There was no immediate pressure. “I had a guaranteed contract with the Angels so when I got released – God was looking out for me – I had a year to sort of sit back and decide what I wanted to do. My wife Jenny and I were living in Nashville. I was helping out a little bit with some junior college baseball and driving maybe three or four days a week to Centerville to help my dad on the farm. His health started to decline, and my wife was from Waverly, Tennessee, which is not too far from Centerville; we just decided that we needed to make a move. Our daughter Kelly was getting ready to start school. We decided to move back to Centerville.”
There were other family members there, as well. Brother Don Smithson had served in the Navy as an air traffic controller. When he completed his service, he lived in Nashville and worked in the Nashville airport tower. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Don moved back to their father’s farm in Centerville and helped out there. “He always had a green thumb, and he bought a greenhouse. He started from there and ran Smithson’s Florist for about 35 years.
“When I retired and was living in Nashville, I worked for the Nashville Sounds. Larry Schmittou owned the team. He was the head coach at Vanderbilt when I pitched for Tennessee, and he knew who I was. He hired me and said I was the only Tennessee guy he ever hired. I did that for three years [1991 through 1993]. I really enjoyed doing that.
“I never really coached in the minor leagues. That was never anything I really wanted to do. I rode the buses too long in the minors. I really didn’t want to ride those being the coach.”
There was coaching in his future, though – at the high school level, after the family had returned to live in Centerville. “After we moved back, I went to a [Hickman County High School] baseball game one afternoon, just to watch the team play. The superintendent of schools saw me there and he approached me and said, ‘Hey, we really need a baseball coach. Would you be interested?’ I became the coach there and every year they sort of added a little more and a little more to my plate. I became a full-time employee and eventually ended up as the athletic director. When I retired, I’d been there 18 years.”
The HCHS baseball facility is named Mike Smithson Field. “It was a great honor. I worked hard. We made a lot of improvements on the stadium. I had some friends here in Centerville who were able to help me out financially a little bit as far as making improvements to the stadium and the field. We had some good kids. They worked hard, and we got state-ranked in the top 25 one year, which our school had never done.” Showing his awareness of Dan Griner, Smithson noted, “There’s only one other player who ever played in the big leagues from Hickman County.”
Smithson was also honored in 2009 by being named to the University of Tennessee’s All-Century Team.
He has attended a couple of celebrations: the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park in 2012 and the 30th anniversary of the Twins winning the 1987 World Series in 2017. The player with whom he stays in touch the most is Wade Boggs. “We got drafted the same year. I remember when Mr. Digby came to my house to sign me, he said, ‘Well, we’re going to send you to Winter Haven. I also signed a guy – this kid’s going to be in the Hall of Fame. When you get there, introduce yourself.’ It was Wade. We came up through the minor leagues together, every team. His wife and my wife are friends.”
Smithson has remained active in the community and is a deacon at Centerville Baptist Church. The Smithsons’ daughter Kelly lives in Memphis and works as a school psychologist. “We’ve got two grandkids,” Mike says, “and it’s been good.”
Last revised: April 5, 2023
Thanks to Rod Nelson. Special thanks to Ryan Smithson.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, SABR.org, and Pelotabinaria.com.ve (Venezuelan statistics).
1 Griner was 21-50 in this time with the Cardinals. He was 1-5 with the Brooklyn Robins in 1918, his last year in the major leagues.
2 Garry Brown, “Billy Mike finally where he always wanted to be: Boston,” Springfield Union-News (Springfield, Massachusetts), August 25, 1988: 7.
3 Author interview with Mike Smithson on January 27, 2023. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations attributed to Mike Smithson come from this interview.
4 Mark Murphy, “Sox talk of meager beginnings,” Boston Herald, June 3, 1989: 35. He did not complete his college degree.
5 “Eastern League,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1978: 45.
6 Peter Gammons, “Smithson for real?,” Boston Globe, March 14, 1981: 28. See also Larry Whiteside, “Making a new start,” Boston Globe, April 10,1983: 78.
