Journalist Wendell Smith

By Tony McClean
Updated: June 30, 2006
Wendell Smith
Wendell Smith

NEW HAVEN, CT.—As journalists, there’s an unwritten rule stating that you report the story, not become part of it. However in some instances, there can be unusual circumstances. Those circumstances can sometimes lead to changes for the greater good, societal and otherwise.

Wendell Smith was a sports journalist that made a career of being civic minded. That civic mindedness led to righting one of the greatest wrongs in all of professional sports.

Born on March 23, 1914 in Detroit, Smith’s father worked in Henry Ford’s household as a chef. He was the only African American student at Southeastern High School in the motor city. He played on that school’s baseball team and was one of the leading pitchers on an American Legion team that featured future Chicago White Sox catcher Mike Tresh.

Smith played baseball at West Virginia State College at Charleston, where he also became the sports editor for the school newspaper during his junior year. Smith began working at The Pittsburgh Courier immediately after graduating in 1937, first as a sportswriter and as the sports editor the following year.

He used his position to protest segregation in professional sports. Smith played a significant, if not central, role in the desegregation of professional baseball in 1946. He is best remembered for his efforts, which led to Jackie Robinson signing with the Dodgers in 1947.

Smith made his first direct inroad into desegregating major league baseball when he advised Boston politician Isadore Muchnick how to gain Boston’s African-American vote. At Smith’s suggestion, Muchnick declared that he would with withhold support for the annual City Council vote allowing Sunday baseball in Boston unless the Red Sox and Braves agreed to allow Negro Leaguers to try out for the team.

These two teams agreed and Smith selected three players to try out: Robinson, Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe. He declined to select Satchel Paige because he was too old (a decision Smith would later regret) and Homestead Grays’ catcher Josh Gibson because of a protest from that club’s owners.

Duffy Lewis, a former player and the Red Sox’ traveling secretary, conducted the hour long try out. While some other sports writers were there, neither national publicity nor a contract offer from the Red Sox or the Braves came out of the tryout.

He then recommended Robinson to Brooklyn Dodger president and GM Branch Rickey for the “great experiment,” and traveled and roomed with Robinson during the baseball player’s early Dodgers career.

“Mr. Rickey asked if I would live with Jackie, be his companion on the road” Smith said. ” That’s when he put me on the Brooklyn payroll, $50 a week, about the same amount I was getting as sports editor of the Courier. He hired me as a scout, to scout Negro ballplayers.”

“I had been a ballplayer, an all-city high school pitcher in Detroit; but I knew nothing of scouting. I was getting paid to help Jackie jump the hurdles.”

“I never socialized with the writers. In the South it was forbidden. If they wanted me to go to dinner with them, it was against the law. I’m sure they would have liked to have me join them. They didn’t ask because they knew it was impossible. But I considered myself part of the press corps. I was writing daily stories. I was Jackie’s Boswell.”

In 1948, Smith left the Courier and joined the staff of the Chicago American as a sportswriter covering primarily boxing. No longer working at an African-American newspaper, Smith’s application for membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association was ratified (after numerous attempts while at the Courier). While he wrote for the American, Smith continued to encourage the full integration of spring training sites.

Smith also felt that the inclusion of Robinson and other African-American players in the major leagues did not mean that the Negro Leagues should fold. He wrote repeatedly of the need for his readers to support the Negro Leagues and promoted the annual East-West game in his columns.

He stayed with that paper for nearly 14 years. In 1964, he became the sportscaster for Chicago’s television station WGN. At the time of his death in 1972, Smith was the president of the Chicago Press Club.

In 1993, Smith was posthumously given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, enshrining him in the “writers wing” of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In the tradition of Sam Lacy, Mal Goode, and others, the career and struggles of Mr. Smith stands as an inspiration for every minority journalist everywhere.

NOTE: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and The African-American Registry contributed to this story.