Tuesday, November 19, 2013

164. Chino Smith: Like a Meteor

Some ball field, somewhere in 1928 or 1929.

The air was electric. With the score tied up for the past 6 innings, the crowd had settled in the sticky late afternoon heat. After the first batter struck out, the number two man had just hit a cheap single that dropped behind the shortstop who was playing for a bunt. Now the crowd came to life. They knew who the man on deck was and what he could do. Chino Smith could break a ballgame wide open with a single swing of his bat. The stands were filled with taunts, screams, insults - even a few hats were launched onto the grass, but Chino Smith didn't care.

Savagely throwing the two extra bats he used to warm up behind him, he strode slowly towards the plate. Instead of walking in a straight line, he swung deliberately out of his way towards the hostile crowd. The noise got louder and he paused at one point to gaze menacingly over his shoulder. His eyes, slightly slanting at the corners, gave him a faintly Asian look, and from that sprung his nickname - Chino. Turning back, he continued his walk to the plate. He kicked savagely at the dirt, digging a hole for his spikes to get traction. He swung the bat back and forth and finally pointed it at the pitcher.

"I'm gonna kill you today". 

His voice was loud, booming and eerily even. The crowd ate it up and yelled louder than before. They cried for the pitcher to stick one in his ear. The catcher said something, but no one could hear for the crowd. The pitcher didn't say a word. He checked the runner on first.

The first pitch was close, a brush-back, up just beneath his chin. Fully expecting it, Chino dodged it and unleashed a foul stream of tobacco juice at it as it hissed by. The runner on first had taken off and took second standing up. Chino pointed at the runner, silently taunting the pitcher. The crowd loved it and hated it.

"That all you got? That all you gonna throw?" 

The pitcher pounded his glove and eyed the man on second.

"Cause if that's all you throwin', I'm gonna kill you today."

The stands erupted with an even louder torrent of hatred. Someone threw a soda bottle. Chino suddenly made towards the box seats along the first base line but stopped after a few steps. A smile curled up from the edge of his mouth and he turned back towards the plate. The umpire kicked the bottle back towards the crowd.

The next pitch sailed in just a bit outside but still within reach. With a flick Chino smashed the ball straight back at the pitcher who feebly stabbed at the ball while instinctively jumping out of the way. The runner on second crossed the plate before the center fielder made the play and Chino stood on first base like he owned it. When the crowd quieted down he motioned at the pitcher.

"Hey! I made you jump out there!"

The pitcher threw the ball in the dirt and charged towards first. The slight curl in the corner of Chino's lips turned into a full-blown smile as he braced for the coming fight.


When it comes to blackball, you take it for granted that due to lack of newspaper coverage, record keeping and plain-old racism that it's tough to discern truth from myth. With a guy like Chino Smith, the waters become as murky as Lock Ness. His career was so meteoric and short that over the years he took on an almost King Arthur-like reputation. And like the Medieval knight, whose story is based in fact, much of what is repeated is not. Often called a small man, listed in most books as 5'-6", if you just look at a team photo you can see he was most likely 5-11 or 6 foot. Not a giant, but average for a ballplayer in 1930. I reckon somewhere in some newspaper many years ago there is a typo that just kept getting reprinted. Even his great nickname "Chino", which he is universally known by today, is not quite correct. While the Spanish language press and fans in Cuba dubbed him Chino, after his "Chinese-looking eyes", in the States he was known to fellow players by the less racy "Smitty", and to the public as just plain-old "Charlie", his given name.

Though said to be from Greenwood, South Carolina, baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill uncovered that Charlie Smith really came out of Hamlet, North Carolina. As a teen he added muscles by lugging baggage in New York's Pennsylvania Station and honed his baseball skills playing for the ball club made up of porters like him called the Redcaps. Boasting quite a few future and former blackball players, the Redcaps were a valuable training ground and after a few seasons playing for second-tier teams, Smith turned pro in 1925. Smitty's team, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, were one of the old independent blackball teams, but by 1925 they'd joined the Eastern Colored League. Playing alongside aging vets like Dick Redding, Bill Holland and Jesse Hubbard, Smith spent 1925 and 1926 getting his bearings and learning his craft. By 1927 he emerged as one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game.

In an era filled with hard characters, Smith quickly earned a reputation as one of the toughest. He was the grandfather of trash-talkers and decades later when old-timers tired of waxing poetically about Smitty's skills with a bat, they often turned to talking about the verbal abuse he slung like line drives. Once in Cuba he'd had a bust up with the Yankee's ace Johnny Allen which over the years turned into something of a legend. While some blackball players like Satchel Paige delighted crowds with good-natured antics, Smitty made them angry and dangerously on the edge. He deliberately riled up the crowd which in turn made him play harder.