7 Peter Gammons, “What’s wrong with Richard? Astros are wondering,” Boston Globe, July 18, 1980: 13.
8 Peter Gammons, “Pawtucket ends it in 33,” Boston Globe, June 24, 1981: 29. For a fuller appreciation of the game, see Dan Berry, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (New York: Harper Perennial, 2012.
9 Whiteside, “Making a new start.”
10 Larry Whiteside, “Smithson arrives as Twins’ No. 1,” Boston Globe, March 20, 1984: 29.
11 Tim Kurkjian, “Smithson should make an impression,” Dallas Morning News, August 26, 1982: 24.
12 Whiteside, “Smithson arrives as Twins’ No. 1.”
13 Associated Press, “Smithson, Rangers Duck Royal Bats,” Santa Fe New Mexican, September 2, 1982: 15. See also Tom Kurkjian, “Rangers Battle Past Royals, 7-3,” Dallas Morning News, September 3, 1983:13.
14 Jim Reeves, “Smithson Ready to Pitch? Get Ready for Rain,” The Sporting News, June 6, 1983: 22.
15 Ward accused the Twins of trading him because they didn’t want Black ballplayers. See “Ward Accuses the Twins of Racism,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1983: G4. See also Patrick Reusse, “Ward Calls Deal Racially Motivated,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1983: 42.
16 On June 8, 1983, he’d come within one out of a shutout but had given up back-to-back singles with two outs in the ninth, and was pulled for a reliever, having to settle for 1-0 win over the Mariners.
17 “Milwaukee 5, Minnesota 4, Dallas Morning News, May 28, 1984: 4B.
18 “Twins,” The Sporting News, May 4, 1987: 53.
19 Dan Shaughnessy, “He could fit a tall order,” Boston Globe, February 22, 1988: 51.
20 “Date With ‘Vanna’ Not for Twins’ Smalley,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland), June 13, 1986: 4C.
21 Carlton, however, was 1-5 for the Twins.
22 Dan Shaughnessy, “Smithson a late starter,” Boston Globe, May 24, 1988: 73. Smithson said the Portland team’s attitude was bad. “Nobody cared.”
23 Michael Vega, “A share of the action,” Boston Globe, September 19, 1988: 49.
24 Ron Borges, “Smithson can pack for Boston,” Boston Globe, April 1, 1988: 78.
25 Mike Shalin, “Smithson pitching for a chance,” Boston Herald, May 2, 1988: 33. On the eve of the season, he had said, “I still feel I’m a capable starter. But when you’re a non-roster invitee, you do anything they ask – clean commodes, pitch long relief or short relief.” “He’s not picky,” San Bernardino County Sun, April 6, 1988: 27.
26 Joe Giuliotti, “Red Sox’ Smithson Is Many of Many Talents,” The Sporting News, September 26, 1988: 17.
27 Stan Isle, “Mets Have a Full Head of Hate for Playoffs,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1988: 16.
28 Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, with Mike Shalin, They Call Me Oil Can (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2012), 167.
29 Joe Giuliotti, “Smithson happy to do dirty work,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1989: 18.
30 His worst outing was the third of an inning pitched in ninth-inning relief when he gave up two three-run homers to the visiting Orioles.
31 Nick Cafardo, “Smithson contract is deemed invalid,” Boston Globe, December 21, 1989: 81. The deal could have gone through if none of the other clubs had objected, but two of them indicated objection.
32 Associated Press, “Smithson leaves Sox, signs with California,” Hartford Courant, December 22, 1989: E6. Angels GM Mike Port said that the Angels had not been one of the teams which entered objection. See Helene Elliott, “Angels Sign Another Pitcher: Smithson,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1989: C10. The Red Sox did make it to the postseason again, but as in 1988 were swept by Oakland.
33 “Smithson calls it quits,” Boston Herald, May 10, 1990: 89.
34 Ryan Smithson, email to author, January 26, 2023.