This article was written by John Holway
This article was published in 1978 Baseball Research Journal
Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Pop Lloyd, Pete Hill-the Negro leagues produced scores of fearsome hitters. But if a poll were taken among the pitchers themselves, the man who would win hands down would be little (5’6″) Charlie “Chino” Smith. They just couldn’t get him out.
Baltimore fastballer Laymon Yokely faced Jimmy Foxx, Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson. “But the greatest hitter I’ve faced wasn’t any of them,” he declared. “It was Chino Smith. It seemed like everything I throwed him, he could hit. He wasn’t afraid of any pitcher.”
Bill Holland was one of the finest pitchers of the 1920’s and Smitty’s teammate on the great New York Lincoln Giants of 1930. “Charleston was a good hitter, but Smith was better because he could hit all kinds of pitching,” Holland says. “He had good timing, good eyes. If you pitched outside to Smitty, he hit a line drive over third base. If you pitched inside, he’d hit it over the fence.”
Old-timers say Chino (he had “Chinese-looking eyes”) reminded them of Lloyd Waner at bat, or maybe the present-day Rod Carew. He hit wicked line drives which often left the park like darts.
Even in an era famous for colorful, pugnacious ball players-both black and white-Chino had a reputation as a fighter. “This guy could do more with the fans down on him,” Holland says. “He’d get up to bat and the pitcher would throw one in there and he’d spit at it. The fans would boo him, and he’d come out of the batter’s box, turn around and make like he was going to move toward them, and they’d shout, `Come on!’ He’d get back in there and hit the ball out of the ballpark and go around the bases waving his arms at the stands.”
Appropriately, Smitty hit in Babe Ruth’s Number 3 spot and patrolled Babe’s spot in right field in Yankee Stadium when the Yankees were away. He was out there on July 5, 1930 in the first game ever played between black teams at the Stadium. (Holland was on the mound.) Eighteen thousand fans showed up for the historic double-header between the Lincoln Giants and the defending champion Baltimore Black Sox.
In the first inning Smith walked. In the third with one man on, he whacked a long fly into Ruth’s favorite target, the right field stands. In the fifth, with a man on second, he lined a triple into the left field corner. By the seventh Baltimore didn’t know where in the world to pitch him. They tried one down the middle and Smitty lashed it into the right-centerfield bleachers for three more runs. It was a day worthy of Ruth himself.
Smitty hit an amazing .488 that year, according to figures issued by the Lincolns. The data covered all home games, possibly including semi-pro contests as well as games against the best black clubs (there was no league that year.) It was the finest-and the last-season of Smitty’s young life. He would be dead within a year, still less than 30 years old.
Chino Smith had flashed through Negro baseball like a meteor. For five out of six years, starting with 1925, he compiled a lifetime average of no less than .431.
Did Smitty fatten on easy pitching in the Negro leagues? Hardly. In 13 games against white big-league pitchers-Dolf Luque, Ed Rommel, et. al.-he drilled 22 hits in 48 at bats for an average of .458!
Johnny Allen, who also had a reputation for temper, pitched in the Cuban winter league before he went up to the New York Yankees. Holland remembers Chino walking up behind Allen, who was warming up, and sneering, “Is that all you gonna throw today?” Allen pretended to ignore him. “If that’s all you gonna throw, I’m gonna kill you today.”
Says Holland: “Sure enough, when Smitty came up, I guess Allen was a little sore at him and threw one at his head, and Smitty had to hit the dirt. Smitty got back up and on the next pitch hit a line drive close to Allen’s head. Mien had to duck. Smitty yelled from first base, `I made you duck out there,’ just like that. Allen stormed over there and they tangled up. The umpire and everybody tried to get them apart. Smitty would hit anybody.”
Big Jesse “Mountain” Hubbard played with Smitty for four years with the Brooklyn Royal Giants. “What I like about Chino, he was a .400 hitter every year,” Hubbard says. “1 don’t care who he was playing against, he’d go out get 2-3 hits. And he didn’t believe anybody could strike him out. No. And you couldn’t strike him out. He was a left-handed hitter, and left-handers looked just like right-handers to him. He’d take two strikes and hit the ball a mile. Spit at two, say, `Now you duck,’ hit a line drive right through the box. And shoot, man, don’t throw one close to his head. Because the next one’s going to be right at your head: `Now duck!’ That’s the truth! I’m not lying. He could hit those line drives back through the box just like you were throwing a ball over to first. He could shoot a bullet back through there.
Chino Smith was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, possibly about 1903. He played for Benedict college, which was probably a boarding school for blacks rather than a university level institution. Like many other black students, he earned money in the summer carrying bags in New York’s Pennsylvania Station and playing baseball for the Pennsylvania Redcaps there. He was a second baseman then and teamed with Dick Seay, who would go on to become a star at shortstop in the Negro leagues.
In 1924 Smith moved to the Philadelphia Giants and from there, in 1925, to the black big time, with the Brooklyn Royal Giants of the Eastern Colored league. Playing third, he hit .341 his rookie year and .326 the next. He wasn’t a long-ball hitter yet, but, sighs submarine pitcher Webster McDonald, “those doubles and singles would run you crazy.”
