As our founder and editor, Rob Parker reached an age milestone earlier in the month (Cue the Jeopardy music: It’s a number between 59 and 61, so you do the math!), I thought about some of the pioneering Black journalists that paved the way for all of us here at MLBbro.com.
As journalists, before social media turned everybody into stars, it was an unwritten rule stating that you report the story, not become part of it.
However, in some instances, there can be unusual circumstances. Those circumstances can sometimes lead to changes for the greater good, societal and otherwise.
Emergence of Wendell Smith: Player, Journalist, Activist
Wendell Smith was a sports journalist that made a career of being civic minded. That civic mindedness led to righting one of the greatest wrongs in all of professional sports.
Born on March 23, 1914, in Detroit, Smith’s father worked in Henry Ford’s household as a chef. He was the only African American student at Southeastern High School in the motor city. He played on that school’s baseball team and was one of the leading pitchers on an American Legion team that featured future Chicago White Sox catcher Mike Tresh.
Smith played baseball at West Virginia State College at Charleston, where he also became the sports editor of the school newspaper during his junior year. Smith began working at The Pittsburgh Courier immediately after graduating in 1937, first as a sportswriter and as the sports editor the following year.
He used his position to protest segregation in professional sports. Smith played a significant, if not central, role in the desegregation of professional baseball in 1946. He is best remembered for his efforts, which led to Jackie Robinson signing with the Dodgers in 1947.
Smith made his first direct inroad into desegregating major league baseball when he advised Boston politician Isadore Muchnick how to gain Boston’s African-American vote.
At Smith’s suggestion, Muchnick declared that he would withhold support for the annual City Council vote allowing Sunday baseball in Boston unless the Red Sox and Braves agreed to allow Negro Leaguers to try out for the team.
These two teams agreed, and Smith selected three players to try out: Robinson, Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe. He declined to select Satchel Paige because he was too old (a decision Smith would later regret) and Homestead Grays’ catcher Josh Gibson because of a protest from that club’s owners.
Duffy Lewis, a former player and the Red Sox’ traveling secretary, conducted the hour long try out. While some other sports writers were there, neither national publicity nor a contract offer from the Red Sox or the Braves came out of the tryout.
Ironically a few years later, the Red Sox would get another opportunity to sign a talented black ballplayer who would go on to similar heights as Robinson.
The player’s name? A guy by the name of Willie Mays.
It wasn’t until July 21, 1959, that the Red Sox debuted Elijah Jerry Pumpsie Green, who became the first African American ever to play for the Red Sox, the last team in the major leagues to integrate. A reluctance to progress with the times has been a stigma that the Boston area has carried for some time.
Wendell Smith Recommends Jackie Robinson For Tryouts With Dodgers
Smith then recommended Robinson to Brooklyn Dodger president and GM Branch Rickey for the “great experiment,” and traveled and roomed with Robinson during the baseball player’s early Dodgers career.
“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.”
“I had been a ballplayer, an all-city high school pitcher in Detroit; but I knew nothing of scouting. I was getting paid to help Jackie jump the hurdles.”
“I never socialized with the writers. In the South it was forbidden. If they wanted me to go to dinner with them, it was against the law. I’m sure they would have liked to have me join them.”
“They didn’t ask because they knew it was impossible. But I considered myself part of the press corps. I was writing daily stories. I was Jackie’s Boswell.”
Wendell Smith Was Jackie Robinson’s Guide
In the 2013 movie “42”, Robinson’s relationship with Smith was explored as actor Andre Holland portrayed Smith in the production. To this day, it’s the only movie that took an inside look at the Robinson-Smith collaboration.
“Wendell is mentioned in pretty much every biography about Jackie Robinson and also all of the books about the Negro Leagues,” Holland said back in a 2013 interview with AL.com
“So it really struck me the role that this man had played in the success of this ‘great experiment,’ as they called it.”
Wendell Smith Gets Approved By Baseball Writer’s Association
In 1948, Smith left the Courier and joined the staff of the Chicago American as a sportswriter covering primarily boxing. No longer working at an African-American newspaper, Smith’s application for membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association was ratified (after numerous attempts while at the Courier). While he wrote for the American, Smith continued to encourage the full integration of spring training sites.
Smith also felt that the inclusion of Robinson and other African-American players in the major leagues did not mean that the Negro Leagues should fold. He wrote repeatedly of the need for his readers to support the Negro Leagues and promoted the annual East-West game in his columns.
He stayed with that paper for nearly 14 years. In 1964, he became the sportscaster for Chicago’s television station WGN. At the time of his death in 1972, Smith was the president of the Chicago Press Club.
Smith Remembered For His Impact On Baseball and Journalism
In 1993, Smith was posthumously given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, enshrining him in the “writers wing” of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the tradition of Sam Lacy, Mal Goode, and others, the career and struggles of Mr. Smith stands as an inspiration for every minority journalist everywhere. And most importantly, they paved the way for young journalists of color to aspire to be become as powerful with the pen as these titans were and continue to be.
We all humbly continue to carry their torches of sacrifice with every magazine and or newspaper article, website, TV show, and podcast. Their impact and influence are still being felt today through MLBbro.com and beyond. The stories of men like Wendell Smith must be told and out in proper historical perspective. A true hero of the MLBbro community and an irreplaceable part of baseball history.
NOTE: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and The African-American Registry contributed to this story.