Obituary: Hal Smith (1930-2020)

RIP to Hal Smith, a catcher for 10 seasons who hit one of the most dramatic home runs in Pirates history — which set up THE most dramatic home run in Pirates history. His nephew, former major-leaguer Tim Flannery, reported that Smith died January 9 at the age of 89. Smith played for the Baltimore Orioles (1955-56), Kansas City Athletics (1956-59), Pittsburgh Pirates (1960-61), Houston Colt .45s (1962-63) and Cincinnati Reds (1964).

“Today my hero and Uncle Hal Smith who gave me the gift of baseball and music passed on to the Spirit World,” Flannery wrote on an Instagram post. “I grew up as a kid watching him win World Series and forging a great career in the game we both loved. He taught me so many things about survival in the business of the game, and survival on the road. He carried a guitar, wrote songs, and was one of the biggest influences of my life. Happy he is out of his pain, honored to carry his torch of love. Thank you Uncle. I owe you so much.”

Harold Wayne Smith was born on December 7, 1930 in West Frankfort, Ill. By a twist of fate, there were two catchers named Hal Smith in the major leagues more or less at the same time. Harold Raymond Smith was a Cardinals catcher from 1956-1961, though he was a Pirate as well briefly in 1965. They were fairly similar players as well — pretty good hitters with decent power. There was also a third Hal Smith, a pitcher, who played in the 1930s for the Pirates.

Hal Smith meets Hal Smith. The two catchers meet in Spring Training in 1957 when Smith, the subject of this article, was with the Kansas City A’s and the other Hal Smith was a Cardinal. Source: The Tampa Tribune, March 14, 1957.

According to his SABR bio, Smith grew up in Detroit, because his father wanted to get away from the coal mines of Southern Illinois. The Smith family was pretty athletically inclined. His father was an amateur third baseman, his brother George had a minor-league baseball career, and his mother was a good athlete as well. Smith signed with the Yankees in 1949 after graduating from Redford High School. He was signed as a catcher, but his pitching abilities were pretty strong as well. While playing sandlot ball, he struck out 16 batters to beat Windsor, the defending Class-D champs. He homered and tripled in the game as well. He was also a good shortstop in the sandlot leagues. Smith played a handful of games for some teams in the Yankees’ low minors after signing in ’49 and started his career in earnest in 1950 with the Newark Yankees of the Ohio-Indiana League.

Smith turned in a phenomenal season with Newark, hitting .363 with 7 home runs and 45 doubles. He finished third in the league in hitting and tied for second in doubles. The Newark stadium must have been a doubles-friendly stadium, as the top four leaders in doubles were all on that team.

Smith stayed in the Yankees’ system through the 1954 season. He regularly hit over .300 and demonstrated pretty good plate discipline as well. Former big-league pitcher Whitlow Wyatt, then a coach for the Atlanta Crackers, praised his work behind the plate as well. “I like this Hal Smith. He talks to his pitchers like an old head,” he said.

Smith played his 1954 season with the Columbus Red Birds, a AAA team for the Cardinals. He was sent there as part of a deal that brought veteran Enos Slaughter to the Yankees. He hit a league-leading .350 for the Red Birds, but he was never Cardinals property, because the Yankees traded him to Baltimore after the 1954 season. It was a massive trade that eventually saw 17 players change teams, after all the players to be named later were named. It’s the same deal that brought the recently deceased Don Larsen to the Yankees. The trade involved a good number of major leaguers, but for the Orioles, it was the rookies with no major-league experience who were the key people.

“In getting Hal Smith and Gus Traindos we not only get power badly needed in every game, but two of the finest prospects in baseball,” said Orioles GM Paul Richards. “I think they moved our farm system up two years. It will take five years for us to develop our own players to the point where they can help the Orioles as Hal and Gus should do next season.”

A sketch of Hal Smith as a guitar player. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 18, 1960.

Smith was happy with the deal, particularly he wasn’t blocked by a future Hall of Famer at the major-league level. “I am grateful to the Yankees for giving me a chance to play,” he explained. “I knew Yogi [Berra] had the job. I knew the score… I’d rather be catching with Baltimore than sitting on the bench with the Yankees.”

