Tag Archive | "Negro League Baseball"

Negro League Widow Passes Away

HiltonSmithLouise Smith, widow of Hilton Smith, has passed away at the age of 98 years old.

Hilton Smith is a hall of fame pitcher famous for his time in Negro League Baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs.  During his playing career, according to the Hall Of Fame, he was credited with 20 wins in each of his 12 seasons with the Monarchs.

Possibly best known for his relief appearances behind the great Satchel Paige, Smith pitched in six consecutive “East-West All Star Games” from 1937-1942.  He was considered by many to be the best pitcher in black baseball but was largely overlooked due to his quiet demeanor, a stark contrast to that of Paige’s.

Hilton hurled a no-hitter in 1937 and according to many sources did not lose a single competition in 1938.  During the winter of 1946, he pitched the Vargas team in the Venezuelan league to the championship.  The following March, he would pitch for the Vargas team in an exhibition game in Venezuela against the New York Yankees.  He would allow one hit over five innings and be credited with the win in a 4-3 ballgame.

Smith would decline an offer from the Brooklyn Dodgers as baseball’s color barrier came crashing down, eventually retiring in 1948.  He would go on to teach, coach, and eventually become a scout for the Chicago Cubs.  He passed away in 1983 and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2001 by the Veteran’s Committee.

Louise Humphrey would marry Hilton Smith in 1934.  The couple would have two children during their marriage.  During an interview for the 2005 Oral History film, Louise would recount how she turned down Hilton’s marriage proposal at first because she did not want to marry a ballplayer.  Ultimately, she identified that he was a professional man and was rewarded with being able to see areas of the world she never thought possible.

From the “Did You Know” section of his Baseball Hall Of Fame Bio:

Hilton Smith advised Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson to sign Jackie Robinson to a contract with the powerhouse Negro American League club?

According the the Negro League Baseball Museum, Louise visited the museum for “one last tour” earlier this week.

You can visit the Negro League Baseball Museum’s website by clicking this link.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at I-70 Baseball
Follow him on Twitter here.

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Monarchs Kept Afloat by Selling Players to Big Leagues

Integration of the white major leagues was a triumph for America, but it sent black baseball teams spinning into a new direction in the late 1940s.

To say integration killed Negro League baseball would be not quite accurate but the signing of Jackie Robinson did come just as the new “league” was still an infant.

A Negro “league” had not really held teams in unity for several years, coming together after The Depression. Barnstorming, players jumping contracts and player raids by owners, made black baseball unorganized throughout most of the 1930s. The Negro National League of the west and the Eastern Colored League had been so fragmented throughout the 1930s that league championships held little meaning. No World Series was held from 1927 to 1942.

All that was changing, however, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s, things were taking shape once again. The Kansas City Monarchs were back on top, winning the 1942 World Series, and they signed Robinson in 1945, only to have him “raided” by the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey.

What is now heralded as an admirable stand for justice may not have been completely magnanimous on Rickey’s part. Some believe, rather than intending to integrate white baseball, Rickey was actually attempting to use Robinson to form a new Negro league to compete with the existing leagues. Regardless of his motive, Rickey paid the Monarchs, the team with which Robinson was under contract, absolutely nothing.

Player raiding had plagued the Negro Leagues for years. But the practice had lost favor by the 1940s, and J.L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Monarchs, felt disrespected and violated by the Dodgers’ nabbing of Robinson. He and partner Tom Baird protested to everyone who would listen, but decided against lodging a formal complaint to Major League Happy Chandler.

To attempt to block Robinson’s departure could have slowed the integration that was finally at hand. So the Monarchs were forced to relent. But the handwriting was on the wall, and from that moment everything changed for black teams.

Suddenly fans weren’t as interested in the aging legends of black baseball. They came, black and white alike, to see the future stars who would inevitably be added to white teams. Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe – it was now the young studs that all eyes were upon.

But worse than that for black teams, was that attendance immediately took a hit. Black fans took new interest in the major leagues. Attendance in the Negro American League (based mostly in the Midwest) dropped by about half in 1947 from what it had been a few years earlier. Teams tried cutting payroll to stay afloat. The affect of salary reduction made the game even more suited for youngsters. Older players who were used to higher salaries and doubted their chances of making the major leagues jumped to Mexico or the Caribbean. Youths hoping to follow in Robinson’s footsteps were concerned more with opportunity than with salary. They were more likely to stick it out than their older counterparts.

It wasn’t long before the Negro Leagues transformed from the pinnacle of black baseball to a training ground for eager young prospects. Teams trying to stay in the black seized this new opportunity. If they couldn’t keep the big leagues out, they could at least get a piece of the action. After the Cleveland Indians’ Bill Veeck actually recompensed the Newark Eagles for Doby’s services, a new business boomed.

