Charles Marvin “Pop” Smith, a journeyman player who wore the uniform of ten different teams between 1880 and 1892, ranks as the game’s finest Canadian-born second baseman. He entered the majors one year after New Brunswick-born Bill Phillips.
Little is known of Smith’s family or his early years. His birth in the coastal city of Digby, Nova Scotia, on October 12, 1856, belies the fact that he may never have played baseball there. Boys in Nova Scotia played baseball using New York rules by 1872, but it is not known if young Smith was one of them, because his family moved to Boston sometime in the 1870s, likely when the commercial economy of Nova Scotia crashed with the financial panic of 1873 (Howell, 24).
Young Smith had little time for school. Working class children in the Canadian Maritimes typically left school around age ten to contribute to the family income (Howell, 38). By 1874 he worked as a laborer and played baseball on amateur teams in the Massachusetts Bay area.
In 1876, as a nineteen-year-old, Smith began playing professionally with the Binghamton, New York, Crickets, an independent professional team. From his earliest years in professional ball he drew praise for his agile fielding, accurate and strong arm and speed, but seldom for his stick work. He returned to Binghamton a second summer, batting .385 in 84 games as the Crickets’ third baseman. He would never hit close to that high again. In 1878 most of the players from the 1877 Crickets moved up to Utica, New York. In 102 games for the Utica club he batted .222 on a team led by Hardy Richardson‘s .322 average. From Utica he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1879 to play for the newly created National Association club, but he batted only .230.
Smith got his first opportunity to play in the National League in 1880 with the Cincinnati Reds. When he started his major league career he was good sized for his time at 5’11”, 170 pounds, and was right handed all the way. He and fellow rookies first baseman Long John Reilly and third baseman Hick Carpenter, who would go on to have outstanding careers, could not prevent the Reds from falling into the league cellar and then out of the league entirely. Smith played in every league game and led the team in RBI and triples but managed only a feeble .207 batting average.
Following Smith’s rookie year it appeared his major league career would be short-lived. After the National League expelled Cincinnati, Smith moved to the Worchester Ruby Legs, then to Cleveland and finally to Buffalo. He could not win a regular position and hit only .081. In 1882 he did no better in the American Association, batting a pathetic .092 for the Philadelphia Athletics and .182 in three games at Louisville.
Smith’s fortunes began to look up after the 1882 season. The Columbus Buckeye club, preparing to enter the American Association, signed Smith for the 1883 season. It proved fortuitous that he was in Columbus at the time. The first post-season playoffs, precursor of the World Series, between the National League champion Chicago White Stockings and Cincinnati, winners of the first American Association pennant, took place in Columbus at the end of the 1882 season. Because Smith was known by both managers, having played in each league, and was generally well-liked and considered impartial, he was selected to umpire the two-game series. Emotions ran high as the two league champions split the series, but the Cincinnati Commercial credited Smith with umpiring “in splendid style” (Lansche, 31), no easy task.
Smith made the most of his opportunity with Columbus in 1883, batting a career-high .262, hitting his first home run, and leading the Buckeyes in runs, on-base-average, and slugging percentage. His 17 triples led the American Association, the only time he would lead in any hitting category. He even pitched in three games.
The 1884 Buckeyes made a run at the American Association pennant, finishing second to the New York Metropolitans. Smith continued to show surprising pop with the bat hitting a career high six home runs. His average dropped to .238, but Smith’s forte as always remained his fielding and he led the league in assists by second basemen for the first time. Despite the Buckeyes on-field success the club declared bankruptcy following the season.
Smith, along with several other Buckeyes including Tom Brown, Willie Kuehne, and Ed Morris, was transferred to Pittsburgh for 1885. Smith enjoyed five solid seasons in the Smokey City. Batting leadoff in 1885, Smith led the third place Allegheny club in runs scored while batting .249. He enjoyed his best year in the field, leading American Association second basemen in putouts and assists. Charles Faber rates Smith the league’s best second sacker in 1885 (Faber, 39, 63), the only season Bid McPhee failed to rate as the top fielder.
