This article was written by Alan Cohen
According to some references, including the Pittsburgh Courier of April 10, 1948, Willie Smith was born on April 15, 1915, in Boswell, Alabama.1 Or was he? He first appeared in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles in 1938. Or did he? The answers to the two questions are “maybe not” and “probably not,” as Homestead’s Willie Smith was a pitcher and the man who played for Newark in 1938 was an infielder, although one database shows him having pitched to two batters in one game in 1938.
According to the Courier, Smith batted and threw right-handed, was 6-feet-2-inches tall, and tipped the scales at 173 pounds. However, in their pages he was referred to as a young rookie. At age 33, he would have hardly been considered young.
This much is known. Pitcher Willie Smith was acquired by the Homestead Grays prior to the 1948 season, having spent the previous season with the L&N All-Stars in Birmingham, Alabama. The team was a Birmingham Industrial League team sponsored by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Perhaps the most renowned of the Industrial League teams in segregated Birmingham were those sponsored by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). The TCI team had a center fielder named Cat Mays playing alongside his 16-year-old son Willie, who would play the following season with the Birmingham Black Barons.2 Spring training had already begun when Smith was signed on March 29, 1948. He joined the Homestead Grays while they were on the road in North Carolina.3 Being on the road was normal in the Negro Leagues, especially with the Homestead Grays, who played “home” games in Pittsburgh, Washington, and any number of venues in between.
The 1948 season was not Willie Smith’s first foray into Negro League baseball. In 1946 he had appeared with the Independent Cincinnati Crescents alongside future Homestead Grays teammate Luke Easter. The 1946 Crescents were managed by Winfield S. Welch and played their home games at Crosley Field. Smith was, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, one of several Smiths on the team, and was said to have been acquired from the Kansas City Monarchs. However, there is no record of his having pitched for the Monarchs.
Records for 1946 are incomplete, but Willie Smith won the second game of a doubleheader against the Clowns on July 7.4 He pitched the entire six innings of the abbreviated game, surrendering six hits as his team won 6-3.5 He also pitched in a game at Brooklyn’s Dexter Park on July 29, 1946, when Cincinnati took on the New York Black Yankees. He pitched the entire game and came out on the short end of a 4-3 decision, striking out six, walking six, and giving up six hits. The decisive blow was a two-run homer by the Black Yankees’ Felix McLaurin.6 On August 18 Smith shut out the Chicago American Giants in the second game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field.7 And, of course, in those days the next opponent was a bus ride away. On August 23 the bus stopped at Benton Harbor, Michigan, and the Cincinnati team took on the local American Legion outfit. Smith did the pitching and helped himself with a grand slam in the fourth inning. The homer put the Crescents in the lead, and they went on to win 7-5 as Smith allowed nine hits and struck out four batters.8
In 1947, at the beginning of the season, Smith was with the Independent Detroit Wolves, a team about which little is known. He was with the team when it trained in Houston. Or was he? A Willie Smith was with the team, but that Willie Smith hailed from Jackson, Michigan.9 It appears that the Wolves were headed for the Negro American League but when they had difficulty securing playing dates at Briggs Stadium, they were dropped from the league. The Wolves were managed by William “Dizzy” Dismukes, a pitching star from the Negro Leagues’ early days. It is uncertain how long Smith played for Detroit before he signed on with the L&N squad.
Smith’s trail gets a bit cold at this stage of his career, and the next meaningful documentation of his travels has him joining Vic Harris’s Homestead Grays in 1948, a team that featured the likes of Luke Easter and Buck Leonard. Prior to the 1948 season, Smith appeared in two exhibition games against Negro National League opponents, defeating the New York Black Yankees and Baltimore Elite Giants.10
Smith first took the field in an exhibition game on April 4 in Daytona Beach, Florida. The opponents that day were the Florida Black Cats, and he came into the game in the fourth inning. He pitched six innings, surrendering four hits, as the Grays won 8-4.11 The Grays broke camp in Daytona Beach on April 9, played exhibitions against the New York Cubans in New Orleans on April 13 and 14, and then headed north.
