“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1966-1973
#4   REGGIE SMITH   2B

Reggie Smith was a rookie in 1967 when the Boston Red Sox came back from a ninth-place finish to craft an extraordinary pennant-winning season. The All-Star caliber major league career he completed in 1982 was a great success that has been muddied by other people's expectations (too high) and Smith's media profile (too low).  Smith batted with power and average from both sides of the plate, was a fine center fielder, had superior base-running speed, and had a legendary throwing arm that may have been the best of his era. In the argot of the game, he was a "five-tool player." He took a scientific, analytical approach to the game. His teammates describe him as a man who relentlessly learned to do new things and who strived to be great at everything he did. And the discerning Dick Williams, who managed him in Boston, places Smith on his All-Dick Williams team, a team that includes players from 22 years of helmsmanship and five first-place teams, two of which won World Series.  In his 8,050 career plate appearances, Smith produced an OPS+ of 137, batting 37% better than his league's averages, with a batting average of .287, an on-base-percentage of .366, and a slugging percentage of .489. That OPS+ figure is tied for 91st all-time and through the 2005 season, only one switch hitter in baseball history, Mickey Mantle, ranks higher. He finished his career with 314 homers. He played in four World Series, and in 81 plate appearances in the fall classic, pounded the ball for a .521 slugging percentage with six home runs; his three homers in the 1977 Series were overshadowed by Reggie Jackson's five-homer performance.

Carl Reginald Smith was born on April 2, 1945, in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father, Lonnie, had been a catcher for a single season for the Jacksonville Red Caps, a Negro American League team that went under at the end of that season. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child.   Their new neighborhood, then known by its residents as "Zone 61" but now as South Central, had lots of intensely competitive baseball teams, none more so than the eponymously-christened Chet Brewer Pirates. The Pirates were the mission of a man who had been one of the Negro Leagues' greatest pitchers. Brewer dedicated his post-playing career to working with children, using the game as a social magnet to involve them in the community (while kicking some serious axe on the field). Brewer recruited Smith when Reggie was only 15. The youngster played only Sundays for the Pirates -- he worked the rest of the week assisting his father in the family's egg-delivery business. But he worked with the team enough to get some useful training for the professional baseball player way of life. Reggie went on to play sports at Centennial High School. There, he was an All-California baseball pick at shortstop and won the same honors as a football player. After high school, he was signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Twins in June 1963. His father was very sick, and while the father wanted Smith to pursue his dream and go to college, the son wanted to help out the family immediately by earning the money he could make in baseball. Smith started with Wyetheville in the Appalachian League. He was unprotected in the draft, and in December of that year was snared by the Boston Red Sox. He ascended the ladder of the Red Sox farm clubs, playing for Waterloo (Midwest) and Reading (Eastern) in 1964, and Pittsfield (Eastern) in 1965. The following year he arrived in Toronto, the team's top farm club, where he played for Dick Williams on a championship team. Smith led the league in batting average that year with a .320 mark.

"Smith had one hell of an arm, even for a shortstop," Williams said, "he could throw like the devil. He had such a strong arm, (then-Red Sox manager) Billy Herman wanted to make him a pitcher. He was my center fielder and he could really play. At that time he was just learning how to switch hit.  Smith was a late season call-up to the big club in '66 and in six games showed little but had a chance to taste the major league experience. He played his first game on September 18, finishing 0 for 5 against the California Angels. Six days later, in Yankee Stadium, he got the first three hits of his career against Fritz Peterson. The Red Sox finished ninth, but Smith had secured a place in the team's youth movement. 

Williams inherited the sorry franchise's manager position and planned to install Smith in center field, but Smith's rookie campaign was not to start that way. Williams had also brought in Toronto's Mike Andrews to play second base. Andrews, however, injured his back and Smith started the season by returning to his infield roots and playing second base for the team's first six games.  The rookie made important contributions at the plate during the 1967 tussle for the flag though he was only a league-average batter that season (.246/.315/.389 marks for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average in 628 plate appearances). Through May 16, Smith managed only a .180 average and two homers in 89 at-bats and the team struggled, too, with a 13-15 mark that buried them in fifth place. Smith came on for the rest of the season, batting .258 with 13 homers while the team was playing 79-55 baseball. On August 20, the switch-hitter crushed a homer from each side of the plate to lead his team to a 12-2 pummeling of the California Angels. In the bottom of a scoreless first inning, he came up with two outs and Carl Yastrzemski and George Scott on base. Facing starter George "Lefty" Brunet, Smith smoked a three-run homer as a right handed hitter, plating the runs that would stand up as the winners. In the sixth inning, with pinch runner José Tartabull on first base and the right-handed "Philly Pete" Cimino on the mound, Smith stepped to the plate left-handed and knocked one out as a portsider, the first of six times in his career he achieved the feat of hitting a home run from each side of the plate in a single game. Smith hit for power in the 1967 World Series, slugging .542 with a pair of homers in his 26 plate appearances (including two walks) while hitting for a .250 average.

