Obituary: Dick Smith (1926-2021)

RIP to Dick Smith, who played for parts of five seasons with the Pirates in the 1950s. The 94-year-old Smith died in Boalsburg, Pa., on January 25. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1951-1955.

Richard Harrison Smith was born in Blandsburg, Pa., on July 21, 1926. According to his obituary, he graduated from Westover High School in 1943, and when the family moved to Matternville, Pa., he attended Lock Haven Teachers College (now Lock Haven University). His education and baseball career were interrupted by World War II, as a part of the 643rd Engineer Combat Battalion.

He returned to Pennsylvania after his discharge, and he and his brother Derrill were top hitters in their local VFW League. Derrill chose not to go further into baseball, but Dick Smith signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization as an infielder in the spring of 1948. He celebrated by leading the 22nd District VFW League with a .500 average, with 27 hits in 54 at-bats. That placed him second in the league, with Darrel finishing fourth with a .447 mark.

Smith picked up the nickname of “Catfish” early on in his career because his defensive reflexes were as quick as a cat’s. Source: The Express (Lock Haven, Pa.), September 19, 1951.

In his first season of professional ball in 1950, the 22-year-old Smith slashed .315/.447/.502 for the Class-D Greenville (Ala.) Pirates. He once had three triples in a game, driving in 2 runs with the last one to the the game at 3-3, and then he scored the winning run himself by stealing home. He played third base initially, but he would move all over the infield during his minor-league career. One of his Greenville teammates was minor-league catcher turned managerial mainstay Jack McKeon. Smith continued to dominate Class-D ball in 1950 and was moved up to the more advanced low minor leagues. By 1951, he hit .330 for Class-A Charlestson, and he was given a chance to play in the majors for the first time in his career. The promotion to the majors came so quickly that not even the Pirates were expecting it.

At the time, 24-year-old Smith was a semester away from getting his physical education degree at Lock Haven Teachers College. Pirates general manager Branch Rickey wrote Smith and asked him to attend a school he was conducting in Florida starting in October. Smith wrote back and asked for permission to miss the school so he could finish his coursework and get his degree. Rickey compromised by inviting the youngster to Forbes Field to train for a few days, and then he could go back to his education. Smith did as he was told, but he was so impressive in his workouts that the Pirates’ brass, including Rickey, manager Billy Meyer and executive George Sisler, put him right on the roster. Smith ended up making his debut in the first major-league baseball game he had ever seen.

Smith was the starting third baseman and leadoff hitter against Brooklyn’s Preacher Roe on September 14, 1951. He drove in the Pirates only run in a 3-1 loss by singling in Jack Merson in the eighth inning. He also made a diving stop of a hard ground ball to rob Andy Pafko of a sure hit. If he had been more willing to blow off his higher education and attend Rickey’s October camp, he might never have made the majors at all.

The Pirates were on their way to losing 99 games, so they had nothing to lose by starting Smith the rest of the way. He had 5 hits in his first 4 games, with 2 RBIs and 3 walks. Manager Billy Meyer was a fan. “Smitty is a pest at the plate and is quick as a cat at third base. He runs with the short steps like Phil Rizzuto, and I thought I was looking at another of Phil’s type when Smitty put in an appearance,” he reported.

Source: Pittsburgh Sun-Telegram, January 13, 1953.

Smith eventually fell back down to earth and finished the ’51 season with a .174 average in 12 games. Meyer gave him several chances in 1952 to stick in the Pirates’ infield. With the team losing 112 games and having no established stars outside of Ralph Kiner, they could afford a little patience. Smith, unfortunately, couldn’t hit and was sent to the minor leagues in the summer with a batting average below .100. He found his hitting stroke with regular play for New Orleans and Charleston and made it back to the majors in September. Smith went 2-for-5 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs scored against Cincinnati on September 27 against Cincinnati, and that effort helped him to finish the season with a .106 average. In the offseason, he finally earned his degree from Lock Haven — a Bachelor of Science in Health Education and Social Studies.

Smith spent most of 1953 with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, and he hit a solid .281. He also stole 24 bases, hit 3 home runs and drew 85 walks for a .374 on-base percentage. New Orleans sportswriter Bill Keefe called him the best player in the league and raved about his fielding abilities. “The only good word I can think of to describe Smith is ‘dynamic.’ He literally explodes into action when picking up a ball on fielding it,” he wrote.

Pittsburgh once more brought Smith to the major leagues in September. He was given 13 starts at shortstop and proved to be a capable fielder in the big leagues, but his batting average of .163 failed to impress new Pirates manager Fred Haney. He did keep Smith on the 1954 Opening Day roster, and Smith cracked two hits, including a triple, in his first start of the season. He managed just one more hit after that in limited appearances, and he was optioned to the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in early May, with a batting average of .097.

Source: The Sacramento Bee, February 7, 1955.

Smith’s final appearances in the majors came in the spring of 1955. He appeared in four games in April and May, mostly as a defensive replacement. He draw a walk in his only plate appearance and was sent back to the Stars of the PCL. He did not return to the major leagues again.

Over parts of 5 seasons, Smith appeared in 70 games, with a .134/.255/.167 slash line. His 25 hits included 2 triples and 2 doubles, and he had 30 walks against 22 strikeouts. He also drove in 11 runs and scored 17 times.

Hollywood Stars manager Bobby Bragan was glad to have Smith back, as he loved his fielding abilities at shortstop. He stayed with the Stars through 1957 and was a steady hitter and reliable infielder in Hollywood. He played with several other AAA teams through 1960, retiring at the age of 33. In 12 seasons in the minors, Smith had a .294 batting average, with 1,378 hits and 135 stolen bases.

Smith continued his education after getting out of baseball. He graduated from Penn State University in 1961 with a Master’s Degree in physical education. He joined the faculty of Penn State as an assistant professor and assistant baseball coach for the next 25 years, retiring in 1986. He was an active member of several baseball alumni associations and was a member of the Clearfield Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Source: Heintzelman Funeral Home

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3 thoughts on “Obituary: Dick Smith (1926-2021)

  1. He was my favorite player on the Hollywood Stars. He played for the San Diego Padres minor league team in 1959 and was chosen as the team MYP that year, one season before his retirement. RIP Dick

    Liked by 1 person

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