Obituary: Jack Smith (1935-2021)

RIP to Jack Smith, who was a pitcher in the 1960s and a long-time Atlanta-area barber. He died on April 7 at Westbury Health and Rehab in Conyers, Ga. He was 85 years old and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease. Smith played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1962-63) and Milwaukee Braves (1964).

There have been three players named Jack Smith in MLB history. The first played third base for Detroit for 2 innings in 1912. The second was an outfielder for the Cardinals and Braves between 1915 and 1929. Jack Hatfield Smith was born on November 15, 1935, in Pikeville, Ky. Smith grew up in Matewan, W.V., and when he filled out a baseball questionnaire in 1958, that’s what he listed as his hometown. He was a three-sport athlete (baseball, basketball and football) at Magnolia High School, and upon graduation he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Scout Jim Russell doing the honors.

Source: Atlanta Constitution, September 6, 1961.

In his first season of pro ball, Smith pitched for three different Class-D teams, winning 5 games for Donalson of the Alabama-Florida League. He spent all of 1956 with the Reno Silver Sox of the Class-C California League, and he was tied for the team lead in wins with 14. Described in the local paper as a “fast-working, hard-throwing” right-hander, Smith struck out 141 batters in 196 innings, though he also walked 120. The control would greatly improve as the 19-year-old hurler gained experience. Smith played on three teams again in 1957, turning in a combined 6-15 record in the Dodgers’ low minors. He did set a Pioneer League record with 13 strikeouts in 6 innings in one game.

“I bounced around last year and I just couldn’t win anywhere,” he later said of that forgettable ’57 season. “Wildness was my big trouble.”

Smith turned things around with a solid season for the Des Moines Bruins in 1958, with an 11-11 record and 4.30 ERA. He completed 10 games and threw a couple shutouts, and his walk rate dropped nicely. In the offseason, Smith went home to Matewan, where his wife, Helen, and daughter lived — he was married two months before high school graduation. He worked around the coal mines — above ground, he noted — and was planning to go to barber college in the fall of ’58.

Smith missed all of the 1959 season when he and the Dodgers couldn’t agree on a contract, and he spent the year completing his training at barber college. Smith returned in 1960 and spent the summer playing for a couple of Georgia minor-league teams. He won 9 games for the Class-A Macon Dodgers and was named to the Sally League All-Star team. He was promoted to the Atlanta Crackers in July and was immediately put into the starting rotation by manager Rube Walker. Smith went 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA for the Crackers, but he walked more batters than he struck out and gave up more than one hit an inning. After that season, Smith spent the rest of his career working out of the bullpen, and the experiment provided immediate good results. In 1961, Smith made 70 appearances for the Crackers, and all but 3 of them came in relief. The result was a 12-7 campaign and a 2.09 ERA. He fanned 111 hitters in 155 innings, saved 29 games and won the Southern League’s ERA title. He pitched 17-1/3 innings over the final 4 games of the season to get enough innings to qualify for the title, and he allowed 1 run in that span with 15 strikeouts.

It was an accident that Smith was put in that position. Manager Walker wanted Smith in the rotation, and a pitcher named Bob Arrighi was to be the team’s long reliever. However, Arrighi pitched in just 2 games before arm injuries ended his season, and Walker quickly moved Smith into the role. The big right-hander (he was 6 feet tall and 185 pounds) proved to be an ideal workhorse, capable of throwing multiple innings in back-to-back games effectively.

Jack Smith, the tallest person in the pic, listens to Dodgers pitching coach Joe Backer, along with other pitchers. From left to right: Joe Moeller, Smith, Phil Ortega, Pete Richert, Becker. Source: The Colton Courier, March 5, 1962.

