Cooperstown Confidential: thinking about Al Smithby Bruce Markusen
January 27, 2012
I must confess that when I first heard about the death of Al Smith 10 years ago, I knew little about him or his career. I remembered him mainly as being the pour soul who had a glass of beer dumped on him by a careless fan at the old Comiskey Park. The photo of Smith being doused with beer has become iconic for baseball fans. But there is more, so much more, to the story of a very fine ballplayer.
With a name like Al Smith, it’s easy to become overlooked. He did have a colorful nickname in “Fuzzy,“ pinned on him by a minor league teammate who noticed how quickly his facial hair grew. But his actual name was exceedingly bland. Coco Crisp, minor leaguer Wonderful Monds, and Orval Overall have names that make you curious to learn more about their accomplishments and personalities. With an Al Smith, the motivation to learn more must come from somewhere else. In Smith’s case, he was not only a good player but a man who overcame obstacles, including the color line, position switches, unpopular trades and displeased fans.
Although Smith played through the mid-1960s, his professional career actually began in the Negro Leagues, at a time when segregation was only beginning to break down in baseball. He broke in with the now forgotten Cleveland Buckeyes in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson was making history for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Smith and the Buckeyes claimed the 1947 Negro American League championship. One year later, Smith signed a contract with the Indians organization, but it was a minor league assignment with no promise of major league glory. Smith spent nearly six full seasons working his way through Cleveland’s system, improving his OPS almost every season, before finally receiving the big league call in 1953.
A right-handed hitter and thrower, Smith didn’t hit much as a rookie, but immediately impressed the Indians with his defense in left field. By the following year, his offensive game showed enough improvement to earn placement in the starting lineup. Initially, he played infield for the 1954 Indians, before being switched to left field, where he beat out veteran Dale Mitchell.
Impressed with his patient approach to hitting, the Indians installed him as their leadoff man. He responded by reaching base at a clip of .398, scoring 101 runs, and skillfully setting the table for middle-of-the-lineup mashers like Al Rosen, Larry Doby and Vic Wertz. (Yeah, those ‘54 Indians could play a little bit.) Though overshadowed by the bigger names in a deep and talented lineup, Smith played a huge role in the Indians winning 111 games, at the time an American League record.
Smith and the Indians ended up losing the World Series in stunning fashion, dropping four straight games to the upstart New York Giants. It wasn’t really Smith’s fault; he reached base 35 per cent of the time and hit a leadoff home run on the first pitch of Game Two.
As well as Smith played in 1954, he elevated his game the following summer. With a .407 on-base percentage, 22 home runs, and a league-leading 123 runs scored, Smith emerged as the Indians’ best everyday player. His career season earned him a third-place finish in the MVP race, ahead of such immortals as Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Only Yogi Berra and Al Kaline, two other Hall of Famers, bettered him in the MVP balloting.
Unfortunately, Smith’s 1955 season would represent his pinnacle. His play fell off appreciably the following two seasons. In 1957, the Indians switched him between the outfield and third base, a move that displeased him, and somewhat understandably so, considering his defensive acumen in the outfield. The Indians told Smith they wanted to make him their fulltime third baseman in 1958. So Smith asked for a trade.
The White Sox accommodated Smith during the offseason. The Indians sent him and Hall of Fame right-hander Early Wynn to the White Sox for Minnie Minoso and Fred Hatfield.
The trade became a public relations disaster for the White Sox. Smith became well-liked by his new teammates, but Minoso was such a popular player with the ChiSox that Chicago fans blamed Smith for being his replacement. Unfairly, Smith became a frequent target of boobirds at Comiskey Park. Given such a negative atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Smith batted only .252 and .237 in his first two seasons in the Windy City.
Bill Veeck, the legendary owner of the Indians, sensed that Smith was being made a scapegoat and tried to soothe the situation. On Aug. 26, 1959, he held “Al Smith Night” at Comiskey Park. Anyone with the last name of Smith (or any name that resembled Smith) would be admitted to the ballpark free and given a button that said, “I’m A Smith and I’m For Al.” It was the pure promotional genius of Veeck at its best, but it initially seemed to backfire. That night, Smith dropped a fly ball that led directly to a 7-6 loss for the White Sox.
After that moment of embarrassment, Smith responded with a late-season charge. He hit six home runs over the final five weeks of the season, including a key blast on Sept. 22. His home run, coming against his former mates in Cleveland, helped the White Sox to a win that clinched the American League pennant. The “Go Go Sox,” so named for their emphasis on singles hitting and speed, advanced to the 1959 World Series to play the Dodgers.
That World Series would provide the singular moment of fame in Smith’s career. In Game Two, he ran back toward the wall on Charlie Neal’s long drive. As Smith stood at the brick wall, forlornly watching Neal’s drive land a few rows deep into the Comiskey Park stands, he was greeted by a face full of beer, dumped on him from the stands.
“It hit the bill of my cap and came down the side of my face,” Smith said later. “It was in my nose and everywhere.” The Chicago Tribune ran a picture spread of the famous dousing. Taken by photographer Ray Gora using a new high tech camera designed to cover NASA rocket launches, the photos presented an eight-part sequence of the incident. The photos were picked up nationwide, making Smith a celebrity of sorts, but for all the wrong reasons.
At first, Smith thought a fan had tossed the beer at him intentionally. But the left field umpire told him that the fan had accidentally knocked the beer over while trying to catch the home run ball. The fan, a motor oil company executive named Melvin Piehl, later explained that he was trying to make the catch so that the ball wouldn’t hit his boss’ wife, who was sitting next to him. At least Smith could take some consolation in knowing that one of the hometown fans meant him no harm.
The White Sox ended up losing that game, and the Series, just as the Indians had in 1954. Perhaps that’s one reason Smith is not better remembered.
By 1960, Smith’s popularity in Chicago seemed to turn a corner, as he became accepted by the Chicago fans who were now placated by the return of Minoso via trade. To make room for him, the Sox asked Smith to move to right field. He not only made the move unflinchingly, but he also batted .315, good enough for second in the league batting race, and earned a spot on his second All-Star team. The following year, he put together his best season in terms of raw power, reaching career highs with 28 home runs and 93 RBI.
Smith followed with a slightly less productive season in 1962, but he would run into a more significant roadblock because of a change in Sox ownership. Veeck, whom Smith loved to the point of calling him “the greatest man… in baseball,” had sold the team. His departure left the Sox’ day-to-day operations in the hands of new general manager Ed Short.
Smith bristled when Short asked him to move back to third base. White Sox management also asked Smith to become an off-season ticket seller. When Smith balked at the proposed wintertime job, the White Sox traded him and Luis Aparicio to the Orioles for Hoyt Wilhelm, Ron Hansen, Pete Ward and Dave Nicholson.
By now 35, Smith started to slip badly. He played a year in Baltimore before making a short return to Cleveland for a half-season and then finishing up his career with the Red Sox. At 36, the talented and versatile Mr. Smith was done.
After his playing career, Smith remained in baseball, just not in the major leagues. He went to work managing the park district baseball program for the city of Chicago, remaining in that position from 1966 to 1981. He also did some part-time work for the White Sox in the field of community relations.
Ten years ago, Smith, by then retired, underwent arterial surgery. Afterward, he suffered cardiac arrest and died at the age of 73.
The headlines of some of his obituaries highlighted the incident with the cup of beer. Yet, there was so much more to this man, who was a Negro Leagues standout, a productive player for two World Series teams, a highly regarded teammate, and a popular citizen in the city of Chicago. Al Smith might have had a plain name, but he had a rather remarkable life.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.