Both Smith and Traindos cracked the Orioles’ starting lineup in 1955. Smith hit a solid .271 in his rookie season, with 23 doubles, 4 homers and 52 RBIs. He walked 30 times and struck out just 21 times in 424 at-bats. The highly touted Smith wasn’t an Oriole for long, though. On August 17, 1956, he was traded to the Kansas City A’s for catcher Joe Ginsberg. At the time, he was hitting .262 for Baltimore. The team had decided that Traindos was better suited as a catcher than a first baseman, which made Smith expendable.

Smith hit .275 with Kansas City for the remainder of the 1956 season and stayed with the team for three more years. His best work with the A’s came in 1957, when he hit a career-high 13 home runs and hit .303. The A’s liked his bat so much that they also played him at first base and third base when he had a day off from catching. Smith hit .287 during his time in Kansas City.

The Pirates acquired Smith from the A’s prior to the 1960 season. The Bucs already had Smoky Burgess as a catcher, so Smith was the right-handed hitter in a platoon. It was a productive tandem, as both catchers hit in the .290s. Smith, at .295, also added 11 home runs and 45 RBIs in his 77 games. The biggest game, though, was Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.

Smith started two of the World Series games against the Yankees — the two that Whitey Ford started. Smith was 0-for-3 in Game Three and 2-for-4 in Game Six, as Ford threw two shutouts. Burgess started Game Seven and was removed for a pinch-runner in the bottom of the 7th. Smith replaced him and came to bat in the bottom of the 8th, with two runners on base and the Bucs trailing by a run. On a 2-2 count, Smith connected with a Jim Coates pitch and sent it into the left-field seats for a 3-run home run. That blast put the Pirates up 9-7 with 3 outs to go, and Smith’s name would go down in baseball history if they could keep the lead.

It didn’t work out like that. Pirates pitchers Bob Friend and Harvey Haddix gave up the tying runs, and the game went to the bottom of the 9th deadlocked 9-9. That’s when Bill Mazeroski homered off Ralph Terry to win the game and the Series for Pittsburgh. Mazeroski’s blast became the stuff of legend, but he would never have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for Smith’s heroics.

“I hit a low fast ball and when I connected I knew it was gone,” Smith said after the game. “It paid off for some pretty lean years.”

Smith’s batting average fell to .223 in 1961, which was the first year in his professional career that he ever struggled at the bat. He never really recovered his swing either. He was drafted by the expansion Houston Colt .45s and spent two seasons there as a part-time player. He did club 12 homers in 1962 for the .45s, though his average was a low .235. He finished his major-league career with a year in Cincinnati, hitting .121 with the Reds in 32 games and .174 for their AAA team in San Diego. That was his last season in professional ball.

In 10 seasons in the majors, Smith slashed .267/.317/.394, with 715 hits that included 58 home runs. He had 323 RBIs and 269 runs as well.

Hal Smith and teammate Elroy Face recorded a country album after the Pirates won the World Series in 1960. There are still copies available on eBay or Amazon — or check your local used record shop, particularly if you live in Pennsylvania.

Smith’s SABR bio also notes that after baseball, he worked for a steel company in Houston and also operated a restaurant for seven years. He was a good cook and once had a recipe published in the Los Angeles Times. Smith was a man of many talents, not the least of which was music.

Much like his nephew Flannery, Smith was an musician and songwriter. He even recorded a country music album with Pirates teammate Elroy Face. He decided one day that he wanted a guitar, so he bought one and started playing it, without taking any lessons. A profile on Smith noted that it was common for him, Face and Harvey Haddix to sing in the Pirates locker room. The catcher even wrote some songs:

“Oh, how they hit me tonight;
Oh, how they hit me tonight.
They hit me a mile a blow,
More than you’ll ever know;
Oh, how they hit me tonight.

“I had them fooled for a while,
Till they caught on to my style;
My curve ball weren’t breakin’,
My fast ball, they’s takin’
Oh, how they hit me tonight.”

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