Smith moved to the AAA Omaha Dodgers in 1962 and managed to improve on his breakout season. He won an unreal 17 games and saved 19 more in 70 relief appearances and 1 start, and his ERA was 2.06. He would have again challenged for an ERA title, but circumstances left him just shy of qualifying for it. When injuries knocked Sandy Koufax out for the season and sidelined reliever Larry Sherry, Los Angeles brought Smith to the majors in September of 1962. He made his debut on September 10, with the Dodgers up 8-0 over the Cubs, thanks to brilliant pitching from Don Drysdale. Smith entered in the ninth inning, walked Ken Hubbs and gave up an infield hit to Ernie Banks. He than got Billy Williams to fly out and Nelson Methews to hit an RBI groundout. After another walk to Andre Rogers, Smith got out of the inning with a pop fly from George Altman, cementing an 8-1 win and Drysdale’s 24th win of the season. Under the rules of the day, Smith was credited with his only career save.

Smith made a total of 8 relief appearances with the Dodgers in 1962, with a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings pitched. He struck out 7 and walked 4. He made the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster in 1963, pitched in 4 games and gave up runs in 3 of them. The scoreless outing was one of his finest performances in the majors, however. It came on April 28 versus the St. Louis Cardinals. After the Cards had knocked starter Johnny Podres and reliever Ken Rowe out of the game, Smith entered in the second inning with his team losing 7-1. He proceeded to throw 4-1/3 innings of shutout ball, allowing 4 hits, but the Dodgers lost 9-5 in spite of his best efforts. He still had a 7.56 ERA in 8-1/3 innings of work and was demoted to AAA Spokane when the rosters were reduced in May.

The Milwaukee Braves acquired Smith in December of 1963 in the Rule V draft. He had a fine spring training, showing off a new slider to complement his sinker and curveball — and a spitball, though he didn’t admit that until his retirement. “I even brought my barber equipment with me,” Smith said. “I’ll be glad to cut hair in the locker room for the guys.”

Smith made the Braves roster and picked up his first major-league win with a 4-inning relief stint against Pittsburgh on April 28. Braves skipper Bobby Bragan used him mostly as a mop-up reliever in losing efforts, but Smith started seeing more significant work in June. He came into a game against the Giants on June 12, with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Braves clinging to a 1-run lead. He got Willie Mays to ground into a double play, which scored the tying run, and struck out Orlando Cepeda. He then worked 2 more perfect innings, striking out 2 more Giants. The Braves came back to win 4-3, and Smith got his second win.

“Normally I’ve gone in there when we were way ahead or way behind. I was glad to get this kind of chance,” Smith said after the game.

Shortly after that win, Smith blew leads in a couple of games to even his record at 2-2. The Braves sent him to the minors in exchange for veteran pitcher Chi-Chi Olivo shortly after. Smith had a 3.77 ERA with 19 strikeouts and 11 walks in 22 games in his longest stretch of time in the big leagues.

Braves manager Bobby Bragan stops for a haircut at Smitty’s Bullpen, with Smith showing off his other skill-set. Source: Atlanta Constitution, November 4, 1965.

Smith returned to the Atlanta Crackers in 1965 — the team was now a Braves minor-league affiliate. He had an 8-6 ERA and a 2.79 ERA, starting 7 games and relieving in 38 others. More significantly, Smith opened “Smitty’s Bullpen,” a barber shop at the Marriott Hotel in Atlanta, so that he could put his other skills to good use. It became such a success that Smith made it his full-time venture, leaving baseball for his barber shop after the ’65 season. He also never liked flying, and staying in one place to give haircuts beat flying all over the country to play baseball.

In parts of 3 seasons in the majors, Smith had a 2-2 record and a save in 34 games. He had a 4.56 ERA, with 31 strikeouts and 17 walks in 49-1/3 innings. He also had a 92-82 record in 10 seasons in the minors.

Smitty’s Bullpen became an Atlanta institution, first at the Marriott and then at the Airport Hilton. Syndicated columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote a column in 1994 about the haircut he got from an old-school barber, and then realized that his barber was the very same pitcher he used to watch with the Atlanta Crackers. “THAT Jack Smith. Hard to believe. There I was getting a haircut from a barber who was also a boyhood idol,” he wrote. For the record, Grizzard liked the haircut, too.

Smith retired from Smitty’s Bullpen in 2016 to spend time with his wife, Sue, and family. He is survived by his wife and three children.

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