In 1886 Smith switched to shortstop and for the second year in a row he ranked the best at his position. He led American Association shortstops in fielding average and teamed with slick fielding Sam Barkley to give Pittsburgh a smooth double play combination. Dropped to third in the batting order, he hit only .217 but did lead the team in stolen bases in the first year stolen bases were recorded.
Pittsburgh jumped from the American Association to the National League in 1887. Manager Horace Phillips moved Smith back to second base and second in the batting order. He struggled even more against National League pitching than he had in the American Association, batting only .215, but he did lead the league in being hit by pitches. In 1888 Pittsburgh acquired Fred Dunlap to play second base, forcing Smith back to shortstop. His batting average continued to drop as he managed to hit only .206.
By the end of the Eighties newspapers and players started calling him “Pop” Smith. The nickname was not surprising. He had been in the majors for over ten years, turned thirty in 1886, and his mustache, neatly trimmed earlier in the decade, became bushy giving him an even older appearance.
Smith switched teams again in 1889. Midway through the season he lost his shortstop job at Pittsburgh to Jack Rowe, who hit for a much higher average than Smith. As a testament to Smith’s value to a team the Boston Beaneaters dealt for Smith to bolster their stretch pennant run. Replacing Joe Quinn at shortstop, he hit a solid .260 for Boston. For the season he had a career-best 59 runs batted in and 23 doubles. Despite his contributions the Beaneaters fell one game short of the crown.
In 1890 all of the Boston regulars except Smith jumped to the Players League. Most stayed in Boston to play for the Reds who romped to the only league title. Why Smith stayed with the National League is not clear. Perhaps the confidence new Beaneater manager Frank Selee showed in Smith by making him team captain contributed to his decision. That year The Sporting News wrote of him: “He knows every point of the game, is thoroughly familiar with the tricks of the business [and] is quick to take advantage of every play that will help his side win” (Smith HOF file). Smith led the team in walks, triples and total bases while stealing a career best 39 bases, but he batted an anemic .229, struck out a league high 81 times and committed 57 errors.
When the Players League folded, Selee retooled the Boston club for 1891. He gave the second base job to Joe Quinn, whom Smith had replaced in 1889, and kept young Herman Long at shortstop. Smith caught on with Washington, but he failed to earn a starting job on the weakest team in the majors. He played only 27 games, hitting .178 before being released.
Following his major league career Smith played in the minors for ten teams in five seasons. He made stops in Omaha, St. Paul, and Fort Wayne of the Western League, Atlanta in the Southern League, Binghamton, Erie, Rochester, Providence, and Toronto of the Eastern League, and Binghamton again in the New York State League. In the offensive explosion of 1893 he batted .323 at Binghamton, but otherwise .266 was his highest average.
When his playing days ended, Smith returned to Boston, which had always remained his home during his playing days. Married with one son, Arthur Dixwell Smith, he lived in the working class suburb of Allston, working as a motorman on the Boston street railway for the remainder of his working life. He died April 18, 1927, at the age of 70.
Akin, William E., “Charles Marvin Smith,” in Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker (eds.), Baseball’s First Stars. Cleveland: SABR, 1996.
Faber, Charles F., Baseball Pioneers: Rating the Nineteenth Century Players. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1997.
Howell, Colin H., Northern Sandlots: A Social History of Maritime Baseball. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995
Lansche, Jerry, Glory Fades Away: The Nineteenth Century World Series Rediscovered. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1991.
McDaniel, David, “The All-Canadian all-star baseball team,” The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, June 15, 1981, p. 17.
Mauro, Neil, STATS Canadian Players Encyclopedia. Skokie, Illinois: STATS Publishing, 1996, p. 66.
Nemec, David, The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1996.
Shearon, Jim, Canadian Baseball Legends. Kanata, Ontario: Malin Head Press, 1994.