Playing for the Royal Giants, Smitty averaged above .400 in league games in '27 and '28. In 1929 Smith moved from the aging Royal Giants to the New York Lincoln Giants, a younger and more competitive club. Just 28 and at his peak, Smith crushed the ball, going .465 and then .429 in 1930. He was the most feared batter outside the major leagues, which some might argue doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot. A common argument is made that the Royal Giants and his next team, the Lincoln Giants, played their home games in an oddly shaped ballpark called the Catholic Protectory Oval up in the Bronx. It was shaped, as it's name suggests, like an oval, much like the Polo Grounds where the New York Giants and Yankees played. The field had very shallow left and right field dimensions, making many modern historians look disparagingly at Smith's Ty Cobb-like averages. On the surface that's a great argument, but the Royals and the Lincolns didn't play the majority of their games "at home". Negro League teams traveled more than professional white teams and even league games were scheduled at neutral parks. The Lincolns, for instance, played some of their home games at Yankee Stadium during Smith's career. In games played against the other big names of the day, Smitty hit as good or better than the best outsider baseball had to offer.

Like many of the big stars of the Negro leagues, Smith was invited to play winter ball in Cuba. Down in the Caribbean the blackballers got to test their mettle against not only the best Latin players, but also against touring major leaguers and up and coming white stars. In the handful of winters spent on the island, Smith batted in the range of .340, putting him right about the top 10 of the time. In addition, pioneer blackball historian John Holway tracked down a slate of Stateside games in which Smith got to face off against active major league pitching (active big league hurlers, not washed up retreads throwing for semi-pro teams). Smitty clipped them at the same pace he did the Eastern Colored League pitchers: In 11 games against big leaguers Smith had 15 hits in 37 at bats, a .405 average. 

The two best pitchers of Smith's day, Baltimore's Laymon Yokely and the eternal Satchel Paige whose career spanned the 1920's to the 1960's, both put Smith in the top 3 of the toughest batters they faced. When Colonel Ruppert opened up Yankee Stadium to black teams in 1930, Charlie Smith was the star of the inaugural game. Facing the Baltimore Black Sox, defending champs of the American Negro League, Smith walked in the first, hit a two-run homer in the third, smashed an RBI triple in the fifth and then wrapped it all up with a three-run homer in the seventh. Nothing it seemed, could stop Smitty.

Then, just like that, it was over.

Sometime during the 1931 season, Smith started to feel sick. Self-medicating with a variety of different elixirs failed to prevent his batting average to plummet. Traveling to Cuba for the winter season, Smitty played a few games and then returned home to his wife in the Bronx. In less than a month after Christmas he was dead. Some attributed his illness to a game against the Homestead Grays when he took a knee to his stomach during a savage collision with Walt Cannady, others say it was yellow fever picked up in Cuba. Baseball archaeologist Gary Ashwill however put an end to the speculation when he uncovered Smith's death certificate which stated he died of stomach and pancreatic cancer. He was just 31 years old.

I went back and forth whether or not to put "Chino" on the front of Smith's card. When I started doing my illustrations and stories over 3 years ago, I began with the idea that I wanted my work to be as accurate as possible. Most of the time this comes down to very minute things like uniform details, but in this case I eventually thought it important to put the name he was known for in the States. In my research going through 1920's and 30's newspapers, the name Chino was never used, only "Charlie Smith". Since I illustrated him as a member of the 1930 Lincoln Giants playing at the Catholic Protectory Oval, I ultimately decided to give him the name he would have been known by as at the time. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran's Day

I originally posted the story of Captain Eddie Grant, former New York Giants 3rd baseman, 3 years ago in honor of Veterans Day. To show my respect and gratitude to all the men and women who interrupted their lives in order to serve and protect this country, I'd like to post it again, my small way to say thank you.

On a day like today, Veteran's Day, I want to feature a real hero. These days it seems anyone who does anything can be termed a hero. We are losing the real meaning of that word and that is something that really bothers me, especially when I learn about ordinary men and women who somehow rise to the top and emerge as real heroes. Miners trapped in Chile may be survivors and noteworthy, but they are not heroes. But, instead of writing an introduction outing the many pseudo-heroes that the media seems to create, I will let the story of a real, bona-fide hero speak for itself.

