Wendell Smith was a pioneer in the field of sports, acting as the voice of Black America in fighting against segregation in Major League Baseball.
Wendell Smith was born on March 23, 1914 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. His father worked as a chef for automobile tycoon Henry Ford. Wendell was an excellent athlete, starring as an All-City baseball player as the only Black student at Southeastern high school and later played baseball for an American Legion team. He attended West Virginia State College, a historically black public college in Institute, West Virginia, where he was the sports editor of the school newspaper as well as playing on the school’s baseball team.
After graduating in 1937, he began working for the Pittsburgh Courier, a popular newspaper within the Black community. He started out as a sports writer, but was named the sports editor a year later. He covered many teams, including the Homestead Grays (who played most of their games in Pittsburgh but later played half in Washington, D.C.) and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, both of baseball’s Negro Leagues. While in his position with the Courier, he applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America, but was denied because the Courier was not one of the white-owned newspapers that was of the “credibility” necessary for membership. Undeterred, Smith cast a large presence from his position, calling attention to the blight that segregation put onto Major League Baseball, by denying the fans the opportunity to see some of the greatest players in the land, who happened to be Black.
Initially Smith approached a Boston politician named Isadore Muchnick about desegregating the two Boston teams, the Red Sox and the Braves. He argued that desegregating the teams would lead to a surge in attendance by Black fans. Muchnick used the opportunity to threaten to withhold support for a vote to allow for Sunday baseball games in the city unless the two teams offered tryouts to Black players. The teams agreed to the tryouts and Smith helped in the selection of Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs, second baseman Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars and outfielder Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes. Unfortunately, the tryouts were simply empty opportunities. At the Red Sox tryout, a voice, believed to be that of General Manager Eddie Collins, yelled “Get those niggers off the field.”
Smith was undeterred. He continued to voice his displeasure with segregated baseball and eventually his voice was heard, not only by baseball fans but also by baseball insiders. One of those was Branch Rickey, the President and General Manager of the Major League Baseball Brooklyn Dodgers team. Rickey agreed with Smith and asked for his help in finding the right player to break the Major League Baseball unofficial color barrier. The player must not only excel in the game, but also in the community, demonstrating leadership as well as a temperament that would be able to resist fighting back against the tumult of racism he would face. Wendell recommended Jackie Robinson, referencing his athletic superiority as well as his service as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Smith was paid by the Dodgers to travel on the road with Robinson as he prepared to break the color barrier. “Mr. Rickey asked if I would live with Jackie, be his companion on the road” Smith said. ”That’s when he put me on the Brooklyn payroll, $50 a week, about the same amount I was getting as sports editor of the Courier. He hired me as a scout, to scout Negro ballplayers.” Smith gave advice to the young ballplayer as well as helping to arrange for sleeping quarters for him in the segregated South. He travelled with Robinson during the 1946 tryout for the Montreal Royals, a minor league farm team for the Dodgers and on to Brooklyn in 1947 where Jackie would make his Major League debut. Smith’s presence was vital during this time, as he served as a mentor, advisor and sounding board for the young player. Robinson would go to win the Rookie of the Year award and later a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Smith came under some criticism for his push to integrate the Major Leagues in that it brought about the inevitable death of the Negro Leagues. Smith chafed at the idea, saying of the owners of the Negro League teams “All they cared about was the perpetuation of the slave trade they had developed. They will shout to the high heavens that racial progress comes first and baseball next. But actually the preservation of their shaky, littered, infested, segregated baseball domicile comes first, last and always.” When the Negro Leagues eventually did go out of business, Smith wrote an obituary saying “Nothing was killing Negro baseball but Democracy. The big league doors suddenly opened one day and when Negro players walked in, Negro baseball walked out.”
In 1948, Smith, who had gained a great deal of prominence and renown, left the Pittsburgh Courier and moved west to Chicago where he became a sportswriter for the Chicago American. Because the American already a had a slew of baseball writers, Smith focused primarily on the sport of boxing. Ironically, even though he was not covering baseball, his application to the Baseball Writers Association of America was accepted, now that he was with a “reputable” newspaper. He continued to fight for integration, including integration of spring training sites, many of which were in the deep south. He left the Chicago American in 1962 and two years later became a sportscaster for WGN, one of Chicago’s most prominent television stations. He also contributed a weekly column for the Chicago Sun Times.
Wendell Smith died in 1972 of cancer at the age of 58. At the time of his death he was serving as the President of the Chicago Press Club. His contributions over the years were finally recognized when in 1993, he was posthumously awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Finally in 1994 he was posthumously inducted into the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2013, the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism announced the creation of The Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award which is presented annually to a sports journalist or broadcaster who has made significant contributions to racial and gender equality in sports.
- The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball, Thom Loverro
- Wendell Smith – Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Smith
- Wendell Smith – African-American Registry: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/wendell-smith-sportswriter-helped-desegregate-baseball
- Journalist Wendell Smith – Black Athlete Sports Network: http://blackathlete.net/2006/06/journalist-wendell-smith/
- As Jackie Robinson was making history, Wendell Smith wrote it – Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/14/sports/la-sp-0414-plaschke-20130414