RIP to Dwight Smith, a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1989 and a sparkplug of one on the best Cubs teams of the last half century. The Atlanta Braves, with whom he won a World Series championship in 1995, reported that he died on July 22 at the age of 58. Legacy.com has stated that the cause of death was congestive heart failure. Smith played for the Chicago Cubs (1989-1993), California Angels (1994), Baltimore Orioles (1994) and Atlanta Braves (1995-96).
“Dwight was… a beloved alumni member, and his infectious smile will be missed around Truist Park. Our deepest condolences to his wife Cheryl, daughters Taylor and Shannyn and son Dwight Jr,” the Braves said in a statement. He is also survived by his eldest daughter Akande and grandchildren Taelor and Ryliegh. Dwight Smith Jr. played for four seasons in the majors with the Blue Jays and Orioles and currently plays for the Lexington Legends of the Atlantic League.
Much of this story will come from his SABR biography, which I wrote a couple of years ago. When SABR was looking for some writers to work on biographies for its book about the 1995 Atlanta Braves championship team, Dwight Smith was an easy choice for me. For Cubs fans whose baseball memories stretch back into the 1980s, winning teams are relatively few and far between. Those postseason runs are remembered fondly, and the 1989 Central Division-winning Cubs is one of the best. It was a wonderful summer to be a Cubs fan, with people like Lloyd McClendon and Rick Wrona pulling out feats of heroism, Mike Bielecki and Greg Maddux pitching like aces and Mitch Williams making every save opportunity a thrill ride. And Dwight Smith was usually in the middle of all the action, getting a clutch base hit or driving in a key run. He didn’t even start the season with the Cubs. He came up from Triple-A when the team’s entire starting outfield went down with injuries, and he was an immediate sensation. It wasn’t just his play that won fans over. He had a great smile, and he seemed to radiate joy. He became the first active Cubs player that I could remember to sing the National Anthem before the game. My aunt and uncle took me to that game, and while I can’t remember the action in the game itself, I still remember how well he sang.
John Dwight Smith was born in Tallahassee, Fla., on November 8, 1963. Early on it became clear that his two great gifts were singing and baseball. He grew up in South Carolina and was part of a church choir in Varnville by the time he was five years old. He lost his father, Wallace, at an early age, and Smith and his three older brothers were supported by their mother, Annie Mae. He was a two-sport star (baseball and football) at Wade Hampton High School but decided that baseball might be the best chance for a scholarship. He signed a baseball grant-in-aid with Spartanburg Methodist College in July 1982. Spartanburg was a good fit for Smith. For one, the baseball team was very good and reached the Julior College World Series in 1983. Secondly, the school had a music program that let him wotk on his other passion.
Smith was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1984 Draft – Regular Phase, for junior college players. He didn’t sign, but when the Cubs picked him in the third round of the 1984 Draft – Secondary Phase, he joined the organization and reported to the Pikeville Cubs. He hit .236 there, with 39 stolen bases in 61 games. He moved up through the Cubs’ system pretty steadily, improving all the while. The 1986 season with the Peoria Chiefs was the one that made Smith a true prospect; he batted .310 with 22 doubles, 11 triples, and 11 home runs. He stole 53 bases and was rated as the fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the Midwest League, according to a Baseball America poll of team managers.
Smith played hard in the summers, and he would return to South Carolina and work just as hard on his musical chops. When Annie Mae died in 1985, the last thing she said to her son was, “Make the big leagues, Dwight, and cut your album.”
Smith advanced to the upper levels of the Cubs’ minor leagues, reaching Triple-A Iowa in 1988. He continued to impress his teammates. “I don’t know that any player does it better,” said Iowa manager Pete Mackanin. “He surprised me the first time. He’s awesome,” said teammate Mark Grace. Of course, they were referring to Smith’s singing ability, but Cubs instructor and Hall of Famer Billy Williams was definitely referring to Smith’s baseball skills when he said, “He’s one of those can’t-miss people. Dwight Smith will be in the big leagues someday.”
