Wendell Smith

...in his own words
By Ben Cooper

Jackie Robinson was at the forefront of attempts by Major League baseball to integrate its rosters in the 1940s and 1950s.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Ben Cooper.

About Wendell Smith
HOMETOWN: Detroit, Michigan
EDUCATION: West Virginia State College
BORN: March 23, 1914
DIED: Nov. 26, 1972

And while that effort was eventually successful when, in 1959, the Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate, one sportswriter proved crucial in paving the way for Robinson and other black athletes. Wendell Smith famously arranged for baseball teams to hold tryouts for African-American players, which eventually led to the signing of Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Smith’s storied career and lasting impact, however, extend far past baseball.

Born on March 23, 1914, Wendell Smith grew up in Detroit and his childhood revolved around baseball. Wendell’s father, John, worked for Henry Ford. The Smiths were often invited to the Fords’ home, and it was there where Wendell learned to love the game of baseball as he played with Henry Ford’s children. [1] But the early 20th century was still rife with prejudice and inequality, so while Wendell was notably talented, there was no place for him on the baseball diamond. After pitching a shutout one day in an amateur league, an MLB scout signed Smith’s white catcher and the opposing white pitcher instead of Smith, an African-American. The scout said Smith’s race was the only reason he was unable to sign him.

"Wendell decided that day that if he was going to do anything in his life, he was going to make sure blacks played in the major leagues," Wyonella Smith, Wendell’s future wife and now-widow, said in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times. [2]

The next best thing for Smith was writing about the game he adored. But he also saw an opportunity for his writing to change baseball for the better. He went on to study at West Virginia State College before graduating in 1937 straight to an opening at The Pittsburgh Courier. He began earning $17 a week — a small reward for a man who would have a priceless impact. At the Courier, Smith may have made the greatest impact on sports equality that few have heard about. Jerome Holtzman, author of the book “No Cheering in the Press Box,” wrote in a 1997 piece in the Chicago Tribune about one of Smith’s first acts as an up-and-coming journalist.

According to Holtzman, Smith, as a young writer at the Courier, called Boston councilman Isadore Muchnick who was up for re-election, and “suggested that to increase his popularity in the community, Muchnick should help arrange a tryout with the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Braves for several black players.” [3]

One of those players was Jackie Robinson. The Red Sox and Braves both passed on Robinson, who Smith later said “wasn’t the best player” but was “the best player at that time for this situation.” [4] Little did Smith or Robinson know, the future had a lot in store for number 42. Smith stayed in touch with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who broke the color barrier by signing Robinson. While Smith, along with the late Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American was instrumental in integrating baseball, he was just as instrumental in calling out the general managers who made false promises or simply refused to integrate.

“There is one magnate who has failed to keep his word with respect to Negro players getting a tryout. He is William Benswanger of the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Smith wrote in a 1945 article in the Courier. “In failing to keep his word, he not only broke his trust with this newspaper, but also denied three able candidates an opportunity which was rightfully theirs.” [5]

In a 1947 Courier article, Smith wrote, "No player in history has tried harder to become a big leaguer...if Robinson fails to make the grade, it will be many years before a Negro makes the grade. This is IT!"

It’s rare to see that type of passion in today’s sports journalism, but Smith had a much larger goal in his writing than to simply disseminate the score of yesterday’s Red Sox game. His life’s duty was to leave a lasting impact on a game he was once barred from playing.

Nevertheless, Smith stuck by Robinson’s side and mentored him to fame and glory — and while doing so, he slipped further and further out of the public eye as his friend became the face of a new age in sports. But it was Smith who started it all — and who Robinson was eternally grateful to. Smith even “ghost-wrote” Robinson’s autobiography, My Own Story. And in a time where the internet was decades away, it wasn’t so easy for Smith to get the scores and statistics from Robinson’s games. As a result, Robinson frequently wrote to Smith to tell him how he was performing.

Before joining the major league ranks in 1947, Robinson was placed on the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Montreal in 1946. He once wrote to Smith, “This bunch of baseball players will make a lasting impression if we keep on as we are now. We have nothing but compliments on our behavior and I know that everyone is pleased that we have this bunch.” [6]

It was a letter that signified impending change — not only shattering the race barrier in baseball, but also in journalism. While Jackie Robinson was helping to integrate baseball, Smith was doing the same for those who covered sports.

In 1948, Smith left The Pittsburgh Courier to join the Chicago Herald-American. It was a big step for one simple reason: The Courier was one of the most nationally recognized African-American newspapers, with a circulation of nearly 200,000. [7] The Chicago Herald-American, however, had a circulation of 330,000 in 1919 (it can only be assumed that number was larger by 1948) and it was a white newspaper. [8] But again, Wendell Smith was far more focused on breaking the color barrier than admiring it. His new job at the Herald-American made him the first black columnist at a white newspaper.

Jackie Robinson had broken out onto the scene by 1949, when he had a National league-leading .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases. By the same time, Wendell Smith had been accepted into the Chicago Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, where he was once again the first black member. Surprisingly, around this time when both Robinson and Smith were enjoying success and activism through their careers, they drifted apart, reportedly because Smith was unhappy with Robinson’s support for the Republican party.

But even as the relationship became strained, Smith’s work was not done. In the Chicago American, the new name for the former Chicago Herald-American, Smith detailed the unacceptable nature of the still-segregated spring training camps in 1961, and he led a campaign to desegregate them. His effort was quickly successful — by the end of that year, all Florida spring training sites were desegregated.

"Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south,” Smith wrote in a 1961 column. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training." [9]

And while Smith later joined the Chicago Sun-Times, much of his impact resides in the years prior. As those who mean the most are often taken from the world far too soon, Jackie Robinson died in 1972 of a heart attack at age 53. It was Smith who wrote his obituary, but unfortunately with the death of his old friend also came the passing of the man who changed sports and sports writing forever. Wendell Smith died a month later from cancer at age 58.

But Smith’s legacy remains, even if his name isn’t recognizable to that of Jackie Robinson’s. In 2013, the movie 42 was released, depicting Smith as a pioneer in getting Robinson signed by Branch Rickey. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has dedicated a collection to Smith, where they’ve displayed many of his newspaper clippings and his letters to Robinson and Rickey.

Wyonella Smith accepted the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on Wendell’s behalf in 1994, and she, too, knew the lasting impact her husband had left on the game of baseball and sports as a whole.

“It has occurred to me that, 22 years after his death, [Wendell’s] peers remember his work and dedication to making the game of baseball a favorite past time for every American,” Wyonella Smith said after accepting the award.

Most recently, Wendell Smith was awarded the Red Smith Award by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2014 for his contributions to sports journalism. If Smith were alive today, he’d likely still be fighting for what’s right, using his platform to effect positive change.

"He was not a self-promoting type individual,” said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, in a 2014 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He was all about trying to integrate the game. That was his primary passion and mission in life." [10]

1. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/wendell-smith/345

2. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/14/sports/la-sp-0414-plaschke-20130414

3. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1997-03-31-9703310169-story.html

4. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1997-03-31-9703310169-story.html

5. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/10075230/wendell_smith_on_baseball/

6. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/digital-collection/1677

7. https://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/courier.html

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_American#/media/File:1919_Newspaper_Circulation_Chicago_EP_July_24_1919_p_31.png

9. https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/wendell-smith/451

10. https://www.post-gazette.com/sports/other-sports/2014/06/27/AP-sports-editors-pay-tribute-to-late-writer/stories/201406270123

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