This article was written by Chris Rainey
As a 19-year-old debuting with the Cleveland Spiders, Will Smalley had all the makings for a long career. He was described as “quick as lightening,”1 with a quick bat and strong throwing arm. More importantly “he was a gentlemanly young fellow and had many endearing traits of character.”2 Sadly he succumbed to stomach cancer only a few months past his twentieth birthday.
David S. Smalley and Jane Dunlap were wed in 1861 in Seneca, New York. They traveled west and settled on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. David ran a livery stable and started an orchard in what is now Hayward, California. The couple would welcome five children over the next decade. The youngest, born June 27, 1871, was William Darwin Smalley. The 1880 census notes that Smalley did attend school, but how many grades he went through is unknown. The Bay area newspapers referred to him as “Farmer Bill” so it is likely that he was working in the orchards by age 14 or 16. The Bay area was a hotbed for baseball, and Smalley showed an early talent for the game. At age 16 he was a member of the Hardies from San Leandro. Smalley batted and threw right handed. Sources do not list his height and weight, but in an 1890 team lithograph in the Sporting Life he appears to be 5’10” and around 160 pounds.3
In 1888 Smalley joined the Tribunes from Oakland, a member of the six team California State League. In June Colonel Tom Robinson of the Greenhood and Morans team in the California League added him to their roster. The California League was the premier league in the state with franchises in Oakland, Stockton, and San Francisco. G&M represented Oakland in the four team league. In the fall Smalley switched to the Haverlys, a San Francisco entry in the league. The league was scheduled for games every three days enabling a team to use just one pitcher. Consequently the caliber of pitching was formidable and was reflected in the batting averages. The leading G&M hitter was Lou (Lew) Hardie with a .262 mark. Smalley saw action in 45 games and hit .169. On defense he had an .820 fielding percentage at third base.4
The California League doubled their schedule in 1889 forcing teams to add more pitching. Smalley returned to Robinson’s team, now simply called Oakland, but on June 19, he broke his ankle and was out of action until August. For the season he played 76 games at third. When games got out of hand and called for a mop-up pitcher, he was called upon to help out. In one instance he entered the game in the second inning and kept the game close for an inning or two before being relieved. Oakland rallied to score 22 runs and win the game. Offensive output increased dramatically throughout baseball in 1888-89. Batting averages increased over 20 points in the two major leagues. The jump in the California League far exceeded that. Hardie led the team with a .365 average, and Smalley hit .276.5 But chemistry among players on the Oakland roster was volatile. Captain Norris O’Neill had a nasty temper and surly manner with friend and foe. A number of the players were anxious to move on—Smalley among them. He determined to head east, the only questions being to which team and how much money. His timing could not have been better: the birth of the Players League both created openings and increased salaries.
Baseball was a year-round sport in California. After season’s end in late November or early December, the barnstormers would descend on the Bay Area. In the winters of 1888 and 1889 Smalley saw action against New York, Boston, Anson’s Colts, and an all-star team headed to Australia. Cap Anson was impressed with his play and tried unsuccessfully to recruit him. Fellow Bay Area native Jim Fogarty tried to get him to sign with Philadelphia in the Players League, also without success. In January, 1890 Smalley accepted a contract from the National League Cleveland Spiders.
Smalley, one of two 19 year old rookies, reported to spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in late February. future Hall of Famer George Davis won a spot in the outfield. Rookies including Jack Wadsworth, Ezra Lincoln, and later in the season, Cy Young, handled the bulk of the pitching. The Spiders broke camp in late March and played a series of exhibitions in Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, Des Moines, and Quincy, Illinois. Smalley had won the third base spot and batted sixth when the tour began. When the season opened on April 19 in Pittsburgh, he hit second in the lineup and went 0-for-4 but fielded well. When Sporting Life posted the first set of statistics after games of May 21, Smalley was batting .225, tied for the team lead in runs scored, and fielding at an .878 percentage. The team was 8-10 at that juncture. Over the ensuing months he dropped slowly in the batting order until he was hitting eighth. The team floundered and ended the year in seventh place with a 44-88 mark. Reporters gave him credit for his strong arm and his ability to handle pop-ups, but they also underscored his difficulty with hot smashes that rocked him back on his heels. Smalley batted .213 with little power, but 60 walks (second to Ed McKean on the team) boosted his on-base percentage to .303. In the field he handled many more chances than any other third baseman, leading the league in assists, putouts, and errors. He ended the season with an .895 fielding percentage.
Smalley returned to California and contemplated his status for 1891. The demise of the Players League meant the return of fan favorite Patsy Tebeau to the Spiders. In the meantime, Smalley played with an all-star team named the All Californias, where Smalley garnered a small slice of fame On December 20, the team played a charity match attended by King Kalakaua of Hawaii. Research by SABR member Dennis Snelling suggests this was the first time a foreign monarch had watched baseball in the United States. Smalley got two hits and fielded well in the game, but his level of play, according to an observer, “has retrograded rather than improved.”6 Offers were slow to come in, and Smalley contemplated staying in California for the coming season. Eventually he signed with the Washington Statesman in the American Association. He won the third base job, but when Fred Dunlap was injured he switched to second base for a few games. His defensive play was shakier than it had been with Cleveland and at bat he seemed weak and nervous. In 11 games he batted .158 and fielded .771. The team released Smalley and pitcher George Keefe on April 30. Though Smalley immediately signed with the Syracuse Stars in the Eastern Association, he last barely over two weeks. He hit .225 and fielded poorly in 11 games before being replaced on May 18 by Edward Doyle.
In July he was reported gravely ill and bedridden in Syracuse. He had contracted cancer of the stomach. As his condition worsened, his uncle, William, from Bay City, Michigan traveled east to bring him to that town for care. The change of scenery did nothing to slow the disease. Smalley’s father left California in October to bring him back to the coast, and the pair arrived the day before death claimed Smalley on October 11, 1891 in Bay City. His father transported the body back to the Oakland area. After funeral services on October 20 in Haywards, Smalley was buried in San Lorenzo Pioneer Memorial Park, in San Lorenzo, California.
Bay City Times (Bay City, Michigan)
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Los Angeles Times
The Sporting News
Thank you to SABR members Dennis Snelling and Angus MacFarlane for their insights on the California baseball scene.
1 Sporting Life, April 18, 1891: 7
2 Oakland Tribune, October 14, 1891: 8
3 Sporting Life, June 7, 1890:1 He is pictured between Tom Dowse and Charlie Parsons who list at 5”11’ and 5’10” and weigh 175 and 160. He is as tall or taller than Parsons and just a bit shorter than Dowse.
4 Ibid., December 19, 1888: 6
5 Ibid., December 25, 1889: 6
6 San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 1890: 3