Wendell Smith: Major League Baseball’s unsung hero

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As for Smith, the scout had this to say, according to Tygiel: “I wish I could sign you too kid. But I can’t.”
The message was loud and clear. You have the wrong complexion for me to make the right connection for you.

Smith later admitted that he was deeply affected by what happened that day and vowed to do something about it. Off he went to West Virginia State College where, as fate would have it, he eventually became a sports writer, beginning his career with the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937. At that time the Courier was the most influential voice for Black America.

Armed with the experience of his American Legion days, Smith became one of the nation’s foremost sports journalists and set out to eliminate the ugly specter of segregation in the country’s most popular and visible team sport, the national pastime, as it were.

“He could be bitterly sarcastic and vitriolic in his rage against Jim Crow (as segregation was known) yet lyrical and descriptive in his prose,” Tygiel wrote in “Experiment,” one of the most definitive analyses of Robinson and his pothole-filled road to integration.

“Although his columns tended to run overly long and belabor a point, they nonetheless offered both entertainment and insight.”

In other words, Smith was incessant in his condemnation of the racial inequities in the world of sports and beyond. Many speculate that Smith’s greatest achievement was his unrelenting effort to get Black baseball players into the major leagues, for it was he, along with a few other persistent journalists, who suggested that Rickey sign Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract.

For the record, Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals of the International League, a farm team of the Dodgers. In his first game, played before an estimated 50,000 fans against the Jersey City Giants, the former four-sport star from UCLA pounded out four hits, including a two-run homer, scored four runs, stole a pair of bases and knocked in four RBIs. For good measure, Robinson won the International League batting crown that season with a .349 mark. The rest, as they say, is history.

Smith later gave up newspaper writing in 1963 and joined WBBM-TV news staff before becoming a sportscaster in 1964 for WGN-TV. Named “Sports­caster of the Year” in 1969, he was president of the Chicago Press Club at the time of his death in 1972.

When the story of the integration of baseball is told Rickey and Robinson are the obvious focal points in the discussion. But, how different that effort might have been had Wendell Smith, the unsung hero in this American saga, not been snubbed that fateful day back in 1933.

(Eddie Jefferies is the former sports editor of the New Pittsburgh Courier.)

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