Story of Chino Smith
By DEAN LOLLIS
GREENWOOD, S.C. -- He is considered to be one of the greatest hitters ever in baseball. He was listed in Sports Illustrated's Top 50 Athletes from South Carolina. Yet, the legacy of Chino Smith remains a mystery to many -- even those in his hometown.
Smith was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, in 1903. By the time he died in 1931, Smith was considered to be among the greatest players to ever take the field in the Negro Leagues.
In just six seasons, Smith is credited with a career batting average of no less than .428. He was also the first Negro League player to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium.
Getting his start
Smith's baseball career probably started when he played for Benedict College. In the summer, he found a job carrying bags at New York's Pennsylvania Station. After work, he would join other black youth with baseball dreams as a member of the Pennsylvania Redcaps. The Redcaps appear to have been the equivalent of a semi-pro team.
In 1924, Smith joined the Pennsylvania Redcaps, another semi-pro team. A year later, he became a player for the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a member of the the Eastern Colored League. Smith debuted at second base and hit a robust .341 in his first season.
In the next few years of his career, his style of play would draw comparisons to Lloyd Waner, a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a future member of the Hall of Fame. Smith's style of play was also compared to a later player, Rod Carew.
Skill and swagger
Smith, just 5-foot-6, quickly earned a reputation as a hitter -- and a fighter. In a publication from the Society of American Baseball Research, Bill Holland, a top Negro Leagues pitcher in the 1920s, recalls Smith as one who openly sought disapproval from the crowd.
"This guy could do more with the fans down on him," Holland said. "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 hem, and they'd shout, 'Come On!' He'd get back in there and hit the ball out of the ball park and go around the bases waving his arms at the stands."
He played with the Royal Giants from 1925-1928. In 1927, he finished second in the league with a .439 batting average. According to reports, Smith rarely struck out.
In 1929,. he joined the Lincoln Giants and promptly established himself as one of the league's top players. His .464 average led the league. He added 23 home runs in 237 at-bats -- also enough to lead the league. His most astounding feat, however, was a slugging percentage of .930.
'He could do everything'
Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell is quoted in the SABR publication as saying Smith would "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."
One of Smith's biggest accomplishments came on July 5, 1930. The Lincoln Giants faced the Brooklyn Black Sox in the first game between Negro League teams at Yankee Stadium. Smith responded by becoming the first Negro Leaguer to hit a home run in the "House that Ruth Built." He added a triple and another home run in that game, driving in six runs.
Smith had the honor of playing in the same spot that Babe Ruth played during New York home games. He also bat in the same spot in the order -- third -- as the Great Bambino. The Giants continued to use Yankee Stadium when the New York Yankees were on road trips.
Offense was the only thing that got Smith noticed. He earned a reputation as a fielder. According to stories, Smith had a knack for quickly throw the ball to first and catching unsuspecting baserunners off guard.
"Chino Smith was out there, and he could field a ball, and if you made a wide turn at first base, he could throw you out trying to hustle back," recalled Giants teammate Bill Yancey.
Following the 1930 season, the Lincoln Giants challenged the Homestead Grays to a championship series. In the 10th and final game of that series, Smith collided with a teammate while chasing down a pop fly. Smith was hit with a knee in the stomach and had to be removed from the field.
A career cut short
It was the last time he would ever play in the United States. He took just a few at-bats that winter in Cuba. Some feel the injury led to Smith coming down with yellow fever. By the time the 1931 season started, Smith had fallen victim to the disease.
Smith's accomplishments in his short career weren't confined to Negro League competition. In games against Major League teams, Smith collected 22 hits in 48 at-bats for a .458 average. In 1926, Smith faced Major League pitching for the first time and hit a single and a home run off New York's Roy Sherid.
Smith only played six seasons in the Negro Leagues, but many consider him to have been one of its greatest stars. In "Only the Ball was White" by Robert Pearson, legendary pitcher Satchell Paige labels Smith as one of the two greatest hitters ever in the Negro Leagues.
Dean Lollis is the creator of
historicbaseball.com, a Web site
on baseball history and baseball players from South Carolina.
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