Grave Story: Hilton Smith (1907-1983)


Here lies Hilton Smith, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the Negro Leagues. And the reason he isn’t celebrated more today is because he was frequently teammates with the greatest pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues – and who wouldn’t be overshadowed by Satchel Paige? Smith played for the Monroe Monarchs (1932), Chicago American Giants (1937) and Kansas City Monarchs (1937-1948). Of course, that pitching record only counts official Negro Leagues games that have been added to Baseball Reference’s database. Smith likely pitched in hundreds of other games that will never show up on an official record.

Hilton Lee Smith was born in Giddings, Texas, on February 27, 1907. He was the oldest son of John and Mattie Smith, who were also native Texans. John was a farmer when Hilton was born, but by the 1940 U.S. Census, he was listed as a schoolteacher. According to Ancestry.com, Hilton was the oldest of eight children. He surely played baseball in Texas, but his professional career was a little late in developing. After high school, Smith spent two years at Prairie View A&M College, an HBCU (Historic Black College/University) that was founded in 1876. He spent his freshman season as an outfielder and his sophomore as a pitcher, per blackpast.org. He remained a good hitter throughout his career, and it wasn’t uncommon to see Smith, at the height of his career, in the outfield during his off days. According to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Smith started pitching semipro ball with the Austin Senators in 1931. He soon moved out to Louisiana and found steady work with various teams there. Like many players of the era, both black and white, Smith may have shaved a few years off his age, which could account for why he is frequently listed as being born in 1912.

Hilton Smith’s grave marker at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Mo.

The Monroe Monarchs were part of the Negro Southern League in 1932 and won the Dixie Baseball title with a 10-0 whitewashing of the Austin Black Senators in August. Smith made one start for the team and gave up 3 runs in 5-2/3 innings. He made Monroe his home, living in Ouachita Parish with his wife, Louise, father-in-law, Tony Humphrey, and sons Hilton Jr. and DeMorris. The NLBM lists him as a pitcher for the Monroe Monarchs from 1932-35, the New Orleans Black Creoles in 1933, and the New Orleans Crescent Stars in 1933. When the Pittsburgh Crawfords, featuring Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston, came to Louisiana in 1935 for an exhibition game against Monroe, Smith was the pitcher chosen to face off against Paige. The teams battled to a 4-4 tie before the game was called on account of darkness, and manager Charleston vowed to play a second, unscheduled game the next day, even though the Crawfords were due in Austin. “Hang the Austin game. We’ll either make ‘em or break ‘em,” he said of the Monarchs. Sadly, I could not find a recap of the second game.

Smith joined a team in Bismarck in 1935 and ’36. It may seem like an odd destination, but the Bismarck ballclub was the best semipro team in the country, as it included Smith, Paige, Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe and Quincy Troupe. It became the first integrated baseball team to claim a national championship, as it won the 1935 National Baseball Congress tournament. Paige – when he played – was the star of the show, but Smith was starting to demonstrate the form that would bring him his own success. He became the team’s ace in 1936, as Paige had moved on to his next opportunity. He threw a 2-hit shutout against Valley City on June 21 and fanned 5. He knocked off the All-Nations team on July 17, too. During the NBC Tournament in Wichita, Smith shut out Forest City, Iowa, on 3 hits on August 20, and then on August 27, he beat Buford, Ga., which was the only unbeaten team left in the tournament, by a score of 8-5. He came on in relief of Radcliffe, who had given up 3 runs in 2 innings. Ultimately, Bismarck failed to repeat as champions.

Source: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Smith joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1937, and aside from one game with the Chicago American Giants that season, he stayed in Kansas City for the rest of his career. The team was managed by Andy Cooper and coached by Bullet Rogan, two outstanding pitchers of their time. Smith was 30 and, though he didn’t have a wealth of professional experience, learned from them and stepped into the role of staff ace with ease. He opened the season with a 7-1 win over the Birmingham Black Barons as part of a doubleheader sweep on May 10. Shortly after that performance, he threw a 4-0 no-hitter over the Chicago American Giants. Smith led the Negro American League in wins (11), games (21), starts (16), shutouts (3), innings pitched (130-1/3) and strikeouts (99). His 5.5 Wins Above Replacement was also tops among pitchers, as was his 5.9 WAR for all players. Smith also hit .288 with a home run and beat the Giants twice in the league championship.*

* Negro Leagues statistics are still a work in progress, so the statistics noted in this article may well change if new box scores are located and added to the record.