They called him "Harvard Eddie." At a time when most ballplayers barely had a high school education, third baseman Eddie Grant, Harvard Class of 1909, was a member of the Massachusetts Bar, a full-fledged lawyer. He was also a darn good third baseman, batting .322 for Jersey City and leading the Eastern League during his first year in pro ball. The next season, 1907, Grant was called up to the Philadelphia Phillies. He quickly gained attention, not from his bat or fielding skills, but for what he would say on the field: when calling out his claim on a pop fly, instead of yelling the common "I GOT it!", Harvard Eddie called out the proper phrase, "I HAVE it!" much to the amusement of his more modestly educated teammates.

During off seasons Grant returned to Boston to practice law, but each spring he took up baseball again. Traded to Cincinnati in 1911, he lost something at the plate and his batting average plummeted. The death of his wife after barely 9 months of marriage might have been the reason why. In 1913 the New York Giants picked Grant up and although he rode the bench more often than not, John McGraw took a liking to the scholarly third sacker and made him the Giants' bench coach. As much as he loved the game, Grant disliked the life of a part-time coach and player and a the age of 32, retired to pursue his law career full-time.

The Great War had been raging in Europe for 3 years by now and many of Grant's Harvard classmates were active participants even before the U.S. entered the war. Whether they drove ambulances for one of the volunteer organizations operating just behind the trenches or flew airplanes for the French in the Lafayette Flying Corps, college educated men of that era felt a sense of duty and adventure that sadly seems lacking these days. Once America entered the war in April of 1917, even more of these privileged men from wealthy families left their lucrative careers and easy lives to become officers in the rapidly expanding U.S. Army. Back then the Army assumed that a college educated man made a natural leader and "Harvard Eddie" was made Captain of Company H, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. After a period of training on Long Island with his men, Grant sailed for France in the summer of 1918.

The American Army was eager to prove itself to their Allies, France and Britain and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was its chance. Launched on October 2nd, 1918, the Battle of the Argonne was one of the fiercest fights in American military history. The 77th Division charged into the Argonne Forest and strait into the solidly entrenched veteran German Army. It was during the confusing first day of the battle that Major Whittlesey, a New York attorney, got isolated and pinned down deep within the dense forest. Although forever known as "The Lost Battalion", Whittlesey knew exactly where he and his men were, it was just that no one else in the U.S. Army did. After a few anxious days, American aviators braved the dense German anti-aircraft fire and finally located Whittlesey and his battalion. Pilot Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley volunteered to circle the forest with the idea that the place that did not fire back at them would be the the location of the lost battalion. They were right and after taking heavy fire which mortally wounded both men, their DH-4 aircraft crashed just short of the French lines. The French soldiers rushed forward to help the downed aviators. Goettler was already dead but Bleckley, with his last dying breath pressed a bloody note into the hands of the closest French soldier. On it was a map showing the location of Whittlesey and his men! With this new information, Captain Eddie Grant and Company H was among the units rushed into the Argonne to rescue the Lost Battalion.

By the morning of October 5th, Eddie Grant and his men had been on the front line and in the thick of the fighting for 4 days. No one, most of all Captain Grant, had had any time for sleep. Being awake and constantly under enemy fire for 4 days must have been a terrible feeling. Add on top of that the responsibility for the lives of the 150 men of his company and you can imagine the stress Grant must have been under. Taken out of the line that day for rest, a fellow officer described the captain as barely able to lift his arm to bring a cup of much needed coffee to his lips. But his company's reprieve was short-lived. The Lost Battalion had been found. When orders to move-out came, Grant got to his feet and took his place at the head of his Company. He led them right back into the Argonne.

The Germans threw everything they had at the Americans rushing into the forest. If Whittlesey and his dwindling men could be captured or killed it would be a devastating blow to the upstart fresh Americans as well as their weary Allies. The story of the Lost Battalion had made newspapers all over the globe and its rescue would come as a giant shot in the arm to the young nation eager to prove itself to the world in the greatest war mankind had ever known. As the 307th Regiment marched forward the German artillery pounded the road leading into the forest. Men and horses were torn to bits by the constant exploding shells but still Captain Grant and the American Army moved forward through the hail of shrapnel.

Among the wounded being brought back past the advancing infantrymen was Major Jay, commander of Grant's battalion. Recognizing Eddie he waved him over. All the other ranking officers were either dead or wounded. Harvard Eddie was now in charge of the battalion.

