Smith, Hilton 1912–1983
Hilton Smith 1912–1983
Negro League baseball player
For many years, Hilton Smith’s name appeared mostly in footnotes to the history of baseball and of African Americans in the world of sports. During the later career of fabled pitcher Satchel Paige, Smith often served as a relief pitcher after Paige had pitched a few innings of the game. Smith was responsible for the entrance into professional baseball of Jackie Robinson, who would go on to break major league baseball’s color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. An examination of the record will show, however, that Smith’s own contributions to the game as a star pitcher with the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs were as important as the roles he played in the careers of his more famous contemporaries. Smith’s historical neglect was partially remedied when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
Hilton Smith was born in the central Texas town of Giddings on February 27, 1912. Smith’s father, John, was a teacher who taught his son the value of education. For two years he attended college, at Prairie View A&M in the black branch of the Texas state university system. During his years with the Monarchs, when illiterate players joined the team Smith would teach them to read. Smith’s father was also a baseball player of local repute, and after several years of perfecting his curve ball by throwing pitches at a spot on a wall, his son became formally involved with the game by playing on his father’s team in their home town. Smith went on to pitch at Prairie View A&M.
Though the players were exploited by unscrupulous white team owners and endured brutal conditions, especially in the segregated South, organized all-black baseball grew rapidly between World War I and World War II as fans of all races were drawn by the high quality of play. Records of Smith’s early career are sparse, but it seems likely that his college education was terminated by an opportunity to make ready money playing baseball professionally. He pitched for the nearby Austin Senators in 1931, and then moved on to the Monroe (Louisiana) Monarchs the following year. In 1934 he married Louise Humphrey.
Smith also played with other semiprofessional teams, and compiled a perfect 5-0 record during appearances over two successive seasons in a national tournament of pro teams. He toured with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1936 and
Born February 27, 1912, in Giddings, TX; died November 18, 1983, in Kansas City, MO; son of names John and Mattie Smith; married Louise Humphrey, 1934; children: Hilton and DeMorris. Education: Prairie View A&M College, attended.
Career: Professional baseball player in pre-integration Negro Leagues. Played for Austin Senators, 1931; Monroe (LA) Monarchs, 1932-35; toured with Kansas City Monarchs, 1936; signed to Monarchs, 1937-48; teacher, steel mill foreman, Kansas City; Chicago Cubs, scout.
Awards: Named to Negro Leagues East-West all-star game roster six times; named All-Star starting pitcher twice.
joined the team full-time in 1937. In what may have been his first appearance that year, he pitched a no-hit perfect game, allowing only two balls hit out of the infield. Although statistics were kept only intermittently for the Negro Leagues, it seems clear that Smith’s perfect game marked the beginning of an auspicious career indeed.
Smith won at least twenty games every year during his time with the Monarchs, which lasted until 1948; that total sometimes included non-league games. Between 1939 and 1942—a stretch in which the Monarchs notched four consecutive first-place league finishes and won the Negro League World Series in 1942—he is said to have lost only 11 games and in 1941 he lost only one. He played on seven Monarch league-championship teams in all. The most festive event of the Negro Leagues’ season was the annual East-West All-Star Game. Smith appeared in that contest six times and was twice named the starting pitcher—as rare a feat in his day as it would be today.
Smith’s statistics are all the more impressive in view of the fact that for much of his career he played in the shadow of fellow Monarchs pitcher Satchel Paige. Paige was an American celebrity, beloved not only for his skills on the mound but also for his facility with aphorisms. A starting appearance by Paige was guaranteed to draw fans to the Monarchs’ gate, so to maximize the number of his appearances while preserving the strength of his pitching arm he would often pitch only the first several innings of a game. Often it was left to Smith to come in as a “long reliever” and finish the game.
According to Negro Leagues Baseball Museum executive Bob Kendrick, quoted in the Kansas City Star, “the old-timers would all say that if you were going to hit anything, you better hit it off Satchel. Because you weren’t going to touch Hilton Smith.” Part of the reason for Smith’s less significant place in the history books lies in his personality, which was as quiet and self-effacing as Paige’s was flamboyant and public. During Smith’s post-baseball life in Kansas City, friends and co-workers often expressed surprise upon learning of his stellar baseball career—Smith rarely mentioned it himself.
It is interesting to speculate as to how the stars of black baseball would have fared if matched against white teams of the day, and Smith’s case offers tantalizing bits of evidence. White pitcher Bob Feller’s estimate that Smith was the best pitcher in the world in 1942 was supported by appearances he made in interracial exhibition games. Smith shut out a white all-star team that included Feller in 1937, and even in the later part of his career notched wins over white teams. At a 1947 off-season game in Caracas, Venezuela, he shut out the fabled New York Yankees for five innings, allowing only Yankees star Joe DiMaggio to reach base.
Smith has been credited with advising Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson to sign the young Jackie Robinson to the team in 1945. By that time, Smith’s own career had begun to slow down, partly as the result of an injury suffered in 1943. A formidable hitter who sometimes occupied the crucial fourth, or “cleanup,” position in the batting rotation, Smith played for several more years. At the end of his career, like Robinson, he was offered the chance to join the minor-league organization of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team that would finally make history by elevating Robinson to its major-league roster. But Smith, who would have lost money by replacing his Monarch veteran’s salary with a white minor-leaguer’s, declined the offer.
In 1948 Smith retired and faded into obscurity, working as a teacher and as a foreman at a steel mill. He coached neighborhood children in baseball’s finer points but otherwise little else hinted at his illustrious past. Toward the end of his life, however, as the glories of the Negro Leagues began to be rediscovered, Smith worked as a scout for the Chicago Cubs and was sometimes sought out by journalists for his recollections. Just before his death he mounted a brief campaign on his own behalf for inclusion in baseball’s Hall of Fame. On November 18, 1983, he died, still largely unrecognized. For Smith, recognition came posthumously when, in 2001, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the height of Smith’s career, teammate Buck O’Neil told the Kansas City Star, “there was nobody better in this whole wide world.”
Holway, John B., Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Porter, David L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Kansas City Star, March 7, 2001, p. Al.
Additional material was obtained online at: http://baseballhalloffame.org http://www.historicbaseball.com http://www.kclibrary.org/sc/bio/smithh.htm and http://pubweb.northwestern.edu/~dmarasco/hilton.html.
—James M. Manheim
"Smith, Hilton 1912–1983." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-hilton-1912-1983
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