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A Brief, But Stellar Career
— The story of Negro Leaguer Charles “Chino” Smith is one of extremes on and off the field. A native of South Carolina, Smith’s baseball roots can be traced back to his days as a redcap for New York’s Penn Station railroad during the 1920′s. NEW HAVEN, Ct.
He was a second baseman for the company’s baseball team. Smith resided in the Big Apple during his entire Negro League career playing for the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the New York Lincoln Giants.
When the 5-foot-6, 170-pound dynamo suddenly passed away at the age of 29 in 1931, there were many that felt he was one of the best players that the Negro Leagues had to offer.
His career is so revered in his home town of Greenwood that he was on Sports Illustrated’s list of the 50 greatest athletes from the state of South Carolina.
For six seasons, Smith hit an amazing average of .428 during league play. In his rookie season for Brooklyn in 1925, Smith hit .341. In his final season (1931) in the Negro Leagues, Smith hit for a career-high .468 clip.
Arguably, his best season came in 1929 when he joined the Lincoln Giants. He led the American Negro League in homers (23), doubles (27), and average (.464). Unfortunately, RBI stats weren’t kept during that season so it’s uncertain if Smith had enough ribbies to claim the league’s triple crown.
FIRE AND DESIRE According to many opponents and teammates, the only thing more fiery than Smith’s bat was his disposition. Smith played the game with the white-hot intensity of a Ty Cobb, while displaying the skills of a Willie Mays and a Hank Aaron all rolled into one.
Bill Holland, a top pitcher in the 1920s, recalls Smith as one who openly sought disapproval from the crowd. “This guy could do more with the fans down on him,” Holland said. “He’d get up to bat and the pitcher would throw one in there and he’d spit at it.
“The fans would boo him, and he’d come out of the batters box, turn around and make like he was going to move toward hem, and they’d shout, ‘Come On!’ He’d get back in there and hit the ball out of the ball park and go around the bases waving his arms at the stands.”
One of Smith’s greatest days came in July 5, 1930 at Yankee Stadium. In the first game between Negro Leaguers ever played in the Bronx, Smith put on a display that rivaled New York’s biggest star of the day, Babe Ruth.
Playing against the Brooklyn Black Sox, Smith became the first Negro Leaguer to hit a home run in the “House That Ruth Built.” He also added a triple and another home run in that game while driving in six runs in a 13-4 win.
Smith played in the same spot (right field) that Ruth did during Yankee home games. He also batted in the same spot in the order — third — as the Bambino. The Giants used Yankee Stadium when the Bronx Bombers were on the road.
A PREMATURE END
That same season, the Giants would battle the Homestead Grays in a memorable playoff series for the Eastern crown of the Negro National League. New York would fall to the Grays, who were led by Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Oscar Charleston, 7 games to 3.
Smith hit just .214 in the series and was was injured in the final game. He collided with second baseman Rev Cannady on a pop up and was accidentally kneed in the groin by his teammate. Smith had to be carried from the field.
Little did anyone realize at the time that this would be the last time anyone would see Smith on the Negro League diamond. Smith would go over to Cuba to play winter ball, but he only played sparingly.
Smith would come down with a fatal case of yellow fever. There are some that think he hadn’t totally recovered from his nasty collision during the playoffs. Tragically, Smith would pass away at the age of 29 just days before the start of the 1931 season.
His career in the Negro Leagues ended as dynamic as his beginning. There will always be speculation as to just how great a ballplayer Smith would have become if he had the advantage of a longer career.
For some, Smith’s brief career was a microcosm of what the Negro Leagues and their players were all about.
NOTE: The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues; The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, and The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball contributed to this story.