Negro Leagues hurler Hilton Smith shined in Satchel Paige's shadow with the great K.C. Monarchs
By Robert Falkoff
Hilton Smith was 100 percent meat-and-potatoes, 0 percent dessert.
No frills, no fluff. He didn't produce one-line quips like his friend and colleague Satchel Paige. He didn't seek the headlines by fishing for flamboyancy. To friends, fans and family, Smith's image is rock-solid: A quiet man, a religious man, a humble man. A man who dominated as a right-handed pitcher during the heyday of the Kansas City Monarchs in the old Negro Leagues.
Smith dominated as a right-handed pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs.
He was, in the simple terms that he lived by, just Hilton.
Because talent speaks louder than words, Smith will be posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. Smith died in 1983 at 71, but at least eight family members from the Kansas City area, including wife Louise and sons DeMorris and Hilton II, will be making the trip to Cooperstown, thinking all the way to New York how pleased and proud Hilton would have been to
stand alongside Bill Mazeroski, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett.
DeMorris Smith is scheduled to make the induction speech. A week before the induction ceremony, the thoughts were flying through his head as he sought to put into written words the essence of a man of few words.
"I think the central message I want to get across is that my father was a low-key individual who simply would go out and get the job done," DeMorris Smith said. "He wasn't looking for any recognition, only the opportunity to participate and show what he could do. He didn't make a lot of noise. He didn't go out and celebrate after each game. He just did the job at the ballpark and then turned his attention to his family."
"I'm thrilled about this, because Hilton loved baseball and gave his life to baseball," Louise Smith said. "Satchel was the comedian. My husband just let his performance doing the talking."
By all accounts, Smith was just as good as the charismatic Paige, if not better.
During his 12 years with the Monarchs, 20-win seasons were the rule rather than the exception. Smith won 20 in each of those years and was at his dominating best from 1939 through 1942 when he compiled records of 25-2, 21-3, 25-1 and 22-5. To capitalize on Paige's drawing power, the Monarchs wanted to start him as often as possible. It was common for Paige to start both games of a doubleheader. But the Monarchs would save Paige's arm by pulling him after three innings. Then Smith often came along to slam the door the rest of the way.
"Hilton's arm was all crooked and Satchel's arm was straight as a string," former Monarchs legend Buck O'Neil recalled. "A man once asked Hilton why that was. Hilton thought about it and said: 'Well, Satchel is only pitching three innings. I've got to go six.'"
That crooked arm helped Smith throw the meanest curve ball in the Negro Leagues. Mix in a fastball that O'Neil estimates was in the 95 mph range and hitters had little chance. Smith also threw a sinker, a slider
and a changeup. He could control all of his pitches throwing overhand or sidearm.
"I remember going to Chicago for a big gathering of ex-players from the Negro Leagues," said Don Motley, executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "All these guys start reminiscing and somebody says: 'If you're going to get any runs (against the Monarchs), you'd better get them off Satchell Paige. 'Cause you aren't getting nothing off Hilton Smith.'"
Paige was a Kansas City teammate.
What's that they say about opposites attracting? Smith never begrudged Paige the spotlight.
"Hilton had the perfect demeanor to be on a team with Satchel Paige," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Allowing the naturally animated Paige to grab the spotlight was simply good business, DeMorris Smith noted.
"Satchel had name recognition and it was utilized by the Negro Leagues," DeMorris Smith said. "The recognition brought fans out, so you can't fault that. It's like the golf situation today with Tiger Woods. He's always in the public eye, but most of the players don't resent it because they understand the money he is bringing in for the sport."
After retiring with a 161-32 record in Negro Leagues play, Smith worked with youth baseball in Kansas City. One of his proteges was Frank White, who went on to fame and fortune with the Kansas City Royals.
"I just wish I could be at the induction ceremony," said White, a coach with the Royals who will be occupied at the Kansas City-Minnesota series this weekend. "Hilton Smith coached me on my old Safeway team in the
Casey Stengel League when I was 18 or 19. He not only taught the game, he got you to love the game. He had this real soothing approach and emphasized that you had to understand baseball before you could fully appreciate it. He had a big influence on my career and on my life."
Smith also provided the guidance that allowed DeMorris to have a three-year stint in pro ball with the Cardinals. In the latter years of his life, Smith expressed his feelings that his accomplishments merited Hall of Fame consideration.
"My father wrote a few letters to people at the Hall, indicating they needed to look at his record," DeMorris Smith said.
O'Neil knew all about Smith's record. They were roommates for 10 years with the Monarchs. O'Neil, a member of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, offered first-hand knowledge of Smith's proficiency and the other committee members took notice.
"Hilton embodies the qualities we are trying to get over to people who are learning about the Negro Leagues," Kendrick said. "He was college educated, articulate, gentlemenly. Those are the attributes that are
associated with the majority of those guys who played in the Negro Leagues, unlike what Hollywood has tried to portray."
Smith will become the 19th player from the Negro Leagues to enter the Hall of Fame. At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where all Negro League Hall of Famers have their own locker, Smith's spot is being prepared. His locker will be at the start of a row. Next to him is pitcher Wilbur "Bullet Joe" Rogan and next to Rogan is Satchell Paige.
"Three ex-Monarchs, three Hall of Famers. You could win a few games with that rotation," Kendrick said with a laugh.
According to the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Bob Feller said in 1941 that Smith was better than Paige. Motley maintains that Jackie Robinson called Smith the greatest curve ball pitcher who ever lived. The
stories from yesteryear come rushing at you, making you wish you had seen the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Smith go into his windup and blow somebody away.
"Not only did he pitch, but he batted cleanup sometimes and played the outfield," Motley said. "He was something special."
Something special, indeed. And now the quiet man is about to receive a not-so-quiet salute to greatness.
"He did it his way," DeMorris Smith said. "He was a great player, but even more than that, a great person. All his life, he knew who he was. "
Robert Falkoff is the site reporter for KCRoyals.com