Former major-leaguer, Anniston native Smith dies
at the age of 66
Smith, better known in the baseball world "Wonderful Willie," played in the Negro Leagues and went on to play for five major league clubs in a nine-year career. His career started with an odd turn, coming in the big leagues as a pitcher for Detroit, but he finished his playing days primarily as a hitter.
Tracy Ringolsby, a baseball writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and a past president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, holds Smith in high regard.
As a child growing up in California, Ringolsby says he was enamored with Smith's talent to pitch, hit and play the field. Having covered baseball since 1976 and seeing countless players, that fascination hasn't dissipated.
"It wasn't a fluke. They'd use him in critical situations," Ringolsby said. "I don't know what the list is (of people who have done that), but that list has got to be very, very short."
Smith is the only black player in Major League Baseball history to appear in at least 20 games as a pitcher and 20 games as a fielder. He played the outfield, first base and was a left-handed pitcher. For his career, which ended with Cincinnati in 1971, Smith batted .248 and hit 46 home runs. He made 29 appearances as a pitcher, including 15 in the 1964 season with Gene Autry's California Angels, when he had a 2.84 ERA in 31 2/3 innings.
"Willie played for this organization right after we came into being," said Tim Mead, a 27-year employee of the Angels and now the club's vice-president of communications. "That was a great time in baseball history and it was a great time in Southern California.
"We have a saying in this organization: Once an Angel, always an Angel.' I know Willie was very highly regarded by Mr. Autry and the players he played with. We certainly extend our best to his family."
After that 1964 season, Smith pitched only three more times, all in 1968 with two different teams. In each of those final outings he didn't give up a run, but by that time he had made his name as a hitter. He was the first of four Willies to hit an upper-deck shot at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium; Hall of Famers Stargell, Mays and McCovey were the others.
Hall of Fame Jacksonville State baseball coach Rudy Abbott grew up playing baseball with Smith, "on the old Monsanto ball fields." The two were friends before Smith went off to the big leagues, and just as good of friends when Smith's life came full circle and he moved back home to Anniston.
When Abbott would have a hitter who was struggling to find his stroke at the plate, Smith was the first one he would call.
"I always thought he missed his calling," Abbott said. "He would have been a tremendous big-league or college hitting coach. He had the ability to communicate, to put people at ease, the knowledge to teach them and help them understand and unlock the secret of what they needed to do.
" I'm telling you, today I lost a great friend."
Abbott continued to employ Smith's services with youth baseball camps, noting that it was Smith's charisma that drew everyone young and old to him.
Don Kessinger, an all-star shortstop with the Chicago Cubs and longtime baseball coach at Ole Miss, echoed the sentiments about his former teammate.
"I really thought the world of Willie Smith," Kessinger said. "Willie was an exceptional hitter. But he also was an exceptional teammate."
While Smith made an impression on many in his days in baseball and with his baseball knowledge, he didn't broadcast the fact that he was one of a select few from Anniston who had ever made the big leagues.
According to a co-worker with the City of Oxford, Smith would tell stories about his playing days, but you had to ask or show interest in the subject. The co-worker, who wished to remain anonymous for this story, said he and Smith were working a day camp at Oxford Civic Center a few years back. The children at the camp saw one of Smith's old baseball cards.
"The next day, they all brought their baseball gloves and caps. He was sitting back in the break room. They all went in and asked him for his autograph," the co-worker said.
"He was like a kid at Christmas. He told me it made him feel special again."