Though it didn't seem possible, the shelling increased. The Germans knew they had to destroy the Americans before they reached Whittlesey. The whole road had become a deathtrap but everyone knew they had to move forward. Grant called his officers together to brief them on the situation. At that moment a shell exploded, tearing apart the two young lieutenants standing next to Eddie. Grant tried yelling over the screams and explosions for a stretcher bearer. Signaling his men to take cover and waving his arms wildly in desperation for medics that never came, the next shell exploded directly on top of Harvard Eddie. He died instantly.

New York sports writer Damon Runyon was a war correspondent in France during war and had known Eddie Grant well during his time with the Giants. He wrote a stirring eulogy for the former third baseman entitled "Eddie Grant Sleeps In The Argonne Forest". The story was reprinted widely including in the 1919 Spalding Guide and Grant, the only major leaguer killed in the war, gained posthumous fame. In 1921 the New York Giants dedicated a plaque commemorating the former infielder and bench coach in front of which a wreath was placed each Memorial Day in a solemn ceremony started by his old friend, John McGraw. That plaque was famously stolen after the last Giants game at the Polo Grounds in 1957. Historians searched in vain for the plaque or any trace of who the scumbag was who stole it but it wasn't until 1999 that a couple moving into their new Hohokus, New Jersey home discovered a plaque wrapped in a blanket hidden in the attic. Turns out the home was formerly owned by a New York City cop named
Gaetano Bucca. Officer Bucca, whose police beat in 1957 included the neighborhood surrounding the Polo Grounds, had apparently stolen the memorial. But baseball historians aren't positive the plaque is the real one stolen from the Polo Grounds. The San Francisco Giants for their part didn't seem to care as they try to distance themselves from their former life in Manhattan. First World War historians did however finally get the team to install a replacement in the new ballpark a few years ago. You can see it near the Lefty O'Doul entrance, but in this day and age of so many "heroes", this modest memorial to a fallen soldier who gave his life for his country just doesn't seem to be enough.

Dedicated to every serviceman and servicewoman who interrupted their lives, and in some cases such as Captain Grant, gave their life, so I may live free in this great country of ours. Thank You.

Friday, November 1, 2013

163. Joe Boley: The Cost of Being Too Good

Even though I left Baltimore over 17 years ago, I still have a soft spot for its ball clubs, the 1920's International League Orioles being a particular favorite. From 1919 to 1925 they won a record seven straight pennants and many baseball historians call them the best minor league team of all time. Problem is, except for brief mentions in Lefty Grove biographies no one has really written about them. The talent stacked up on this club was unbelievable and no less than four would go on to be key members of Connie Mack's 1929-31 A's juggernaut, often called the best major league team of all time. Among the stars of the team was Joe Boley, hailed by contemporary sports writers as the best shortstop in baseball, at any level. All but forgotten today, Boley had the makings of a superstar and indeed was, just on a minor league level. It wasn't a lack of talent that stood in the way of his making the big leagues, it was that Joe Boley was too good...

The newspapers called him "Silent Joe" because of, well, he didn't talk all that much. In fact, Joe didn't do much of anything except play shortstop better than anyone else and hit like the bat was an extension of his forearm. He came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants whose real name was Bolinsky. Working underground since the age of 10, Boley began playing ball in his spare time using one of his heavy work gloves as a makeshift mitt. Being from a large family, such niceties as a baseball glove were not something the Bolinsky's meager household income would allow. Eventually, when his love of the game and talent became evident, his parents finally bought him the coveted piece of equipment. With foul balls swiped at local semi-pro games, Joe sharpened the fielding that would make him famous by throwing them against a barn door and chasing them down. By 1914 at the age of 17 he was being paid $2 a game and two years later he was playing for Chambersburg in the Blue Ridge League. Somewhere he shortened his name to Boley, making it a little easier on sportswriters and having a more "American" feel to it. Catching on as a pro seemed to elude him as he bounced around the lower rungs of the minor leagues throughout the northeast. Somewhere in the Pennsylvania semi-pro circles he became friends with Max Bishop, a Baltimorean and aspiring second baseman. When Bishop was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 1917, the first thing he did was tell owner Jack Dunn about this crackerjack shortstop named Boley.

The Baltimore Orioles back then were an unaffiliated team, meaning they grew their own players and Dunn was under no obligation to pass along his good ones to the majors, unless of course, they met his asking price. Back in 1914 Dunn had sold his greatest find, Babe Ruth, to the Red Sox in order to keep his team afloat. Though the Ruth sale gave him a much needed influx of capital to run his club, Dunn was always bitter about having to sell the kid, which derailed any plans he had of building a dynasty based around The Babe. Now back in business in Baltimore, Jack Dunn was slowly accumulating the ball players who he would lead to an unimaginable seven straight International League pennants.