Smith became known for a devastating curveball that was considered one of the best in the Negro Leagues. He also had excellent control and averaged fewer than 2 walks per 9 innings throughout his career. He was named to the All-Star Team each year from 1937 through 1942. The NLBM notes that Smith recorded 13 strikeouts in those All-Star Games, good enough for second on the all-time list, tied with Paige and one strikeout behind Leon Day. He won the NAL’s pitching triple crown in 1938, leading the league with 9 wins, a 1.92 ERA and 88 strikeouts. Including games outside of the official record, Smith won 26 games. He also hit a career-high .368 with 3 homers and 13 RBIs. The Monarchs were the class of the league, thanks to Smith on the mound and an offense that included Buck O’Neil at first base, Newt Allen at second base and Willard Brown in the outfield.

Smith won just 6 games against 5 losses for the Monarchs in 1940, though he added 2 more wins over the St. Louis Stars in the league’s championship series. He hardly pitched for Kansas City in 1940, winning just 3 games with a 4.14 ERA. He spent much of the year pitching in Mexico, which was a common occurrence for Negro Leagues players. The pay was good, and the players weren’t subject to the racism they routinely experienced in the United States. Smith returned to K.C. in 1941 and had his best season on the mound, achieving a perfect 10-0 record with a 1.53 ERA. He fanned 53 batters in 76-2/3 innings, leading the NAL in complete games (6), shutouts (2) and saves (3). In his 13 documented appearances, he made just 6 starts. A big reason for that was, for the first time, the Monarchs had two aces.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Satchel Paige joined the Monarchs in 1941 and would pitch off and on for them until he was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948. He and Smith had polar opposite personalities. Paige was a larger-than-life personality, capable of selling out stadiums on name recognition alone. Smith, on the other hand, was a quiet man. Joe Posnanski, then a columnist for the Kansas City Star, said in 2001 that while other ballplayers spent their nights out on the town, Smith preferred to stay in and write letters back home. Whenever the Monarchs got a new player who was illiterate, Smith would teach him how to read on the long bus rides.

Paige was one of the best self-promoters the game has ever seen. Smith seldom talked about his accomplishments, and the friends he made after his playing days were often shocked to find out that he once played baseball – he just never talked about it. But the two men formed a dangerous combination on the mound.

By the 1940s, Paige was in his late 30s or 40s (depending on who you ask) and was in the midst of a dead arm phase after throwing untold thousands of innings. But Paige was also the drawing card, so he started games with the Monarchs or whatever barnstorming team he was fronting at the time. He’d work the first inning or three, so the crowd could get their money’s worth, and then Smith would come in from the bullpen and close out the game.

“In those days, Hilton would sometimes pitch better than Satchel Paige. A lot of times. But Satchel was the show,” said O’Neil, the Hall of Fame Monarchs first baseman and manager. “Satchel was who people had come out to see. Hilton understood that.”

A typical performance came on the first day of the 1941 season, as the Monarchs faced the Memphis Red Sox. Paige started the game and lasted 3 innings. Along with a sore arm, he also had a cracked rib that kept him from pitching any longer. Smith then entered the game in the fourth inning and threw 5 innings in the 7-6 win. Or there was a 1942 exhibition game against former major-leaguer Johnny Sturm’s Jefferson Barracks Soldiers team. Paige worked 3 innings, allowing a first-inning single to Sturm. After striking out 5 of the last 6 batters he faced, he turned the game over to Smith, who threw 6 no-hit innings in relief. Smith also smacked a double and scored one of the 6 Monarch runs on the day. The two pitchers also beat Dizzy Dean’s All-Stars 3-1 on May 24 in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, with Paige throwing 6 innings and Smith 3. According to Smith’s SABR bio, it was the first time a black team had ever played at Wrigley Field.

Smith was 35 years old in 1942 and was starting to lose his dominance. He had a 5-4 record that year but with a 4.69 ERA, and he gave up a league-worst 79 hits and 37 earned runs. While Paige pitched well in his 11 starts, the team benefited from the fine pitching of Jack Matchett and Booker McDaniel, both of whom had 5-1 records. The Monarchs won the league championship and faced off against the Homestead Grays in the World Series. The Monarchs swept the Grays, despite the presence of hitting stars Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson in the Grays’ lineup. Smith started one of the games and threw 5 shutout innings to earn the win. In a reversal of roles, Paige picked up the save in relief.