Smith first had a chance to be in the big leagues in spring training of 1989. Unfortunately, he hit and fielded poorly, and did nothing to convince manager Don Zimmer that he was ready for the majors. He started the season back in Iowa while another rookie, Jerome Walton, became the Cubs’ starting center fielder.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. I read too many papers about Dwight Smith going to have a shot,” said Smith, who frequently referred to himself in the third person during his career. “I learned something from that. I learned that you can’t get the best out of whatever you do if you’re going to press. You’ve got to relax and let it happen.”
Smith got a second chance when Cubs outfielders Walton, Andre Dawson and Mitch Webster battled injuries early in the season. Smith was part of the reenforcements from Iowa and made his debut on May 1 in San Francisco. He was 0-for-3 with a caught stealing in that game, but he singled twice off Rick Reuschel on May 2 and drew a walk off Giants reliever Rich Gossage. From there, Smith never let up. After a month in the majors, he was hitting .327. After a 3-for-5 performance against Montreal on June 13, his batting average reached .375. He hit his first major-league home run off David Cone of the Mets on June 5. Zimmer gave the left-handed hitting Smith a rare start against a southpaw the very next day. He homered off lefty Bob Ojeda. Smith was playing in right field at the time to spell an injured Dawson, but he moved over to left field when Dawson recovered and stayed there for the rest of the season. Smith was better in right field than left throughout his career, but he played the position well enough, and his offense helped make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Smith finished the season with a .324/.382/.493 slash line, with 9 home runs, 52 RBIs, 52 runs scored and a 141 OPS+. More importantly, his play helped the Cubs finish in first place and advance to the NL Division Series. The team dropped a well-played contest to the Giants in 5 games, and Smith batted just .200 in the postseason. But his strong rookie campaign got him a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year vote. Why only second place? Because his teammate Walton made plenty of headlines with a 30-game hitting streak. Even though Walton’s .293/.335/.385 and 100 OPS+ didn’t compare to Smith’s numbers, he placed first on 22 of the 24 ballots. He gave Smith plenty of credit, though. “It helped me a lot once Dwight got here. I had someone on my level to chat with. Dwight is a comedian,” Walton said.
Unfortunately for both rookies, 1989 was their best season in the major leagues. Smith’s average dropped to .262 in 1990, and Zimmer was quick — maybe a little too quick — to move Smith to a part-time role. When the Cubs acquired All-Star George Bell over the offseason, the message was clear — Smith was relegated to the bench. He was professional about the moves, but he did indicate that a change might need to be made. “For personal reasons, I don’t want to leave Chicago. For career reasons, I probably need to,” he said.
New outfielders were brought into the mix, including Bell, Derrick May, Doug Dascenzo and, thanks to one of the great trades in Cub history, Sammy Sosa. Smith’s playing time varied over the next few seasons. He appeared in just 90 games in 1991 and hit .228 but raised his average to .276 in 109 games in ’93. He made more starts in right field to give Dawson and his chronically bad knees extra rest, and he became a very good pinch-hitter. He had 14 pinch-hits in 1992, which is still among the best in team history.
Smith gained extra playing time in 1993 when veterans Willie Wilson and Candy Maldonado underperformed, and he responded with a solid .300 batting average in 111 games. He hit a career-high 11 home runs and had an OPS of .848 and OPS+ of .128. Yet the Cubs declined to offer him a contract after the season, making him a free agent. The team was in a budget crunch, and they had the choice of keeping either Smith or Glenallen Hill as their reserve outfielder. Smith was given the news around Christmastime that he was no longer a Cub. He was understandably hurt. “It was almost like home — and almost like your parents put you out,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I guess I was a Cub and now I’m a bear. So I’ve got to find my own food.”
There couldn’t have been a better indicator of Smith’s value to the Cubs than spring training of 1994. Smith had signed with the California Angels, and the first time that the two teams played each other, Cubs players hung a sign that read, “Welcome to Dwight Smith Field” and gave him a hero’s welcome when he came onto the field. “Amazing. Wasn’t he the fourth outfielder on this club?” asked baffled Angels manager Buck Rodgers.
