Grave Story: Wib Smith (1886-1959)

Here lies Wib Smith, who had a brief career as a catcher in the major leagues before enjoying a successful career in the minor leagues in Minnesota. Smith played 17 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1909.

Wilbur Smith was born on August 30, 1886, in Evart, Mich. According to census data, his parents had come from Missouri before settling in Michigan. He graduated from Albion High School in 1906 and played quarterback for the Albion College football team that fall. He was considered the favorite to be the catcher of the school baseball team as well, but he elected to enter into pro ball and sign with Grand Rapids. “He is a young fellow but a good hitter and strong behind the bat,” reported the Detroit Free Press. The paper also called him the best backstop in the state colleges.

There’s not must info available on Smith’s rookie season in 1906. Baseball Reference has him with a combined .234 average in 26 games for teams in Grand Rapids and Tecumseh, Mich. Tecumseh’s season ended early when the team disbanded, and Smith took a job that winter as a coach at Eastern High School in Detroit. He left Michigan to play for the Pueblo Indians in the Western League in 1907 and 1908. Baseball lifer Deacon McGuire, by then a coach with the New York Highlanders (Yankees), helped get him the job. Again, there’s not much data on his performance – a common problem with early minor leagues – but he raised his average to .265 in 1907 and .258 the following season. He’s also credited with 25 stolen bases in 1908, which is excellent for a catcher.

Source: Star Tribune, May 1, 1912.

Pueblo’s fans were hopeful to get him back in 1909. Team management had other ideas and sold his contract to the St. Louis Browns. It really wasn’t a good fit for Smith, as the papers reported that “St. Louis is somewhat over supplied with good catchers.”

That really wasn’t true. The Browns went through four catchers in 1909, and it would be a stretch to call any of them good. Lou Criger was 37 years old and couldn’t break the .200 mark to save his life. Jim Stephens was 25 and couldn’t hit either. Fellow rookie Bill Killefer would have a decent career, but he was awful at the start.

Then there was Wib Smith. Cincinnati Reds manager Calvin Griffith had already made it clear that he would sign Smith should the Browns put him on waivers, so they kept him on the roster all year long. However, Smith appeared in just 17 games and went 8-for-42 for a .190/.190/.190 slash line. He also had 3 runs, 2 RBIs and 2 sacrifice hits. That was actually the second-highest batting average among the Browns’ catching foursome, behind Stephens (.220) and ahead of Criger (.170) and Killefer (.138). Still, Criger and Stephens got the bulk of the starts, leaving Smith on the bench for most of the season. He didn’t even travel with the team on all road trips. When Stephens split his finger and had to miss a few games, Browns manager Jimmy McAleer had Smith travel to meet the team in Detroit as a “rush order.”

Smith’s abilities at catcher worked against him. Criger and Stephens may have been lousy hitters, but they were standouts defensively. When Smith was behind the plate, baserunners went wild. He logged 83 innings behind the plate, and opposing teams managed 40 steals. Smith threw out just 8 for an awful 17% caught stealing percentage. By comparison, Criger and Stephens were throwing out runners at a 40 or 50 percent clip. Smith also committed 9 errors and 4 passed balls for an .836 fielding percentage.

The Browns sent him a contract for a small salary in 1910, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “because the boy didn’t show any great ability last season, and he seemed he might have to be sent back to the minors.” Smith demanded more money, and a series of letters between him and Browns owner Robert Hedges resulted in the team moving on from him quickly. Smith’s holdout opened the door for another rookie catcher – Sled Allen, one of my favorite all-time post-baseball career stories – to debut that season.

Having wore out his welcome in St. Louis, Smith signed with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Jimmy Williams had just joined them, and the Millers were the team to beat in the AA. Smith was part of a catching tandem with Frank “Yip” Owens, and you have to like a team whose catchers are Wib and Yip. Smith didn’t hit much — .232 in 1910 with 3 home runs – but apparently his defense improved dramatically. In his first game, he beat out a bunt for a base hit and threw out three would-be base-stealers.

WibYip remained the Millers’ catching combo for several seasons. “Both of them are as popular as any men who ever donned the Minneapolis toggery, quiet fellows, hard working, clean players and good hitters,” crowed the Star Tribune. Owens got the bulk of the catching assignments, while Smith caught and played the outfield as well. He was reunited with one of his Browns teammates, Rube Waddell, in 1911-12 as the future Hall of Famer and legendary character was winding down his career.

Smith got off to the best start of his career in 1912 and hit .288 in 34 games. However, he badly injured his leg sliding into third base on April 30 and had to be carried off the field. He missed more than a month and never got back on track. He seemed to have a fair 1913 season, though his stats aren’t available on Baseball Reference. Smith’s average dipped to .219 in 1914, and he was dropped from the Millers roster in the offseason. Manager Joe Cantillon assigned him to a Western League team in St. Joseph, which served as a Millers farm team. Smith said the salary was so low that he was ashamed to make it public. Instead, he joined a Twin Cities semipro team called the Camels. He never played pro ball again.

Smith made Minnesota his home during his time with the Millers. He worked as an auto salesman in the offseason. He spent a couple of years managing teams in independent leagues in the Dakotas, first Jamestown, N.D. in 1922 and then Watertown, S.D. in 1923. Eventually he settled into a career of selling farm machinery as a branch manager for Allis-Chambers, which manufactured farming equipment. He would reunite with his old Miller mates for any social situation or old-timers’ games. His son, Richard “Red” Smith, was a top area catcher in the ‘30s.

Wib Smith died in November 18, 1959, in Fargo, N.D, from pneumonia. He was 73 years old and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

A 1937 profile on the ex-ballplayer included this fun story. In 1912, a Minneapolis shoe store offered a pair of $20 baseball shoes to the first Miller who was ejected from a ballgame. Smith mentioned the contest to a first-base umpire named Handibeau, who was a friend, before a game. Late in that game, Smith hit a routine grounder to second and was easily thrown out. As he was turning back toward the dugout, Handibeau chased him down and ejected him for arguing. Smith tried to protest, but Handibeau whispered, “Beat it, dummy. You want those shoes, don’t you?” Smith beat it and walked away with a new pair of shoes.

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