Another Royals rookie, outfielder Ted Page, still insists that Chino was the greatest hitter the Negro leagues produced., “He looked something like a Chinaman,” Page says, “light brown, with a little bit of a slant across his eyes. He and Pop Lloyd were two hitters of the same type, but I would think Chino had better power than Lloyd. His line drives would go farther. Golly, he hit line drives out of the ballpark.”
Jesse Hubbard recalls one game in Allentown, Pennsylvania, against a semi-pro team which boasted former Cub pitcher Claude Hendrix, who threw a mean emery ball. “Every colored team that went down there, you know what he’d do? He’d strike out 18-20 of them.” Hubbard, who could cut the ball himself when the occasion demanded, volunteered to pitch against him. “Hendrix would go out there and strike out three, and I’d go out there and strike out three. In the seventh inning, Chino Smith told me, `I’m going to hit a home run off this man.” I said, `If you hit a home run, Chino, by the time you get back here, here’s a $10 bill.’ I swear to God, Chino walked up to bat, and the first ball Hendrix threw him, Chino walked up on it and hit it a mile over the right field fence. When he came in I handed him his ten.”
Speedster Cool Papa Bell shakes his head in awe, “He’d go out there, say, `I guess I’ll get me three hits,’ and go out there and hit that ball, I don’t care who pitched. He could do everything.”
In the autumn of 1926 Chino got his first look at a white big-league pitcher, Roy Sherid, a 12-game winner for the Yankees. Unimpressed, Smith clipped Sherid for a single and home run.
In Cuba that winter Chino hit .348 although Dolf Luque, the Cincinnati Reds’ star hurler, put a collar on him, holding him to six hits in 21 at bats. But the following winter Chino got a measure of revenge, clipping Luque for three hits in eight tries. “Smitty used to make Luque so mad,” Bill Holland chuckles. Luque would uncork his best pitch “and Smitty would spit at it, tell him he didn’t have nothing: `Hit me right here, you couldn’t hurt me.’ Luque would get two strikes on Smitty and throw one in there, and Smitty was liable to hit a line drive through the pitcher’s box. Luque’d have to duck and Smitty would laugh at him. He’d get so mad at Smitty.”
Meanwhile, Chino was whacking Negro league pitching mercilessly. He hit a lusty .439 in 1927, second best in the league.
No records were published in 1928, which is a pity. Chino was apparently just hitting his stride. The next one we do have is 1929, his first year with the Royals’ cross-town rivals, the Lincoln Giants, and it’s a dandy: .464 to lead the league. He came to bat 237 times-less than half the at bats for an average white big-league season, but he smacked 23 home runs. This represented a full Negro league schedule; the rest of the season was taken up with semi-pro contests. His 214 total bases gave him the astronomical slugging average of .903! He even stole 16 bases.
Chino was still hot in October when he faced the white big leaguers again in Baltimore for a doubleheader. He jumped on St. Louis Browns pitcher Johnny Ogden for a perfect 4 for 4, including a home run, as his club won 8-5. In the second game, against the Philadelphia A’s Ed Rommel, Smitty lined out a single and a ground-rule double into the right field bleachers in four times up as the blacks won again 5-3.
Smitty wasn’t only a hitter; he played a strong right field as well, Hubbard points out. The little left-hander trapped many a man off first by alertly throwing behind the runner making his turn at first.
Smith was a scrapper. But Page defends him against charges that he was temperamental. “He wasn’t the type like Jud Wilson or Oscar Charleston”-two of black baseball’s most famous brawlers-“although he’d fight back if he was riled; he wasn’t a pansy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Chino’s finest year of all was probably 1930, No league figures were published-the Depression had wiped out the leagues altogether,- but according to a box score check against all kinds of opponents in 48 home games, he hit .488. The clubs had to resort to passing the hat at games and splitting the take among the players.
That year the Lincolns challenged the Homestead Grays, with Charleston, Josh Gibson, Smoky Joe Williams and a host of other stars, to a championship series after the regular season. In the tenth and final game, won by the Grays, Smitty charged in from right field after a pop fly and smashed into second baseman Rev Cannady going back. Cannady’s knee caught Chino in the stomach, and Smith had to be carried from the field.
Chino never played another inning in the States. He did go to Cuba that winter, but he wasn’t his old self at bat. Claude Jonnard, a former National League journeyman, held him hitless in ten trips. It was the end of the line for Chino.
Holland thinks Smith picked up yellow fever. The injury the previous fall might have been a contributing factor. At any rate, when the 1931 season opened, Chino Smith, the greatest hitter in the Negro leagues, was dead. He left a drawer full of medicines in his desk.
Smith was still a young man. He hadn’t reached 30 yet. His career had been meteoric, from 1925 to 1930, too short to qualify for the Hall of Fame, even under the new rules admitting the old-time blacks. “But he played for six years,” Hubbard shrugs. “If you can’t judge a ball player in six years, you’re not much of a judge.”