There are numerous examples of young ballplayers with great potential whose careers may have been ruined due to mismanagement by team owners or other circumstances. In the 1950s, the opportunity for bonus babies to gain experience in the minor leagues was delayed because the rules required them to stay on major-league rosters. At other times, players were kept on major-league rosters for no other reason than to protect them from being acquired by other organizations.
One such player might have been Wib Smith. Despite clearly not being ready to play in the majors, he spent the entire 1909 season as the St. Louis Browns’ third-string catcher and got into only 17 games. He never got back to the big leagues. Could his career have turned out differently if he had played regularly in the minors rather than sitting on the bench? It didn’t seem that Smith thought much about it. He had a college education before he tried professional baseball, and once that ended, he raised a family and had a long and successful career in business.
Wilbur Floyd Smith was born on August 30, 1886, in Evart, a small town roughly in the center of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. His parents were the Reverend Wilbur F. Smith and Eliza (Poor) Smith. Little is known of his early childhood. At the time of the 1900 US Census, when Wilbur would have been about 14 years old, he was living with his mother, Eliza, but no father or siblings were included in the household. At some point during his teens he and his mother moved to Albion, in south-central Michigan near Battle Creek, because it was noted that he played on the high-school baseball team in that city.1
Smith attended Albion College for a time, but it is not known if he received a degree. Later census records indicate that he completed three years of college. His obituary2 and a later news item3 indicated that he also attended the Detroit College of Law, but no information could be found to verify this.
In 1905 Smith caught for independent teams in Tecumseh and Charlotte, Michigan, “in two state championship series.”4 That year New York Highlanders first baseman John Ganzel, a Michigan native, bought the Grand Rapids Orphans of the Class B Central League and in April of 1906 it was reported that Ganzel had signed Smith, who would be given a tryout at catcher.5 There is no record of Smith having played for Grand Rapids; instead he began his professional career with Tecumseh in the Class D Southern Michigan League that year, batting .234 in 24 games.
In 1907 Smith moved all the way up to Class A with the Pueblo (Colorado) Indians of the Western League. He hit .265 in 92 games and returned to Pueblo the following season, batting .258 in 101 games. While playing in Pueblo, Smith was spotted by Denver native Frank Selee, a former major-league manager, who was regarded as a great judge of talent. The little (5-feet-10, 165-pound) left-handed hitting receiver never hit much, but it was Smith’s defensive ability that impressed Selee. The ex-mananger called Smith the best catcher since Johnny Kling6 and added, “He is generally considered the most efficient catcher in the league. … His throwing to bases is also remarkable. Smith having a ‘snap’ that sends the ball to second base, not only with deadly precision, but with just enough speed so that it can be handled nicely by the infielder making the play at the bag.”7
Smith had begun attracting the attention of major-league teams, so he said he expected to be paid a big-league salary.8 The Pueblo club began trying to unload him while his value was high, and in August 1908 it was announced that an agreement had been reached with Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for the sale of Smith. At the last minute the Pueblo owner raised the asking price and the deal fell through. Then Selee recommended Smith to St. Louis Browns manager Jimmy McAleer, who persuaded owner Robert Hedges to purchase him, along with his teammate, player-manager Hamilton Patterson, for $5,000. Smith became the property of the Browns and would report to their spring-training camp the following spring.
However, that winter the Browns traded catcher Tubby Spencer to Boston for their backstop, Lou Criger. With backup catcher Jim Stephens already on the roster, it was now thought that Smith would have little chance to make the team and would be returned to Pueblo. However, Smith was kept only because Cincinnati manager Clark Griffith made it known that he would submit a bid for Smith if he were put on waivers by the Browns.9
Smith made his major-league debut on May 31, 1909, when he replaced Criger in the afternoon game of a doubleheader against Cleveland. He singled, but was charged with an error and a passed ball. He stayed with St. Louis the entire season but got into only 17 games, managing just 8 singles in 42 at bats for an average of .190; the sum total of his major-league career.
Despite his meager production, Smith was not satisfied with the Browns’ 1910 contract offer and refused to report to spring training. On March 26 he was released by St. Louis and signed with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, where he played the next five years. The team won three pennants and featured stars like Roy Patterson, Gavvy Cravath, and Rube Waddell. Smith was a steady if unspectacular backstop, but was still young and talented enough to have received, and declined, offers from the Washington Senators and the upstart Federal League.
During his time with the Millers, Smith met Minneapolis native Edna Morse and the couple married on January 31, 1914. They had four children: daughters Jane, Mary, and Ann, and a son, Richard. Another son, Wilbur Jr., died in infancy in 1919. In March 1915 Smith was released by Minneapolis to St. Joseph of the Western League. There is no record of his playing there, and in July there was a report that he had retired from baseball and had gone into the automobile business in Minneapolis. At the time Smith registered for the World War I draft in 1918, he was living Minneapolis and working as a salesman.
A few years later Smith was back in baseball as a player-manager. In 1922 he was hired to manage Jamestown (North Dakota) in the Class D Dakota League. One of his players was a 17-year-old infielder from San Francisco, Mark Koenig, who would go on to star with New York Yankees “Murderer’s Row” teams a few years later. The next year Smith managed Watertown in the South Dakota League. He apparently remained in the area for a time; he and his family are listed on the 1925 South Dakota state census.
By the time of the 1930 US Census, Wilbur and his family had returned to Minneapolis and he was employed by the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company as a sales manager. He worked in that capacity for 15 years before being transferred to Fargo, North Dakota, and becoming the company’s branch manager. He worked for Allis-Chalmers 10 more years before retiring in 1954. Smith remained active in the Fargo community during retirement, serving as head of the Chamber of Commerce recreation committee. He died of pneumonia on November 18, 1959, in Fargo at the age of 73 and was buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. He was survived by his wife and four children.
1 Marshall (Michigan) Expounder, January 5, 1906.
2 Fargo (North Dakota) Forum, November 19, 1959.
3 Grand Forks (North Dakota) Daily Herald, May 6, 1922.
4 Marshall (Michigan) Expounder, January 5, 1906.
5 Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, Maine), April 10, 1906.
6 Topeka (Kansas) State Journal, February 2, 1909.
7 Denver Post, July 16, 1908.
8 Smith had several contract disputes during his career and threatened to quit if his demands were not met. He was able to use his education, and the business opportunities that it provided outside of baseball, as leverage with club owners.
9 Albuquerque Morning Journal, March 7, 1909.