Smith hit .262 with 5 home runs and 18 RBIs in 45 games with the Angels in ’94. He platooned with Bo Jackson in left field until the Angels brought Jim Edmonds to the majors. The team then traded Smith to the Baltimore Orioles, who wanted a left-handed bat off the bench for the stretch run. He delivered for the O’s, slashing .311/.363/.486, up until the season was canceled due to the players’ strike.
Though Smith had played well in 1994, with a .281 batting average between the two teams, he elected to sign with the Atlanta Braves in 1995. He was living in the Atlanta suburbs by then, so the commute was definitely an improvement. However, the Braves already had a formidable outfield of Ryan Klesko, Marquis Grisson and David Justice, so there was little chance of Smith cracking the starting lineup. But he was looking beyond playing time at that point in his career. “After six seasons, you are looking for rings, not rebuilding. The Braves are where it’s at,” he said.
The move worked out perfectly, as the Braves reached the World Series and won the only championship in their long run of 1990s dominance. Smith spent most of his time coming off the bench to pinch hit — 82 of his 103 games came in that role. He didn’t shine as a pinch-hitter, with 16 hits for a .232 average. Thanks to some timely hitting in his spot starts, Smith hit .252 with the Braves overall. One of those starts came against the Cubs on August 27. He went 2-for-3 with a run scored in his return to Wrigley Field. The Braves invited him to sing the Anthem a couple of times during the season. Once at Turner Field, he performed the Anthem while Elton John was in the crowd. The two met later on, and John asked Smith for a demo tape.
Smith appeared in all four games of the 1995 NL Division Series against the Colorado Rockies (and sang the National Anthem once). He had two hits in three at-bats, including an RBI pinch hit in Game One that momentarily gave the Braves a 4-3 lead. Atlanta would lose that lead but win the game, 5-4. Smith was 0-for-2 in the NL Championship Series against Cincinnati and had a hit and a walk in three plate appearances against Cleveland in the World Series. His one World Series base hit came off Dennis Martinez in a 4-3 win over the Indians in Game Two.
Smith was reunited with his friend Walton in 1996, as the Braves kept both players as reserve outfielders. Walton had a great year as a part-time player, but Smith struggled to a .203 batting average and was kept off the postseason roster, as the Braves lost to the Yankees in the World Series. Smith became a free agent after the season and had a chance to sign with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The plan was to send Smith to the Mexican League for 1997 so that he could be ready for the team’s inaugural season in 1998. However, he suffered a sciatic nerve injury and never made it to Mexico. Instead, he played with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. He bounced around with the Rays and Orioles’ minor leagues in 1998 but never reached the majors again.
In eight major-league seasons, Smith slashed .275/.333/.422, with 497 hits that included 88 doubles, 20 triples, and 46 home runs. He drove in 226 runs and scored 244 times. He hit .273 in 13 postseason games with the Cubs and Braves and was a career .269 pinch-hitter, with 87 hits and 8 pinch-hit homers.
Smith had a pretty quiet post-baseball career. He gave batting lessons in Atlanta, and one of his finest pupils was his own son, Dwight Jr. When the younger Smith reached the majors, his father gave a couple of short interviews, and it was pretty clear how much of a proud papa he was.
I don’t know if Smith ever released an album. One report stated that he spent the offseason between his time with the Cubs and Angels recording an R&B record called R U Down, but I don’t know if it was ever released. In addition to his pipes and his bat, Smith should also be remembered for being one of the all-time great teammates.
“He was the best pinch-hitter in Cub history, and he was the greatest guy I ever saw in a clubhouse,” said Mark Grace in a 1994 interview with Chicago Tribune‘s Jerome Holtzman. “He has a great sense of humor, kept everybody loose. And he can sing and dance and does great imitations. He’s hilarious. He probably could be a stand-up comic.”