Smith spent more time in the outfield than the pitcher’s mound in 1943 and ’44, as a sore arm limited his effectiveness. Paige and Smith did combine on a 10-0 no-hitter against Birmingham on August 28, 1944, as infielder Bonnie Serrell hit for the cycle. Smith bounced back to win 6 games in 1945 with a 3.27 ERA, but the Monarchs finished in second place – in spite of the .375 batting average of new shortstop Jackie Robinson. Smith’s last really good season came in 1946, when he was 4-2 with a 1.57 ERA in 8 games, including 6 starts. He pitched for two more seasons, but his curveball wasn’t fooling hitters like it once did. The 40-year-old Smith won 7 games in 1947, but with an ERA of 5.47. That was, of course, the year that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Had be been a decade younger, Smith may very well have joined him. Instead, he retired from pro ball after the 1948 season.

Hilton Smith’s plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Again, the Negro Leagues statistics don’t give a full view of player performance. Smith, for instance, had a 70-39 record over 13 years in official games. However, it was widely reported that he won 20 games every year he was with the Monarchs, if you counted exhibition games. Going by official stats only, Smith had a 2.89 ERA with 575 strikeouts in 921 innings. He appeared in 158 games, including 98 starts. He threw 61 complete games, including 7 shutouts, and saved 11 games. He was a perfect 6-0 in four postseason series with a 1.49 ERA, and the Monarchs won league championships in 1937 and ’39 and the World Series in 1942. The only postseason series Smith lost came in 1946, when the Monarchs fell to the Newark Eagles in the World Series. Smith also had a career .291/.316/.402 slash line as a hitter, with 26 doubles, 6 triples and 6 home runs among his 148 hits.

When asked about pitching in Major League Baseball, Smith acknowledged he was a few years too old to have played a part in integrating the game. “I pitched against enough major leaguers to see if I was on the level. I played against them enough, and they never hit me. So I feel that had I had the chance, I could have pitched in the major leagues,” he is quoted as saying in his SABR bio.

Smith played a little semipro ball after his retirement, but he took a job as a foreman at Armco Steel in Kansas City and held that position until his retirement in 1978. He got back into baseball late in life, managing a Safeway team in the Casey Stengel League and scouting for the Chicago Cubs up until his death.

Slowly, the National Baseball Hall of Fame began to open itself up to Negro League ballplayers for induction. And by “slowly,” I mean that they elected one per year, if that. Smith had a hard time separating himself from all the other qualified candidates. Stories about him didn’t circulate the way they did with Paige, John Gibson or Cool Papa Bell. He didn’t have a memorable nickname like “Bullet” Rogan or “El Diablo” Willie Wells. The people who played with Smith and against him knew he was worthy of baseball’s highest honor, but he remained a hidden gem. Smith had a full life without the Hall, though. He was an active member of the St. Stephen Baptist Church, the chairman of a local Boy Scout troop and a board member of the Metropolitan Senior Citizens Group, as well as his managing and scouting assignments.

Then, in the early 1980s, Smith suddenly started to write letters to the Hall of Fame. He sent them newspaper clippings of his exploits and wrote a brief autobiography. He waited for a phone call to come from the Hall, but it never did.

“I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?’” his son DeMorris related in an interview with Posnanski. “I’ve always been like my father. Quiet. Reserved. Never make a fuss. I simply could not understand it. I suppose that my father knew he was dying.”

Hilton Smith died on November 18, 1983, at Menorah Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. He was 76 years old. The family never got back any of the clippings that Smith had sent to the Hall of Fame. However, he was inducted into the Hall in 2001 by the Veteran’s Committee. He was part of a class that included Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett and Bill Mazeroski. Smith is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

“He was one of the best men I’ve known.”

Buck O’Neil

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3 thoughts on “Grave Story: Hilton Smith (1907-1983)

      1. After learning a little bit about how they handle stuff like that last week, I would think that they do (just depends on if they did in the early ’80s). If I had known, I could’ve checked his file!

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