|* Hall of Fame
Negro Leagues 1932-1948
Every year in early August the
Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY inducts new members into its exclusive club. This year the honor was bestowed upon
four men. Much of the induction coverage was centered around Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, & Bill Mazeroski. Puckett,
possibly the most beloved player of his era, had his brilliant career cut short by an eye condition in 1996. Winfield was
one of the best all around players of the past 30 years. Mazeroski was the sentimental favorite, delivering an emotional induction
speech. All of these were compeling stories, but the fourth & often forgotten man, Hilton Smith, might have the most interesting
Smith is a former Nego Leaguer, that 18 years after his death, finally received the recognition that he never
gained in life. Like many of his Negro League contemporaries, Smith's statistics are sketchy at best. Instead the legacy of
Hilton Smith has been passed on through the generations by legends & myths. The statistics that are available, however,
are mind boggling: According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Smith had an astounding streak of twelve 20+ win seasons with the
Kansas City Monarchs, including a 93-11 record from 1939-42. In 1941 he went 25-1 including a 10-0 league record during which
he allowed only 39 hits in 89 innings.
"Hilton Smith was unbeatable there for a spell, from '38 to '42," said fellow
Hall of Fame Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil in an interview for mlb.com . "He had more natural stuff, a good rising fastball &
an excellent curveball with good control."
"My land," continued O'Neil, " he would have been a 20-game winner in the
Major Leagues with the stuff he had. We played against an All-Star team once with Stan Musial & Johnny Mize, & they
said they'd never seen a curveball like Hilton's curveball."
Hilton Smith was born on Febraury 27, 1912 in Giddings,
TX. He began playing baseball for his father's local team as a teenager. Smith's pro career began in 1932 with the Monroe
(LA) Monarchs. Smith led the Monarchs to the pennant, but lost to the mighty Pittsburgh Crawfords that featured legends Satchell
Paige & Josh Gibson. After four years with Monroe & several short stints with small-time clubs, Smith landed in Kansas
City with the Monarchs with whom he would finish his Negro League career.
Smith made his name with Monarchs pitching
in the considerable shadow of Satchell Paige. Paige was the teams' biggest box office draw, often he would pitch the first
2 or 3 innings to draw in a crowd & then give way to Smith. By all accounts Smith was a very quiet & unassuming man,
& this role suited him just fine. On days he didn't pitch, Smith would play outfield to get his bat into the lineup. He
is credited with a .326 average from 1944-48, including a .431 mark in 1946.
The true measure of Hilton Smith's greatness
extends beyond the baseball diamond. At the time the Negro Leagues were littered with players that were unable to read or
write. When an illiterate player joined the Monarchs, Smith would teach them reading & writing skills on the team bus
between games. According to Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star, Smith was the person that recommended the signing of Jackie
Robinson to Monarchs owner JL Wilkinson.
"He (Hilton Smith) was one of the best men I've ever known," said Buck O'Neil.
Hilton Smith retired from the Negro Leagues in 1938 at the age of 35. He allegedly turned down several Major League
Clubs that wanted him to join one of their minor league affiliates. There was nothing minor league about Hilton Smith. Smith
died on November 18, 1983 in Kansas City, MO at the age of 71. He had spent the last days of his life sending letters to the
Hall of Fame to remind them that he & several of his Negro League contemporaries should not be forgotten.
in January of 2001 the call came - Hilton Smith has finally been given the title he had earned long ago - Hall of Famer.
Simply Baseball Notebook
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