In 1968, he led the league in doubles with 37, earned a Gold Glove for his work in the outfield, and clearly bettered the league average offense with a .265/.342/.430 line compared with the league's .245/.316./.343 level. And he made a game-altering catch Dick Williams calls one of the most impressive he's ever seen. On May 8, at D.C. Stadium in a scoreless second inning with the Senators' Ron Hansen on second, Smith ran down a Paul Casanova shot that was headed over the centerfield fence, leaped to the top of the wall, speared the ball and teeter-tottered on his belt at the top of the fence without tumbling out of the field.

In 1969, he had his breakout year. At the age of 24, Smith hit .309/.368/.527 for an OPS+ of 143, the American League's eighth best. He also had one of the best defensive seasons of his career. His next four years in Boston progressed along a career path most players would envy, garnering ascending OPS+ marks of 128, 130, 143, and 150. In 1970, he notched his career-high 109 runs, and gunned out runners rapid-fire, notching his rifle with 15 assists. In 1971, he launched 30 home runs, his best season total to date. In 1972, at the age of 27, he hit a new plateau for mastering the strike zone; he tallied a new seasonal high for walks while trimming his strikeouts by 23 percent. The following year further trimmed his whiffs by an additional 22 percent.

But while Smith was maturing as a player, there were social challenges the home town threw at African-Americans, and in the big arena of Boston sports, the pressure was amplified. Boston had been the last major league team to integrate, and when Reggie Smith was a rookie in 1967, he was one of the very first African-American players the team had brought up with star potential. Black athletes were sandwiched from above and below by chronic racism and bigotry.  Above Dick Williams and the team's GM Dick O'Connell, the front office and ownership of the organization was notoriously prejudiced. Jackie Robinson, who had played alongside and mentored Dick Williams, and even knowing Williams was not a bigot, publicly stated that he had to root against the Sox because owner Tom Yawkey was "one of the most bigoted guys in baseball."  The team itself was cliquish, but not cliquish by perceived ethnicity. Smith's closest friend and fishing buddy was Yastrzemski, and team mate John Curtis suggested, "Race relations in the clubhouse actually weren't that bad. It was the front office where all the bigotry was festering. I don't recall any of my teammates making a racist remark about Reggie while I was in Boston."  Smith hadn't been prepared for the intensity or texture of many Bostonians' primitive hate for people based on race. He'd grown up in Los Angeles when neighborhoods there were more integrated and social mores more relaxed. Like an anthropologist, he had the outsider's perspective on the behavior of this cultural island. Unlike other players, he didn't choose to suck it up and gut it out.

In late October 1973, the Bosox traded Smith to the Cardinals as part of a multi-player deal.

In his first season with the Cardinals, 1974, he totaled his best offensive year yet, an OPS+ of 157 over 598 plate appearances. The 1975 and '76 seasons were more frustrating for the Cardinals. The team was tumbling into third place. Smith played about half his games at first base. In '76, the team sagged further. The Redbirds front office people feared they might not be able to sign him as a free agent at the end of the season, so they traded him in June to his hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Dodgers would prove to be the team that most benefited from Smith's impact. In 1977, he was the team's offensive leader.  The Dodgers won the pennant but lost the World Series to the Yankees, as they would the next season. Reggie Smith's 1978 campaign was close to his previous one; the league's numbers were down as were his. At the age of 33, he'd started losing some of his range in the outfield, though his arm was still noteworthy around the league, and he was as close to well-known to casual fans as he would ever be. In mid-July of 1979, Smith was injured, an event that truncated his season. The 1980 season saw a great pick-up in his offensive production. His season had ended as a useful player in July, getting no starts afterwards, and only one pinch-hitting and two pinch-running assignments. His career as a regular in the majors came to an end. In 1981, he got 44 plate appearances. At the end of that season, he became a free agent and signed with the San Francisco Giants, where Frank Robinson was manager. In 1983, Smith played in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants and the 1984 season was his last, cursed with injuries to wrist, shoulder, and knee, though he still slugged over .500 in his 231 AB.

In 1993, Smith became field coordinator for the Dodgers' minor league operations department. The next year he became the major league team's batting coach, a post he held through 1999. He coached the 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team that won the Gold Medal, and was the batting coach for the 2006 U.S. entry in the World Baseball Classic.

When Smith is not working, he is doing charity work all over the country. Smith visits hospitals, youth centers, cancer centers and helps fund raising through golf tournaments and different activities. 'The community is very important to me and it's a way for me to share the gift that was given to me by being able to play,' said Smith. 'If I can inspire someone or provide a moment of enjoyment or pleasure for someone where I am with them and talk to them that's the least I can do. I try to encourage people and send positive messages.'  Smith has turned down major league coaching positions to focus on educational work. He's run a youth baseball camp since 1995 and opened the Reggie Smith Baseball Center in Encino, California, in 1998.