In the game against the Elite Giants on April 18, as 5,500 fans looked on, Smith pitched the first eight innings at Baltimore’s Bugle Field. He scattered nine hits and allowed three runs as he earned the victory in a 5-4 Grays triumph. Two of the Baltimore runs scored on a home run by opposing pitcher Bob Romby, and the other scored on successive doubles by Henry Kimbro and Lester Lockett. Smith left for pinch-hitter Bob Boston in the top of the ninth inning, and Frank Thompson pitched the final stanza for the Grays.12
The Grays wrapped up a successful preseason campaign (18-3) on April 30 with a victory over the New Castle (Pennsylvania) Chiefs of the Class-C Mid-Atlantic League. In the 8-0 contest, Smith pitched a complete-game shutout, allowing only five hits, and contributed to the offense with a double in the third inning when the Grays extended their lead to 5-0.13
Although there was a “regular season” that included games against Negro National League opponents, the Grays were often involved in exhibition games. Smith appeared in one such contest against the Bushwicks in Brooklyn. The semipro Bushwicks often played Negro League teams and on June 25 at Dexter Park in Queens, New York, they staged a late rally in which they scored seven runs in the ninth inning while victimizing, among others, Willie Smith. However, the Grays had built up a substantial lead and held on to win the game, 10-8.14
Smith got into a handful of league games during the regular season, pitching mostly in relief. On June 20 he entered the second game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Stars with two outs in the fourth inning after R.T. Walker had allowed a single and a double and walked three consecutive batters to blow a 2-0 lead. Smith pitched 2⅓ innings before being removed for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. The Grays ended up losing the game, 4-2.15 On June 27 at Griffith Stadium, Smith entered the game in the ninth inning with the Grays trailing 7-2. In a scoreless ninth inning, he registered two outs but allowed a pair of hits. He left the game in favor of Charlie Bell, who retired the final batter.16
Smith also appeared in games on consecutive days in July. On July 4, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Newark Eagles in Washington, he pitched the final innings in a 13-4 loss. On July 5 the Grays faced the Baltimore Elite Giants in a doubleheader at Baltimore. The Grays suffered a rare defeat in the second game of the doubleheader, losing 18-6; Smith was one of three Grays pitchers in that game.17
Overall, however, Smith saw little action in league games and was more often used in exhibition games. He was handed the ball in an exhibition against the Dormont team from the semipro Greater Pittsburgh League on July 15. He pitched the entire game but came up on the short end as Dormont defeated the Grays 5-4 by scoring two runs in the final inning.18
The Homestead Grays and the Negro National League would vanish after the 1948 season. Some of their players joined the ranks of Organized Baseball, where a few advanced to the majors. Others continued to play Negro League baseball. As for Willie Smith, little is known about his life either before or after his years in the sun with the 1946 Cincinnati Crescents and 1948 Homestead Grays.
This biography appears in “Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series” (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.
1 “Pittsburgh Opener Set for April 29, Outfield Has Power,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 10, 1948: 15.
2 James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend (New York, Scribner, 2010), 34.
3 “Grays Beat N.C. Stars 6-1; Two New Pitchers Added to Staff,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 30, 1948: 14.
4 “Negro Foes Pack Plenty of Talent,” Daily (Springfield) Illinois State Journal, July 10, 1946: 10.
5 “Clowns Split With Crescents,” Chicago Defender, July 13, 1946: 10.
6 “Black Yanks Trip Cincinnati Nine at Dexter Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 30, 1946: 11.
7 “Crescents Divide with Chicago Club,” Cincinnati Enquirer, August 19, 1946: 14.
8 “Lafayette Here Sunday Night; Legion Bows to Cincy; Crescents 7-5 Win Fashioned on Three Homers,” News Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), August 24, 1946: 6.
9 “Detroit Wolves Texas Bound,” Chicago Defender, March 22, 1947: 11.
10 “Chiefs Sign Two More Players, Prep for Grays Game Friday,” New Castle (Pennsylvania) News, April 28, 1948: 16.
11 “Grays Win Fifth Game in a Row, 8 to 4,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 1948: 15.
12 “Elites Play Grays in Washington Sunday,” Baltimore Afro-American, April 24, 1948: 28.
13 “Grays Blank Chiefs Under Arcs, 8-0: Smith’s Hurling Silences Locals, Six Errors Hurt,” New Castle (Pennsylvania) News, May 1, 1948: 14.
14 “Bushwick Nine Bows to Grays in Night Clash,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 26, 1948: 7.
15 “Grays Lose to Elites, 6-5; Play Cubans,” Baltimore Afro-American, June 26, 1948: 13.
16 “Elites Make Bid for First Half Title,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 3, 1948: 13.
17 “Grays Blank Newark After 13-4 Defeat,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 5, 1948: 25; “Easter Clouts Three as Grays, Elites Split,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 6, 1948: 16.
18 “Dormont Beats Grays,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1948: 18.
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