Since the Kansas City Monarchs were still an elite team, they had some of the best players for the white teams to pick from. In 1947, the year Robinson debuted in Brooklyn, the Monarchs sent Willard Brown and Hank Thompson to the St. Louis Browns. Next, they sent Satchel Paige to Bill Veeck’s Indians in 1948. At that point, black baseball teams began, by necessity, to care more about developing young big leaguers than about winning games. The 1949 the Monarchs actually voluntarily dropped out of the playoffs because they’d sold off four key players.

After 1949 there would be no more player raids without payment, a la Jackie Robinson. A minimum payment of $5,000 was set when Irvin signed with the New York Giants. The Monarchs scored the biggest profit in the Negro American League when they sold Ernie Banks and Bill Dickey for $20,000 in 1953.

All in all, the Monarchs sold 25 players to the major leagues, gaining the reputation of a Negro baseball preparatory school. Some teams actually formed alliances with major league teams, as the Monarchs allied themselves with the New York Yankees. The Monarchs would ship four players to the Yankees in 1949 and 1950, including future MVP Elston Howard.

Integration changed not only the segregated white leagues but also the Negro Leagues. The need for an all-Negro league disappeared after integration, but the exhibition of major league prospects kept black baseball going for nearly a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

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Meeting A Negro League Legend

Historical research and the proliferation of information on the internet has allowed today’s baseball fan to learn more about the Negro Leagues than in times past. But in 1991, my knowledge of Negro League baseball didn’t go much further than the movie Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars.

So when I was told that a former Negro Leaguer was living right there in my college town of Manhattan, KS, I didn’t have much opportunity to research his career. Little did I know that George Giles, living right under our noses, was one of the best players of his era.

I heard he ran a bar that sat in isolation on the south side of Manhattan. To call it a “bar” was a real stretch, however. There were hardly any tables or chairs in the one room where George’s bartending consisted of pulling bottles out of a refrigerator. There was no sign to speak of – if you hadn’t known the bar was there, you’d never have found it. On the porch sat one seat removed from a van – a nice enough spot for an old black man to watch the cars go by.

Today I can appreciate that George Giles was named the sixth-best first baseman in the history of Negro League baseball by the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. (Buck O’Neil was fourth on the list.) He was often called “the black Bill Terry,” which I guess is supposed to be a compliment. Reports from various peers called Giles an excellent fielder, a fast runner and solid contact hitter.

Giles starred on Negro League teams in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Born in Junction City, KS, his career began with a tryout with the famed Kansas City Monarchs when he was just 14. Deemed too young to play on the big club, Giles signed a contract on his 15th birthday, but first suited up for the minor league Kansas City Royal Giants in 1925. He joined the Monarchs at the age of 18, playing the 1927 and 1928 seasons in KC.

Giles joined the St. Louis Stars for 1930 and 1931, helping that team win back-to-back Negro National League pennants. He also suited up for the Monarchs from 1932-1934 and again in 1939. In the days of player stealing, barnstorming and winter league excursions, Giles bounced around with several teams all over the nation. In 1935, at just 25, he served as player/manager for the Brooklyn Eagles.

Giles retired from baseball in 1939, at just 30 years of age. He said in interviews that the hardships of the Negro Leagues and the irritation of racism forced him to give up the game at a relatively young age. Giles didn’t sugarcoat the discrimination that kept him out of the major leagues. He told David Craft, author of The Negro Leagues: 40 Years of Black Professional Baseball in Words and Pictures:

“The racism we faced while I was in the Negro Leagues was one of the things that eventually pushed me out of baseball…. I was treated like a second-class citizen in my own country by people who knew they hated me before I could even say ‘Hello’

“People say to me, ‘George, you were born too soon to be one of the ones to make it to the big leagues’…. [But] I was born in the United States of America. I’m an American, not a foreigner. For years, foreigners came here and had more opportunity than I had”

Upon giving up the game, Giles worked in the civil service at Fort Riley, KS for years, and operated a hotel as well as the bar in Manhattan. Along the way, he had four sons, one of whom, George, Jr., played minor league baseball from 1953 to 1955.

Though racism denied George Giles, Sr. the chance to play in the major leagues, he did have the satisfaction of seeing his grandson, Brian Giles, play against the best players regardless of race for six seasons in the 1980s, primarily with the New York Mets. A slick-fielding, light-hitting middle infielder, Brian Giles was born in Manhattan in 1960 to George Giles, Jr.

The elder Giles died on March 3, 1992. But in January of 1991, fortunately for me, an unenlightened 21-year-old college student, I had the chance to meet him at his humble bar.

The article that came from that meeting was printed in the Kansas State Collegian on Jan. 25, 1991 and will be reprinted in I-70baseball.com later this month as part of our ongoing look at Negro League Baseball in honor of Black History Month.

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