Boley joined Baltimore after a stint in the army at the tail end of the war. He'd had interest from a few other clubs, but it was his friendship with Max Bishop that led Boley to becoming an Oriole. The Orioles of 1919 went down as one of the best minor league teams of all time (as would their 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925 editions; this team was that good). First base had Jack Bentley, a slugger who doubled as the team's ace on the mound. Second was Max Bishop, Boley's pal from the Pennsylvania semi-pro days. Veteran Yankee speed merchant Fritz Maisel held down third. Outfielders included Merwin Jacobson and Otis Lawry, both big leaguers and The Babe's old catcher, Ben Egan captained a platoon of three receivers. But it was the pitching staff that really made the Orioles stand out. Besides the before mentioned Jack Bentley, Rube Parnham won 28 games and Harry Frank added 24. In a year Lefty Grove and Jack Ogden would add their arms to a squad that simply dominated the International League.

Boley became the team's starting shortstop from the start and hit .301 as the Orioles won the pennant. After just one year in the game's top minor league circuit, the writers were saying Boley was ready for the big show. 40 miles away in Washington, the Senators sure thought so and tried to buy the young shortstop after the 1919 season, but Dunn's price was too steep. There was no way in hell the O's owner and manager was going to let another dynasty slip away like he did in '14. 

When the 1920 season started the shortstop was 23, still plenty of time to make the big leagues. Boley pounded out a .308 average and continued to turn heads at his fielding. By the time the Orioles wrapped up the '20 pennant, the New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates were negotiating with Dunn. Again, the price was just too high. 

Boley wasn't the only Oriole the majors tried to pry loose from Dunn. First baseman Jack Bentley was considered a second Babe Ruth due to his hitting and pitching and was tagged as the next big star of the game. But Dunn was reluctant to let his finds slip away easily. He set his prices just out of reach of what a major league owner would pay, so it looked as if the players were available, but they weren't. As a club owner, Dunn first and foremost wanted to make money and put fans in the stands; if he dumped all his good players Baltimoreans would loose interest in the team. With a good team year after year, the city would embrace his team and that was his aim.

While it might seem unfair that Dunn kept all these talented players in the minors for so long, he did treat his boys extremely well. The Orioles owner ran his club like a big league outfit: first-class travel and lodging everywhere they went and the best equipment. Dunn had a relaxed managerial style and left his charges on a loose reign. He wasn't stingy with his pocketbook either, his players were paid extremely well, many were on par with what they would make in the majors. In the spring of 1922 he even broke with tradition and gave his star shortstop a two-year contract, unheard of at the time.

When the Orioles won the 1922 pennant (their 4th in a row), the other International League owners cried foul. While Baltimore's dominance was great for Charm City, the other cities in the league saw their attendance dwindle. Fans were reluctant to follow teams that were left so far behind by the Orioles year after year. By the winter of 1922 the other owners tried to force Dunn to sell Bentley and Boley to even the playing field. The New York Giants plucked down $72,500 for Bentley but Boley stayed put in Baltimore. 

While there's no sure statistic that can adequately measure fielding, by all accounts Boley was among the best shortstops at the time. Contemporary sports writers who saw him play lavished praise on his work in the infield. There was no doubt in the minds of those in the know that Boley was of major league star quality. It was just a matter of when he'd get to prove it.

For a while Boley didn't seem to mind he was stuck just short of the majors. When he sat down to negotiate that 2 year contract in 1922, Dunn asked if he was happy to stay in Baltimore of if he wanted to go to the National or American Leagues. Boley replied that as long as he was paid well he didn't mind staying with the Orioles.

By 1923 he was the highest paid player in the minor leagues, making in the range of $10,000 a season, almost twice the salary of a typical major leaguer of the time. He hit .343 in 1922 and then .306 in next season. Brooklyn offered Dunn $100,000 for him, but no dice. Then the White Sox threw around the figure of $125,000, but no sale. It seems that by the end of the year Silent Joe was getting restless. Countless articles in the sporting press were proclaiming him a big league star and it probably started to wear on him that though he was treated well in Baltimore, it was still the minor leagues. After the Orioles swept to yet another pennant, Boley's stellar play trailed off and there were rumors he purposely slacked off during the Little World Series against Kansas City. In fact he even left the series early, supposedly due to a family issue, but it would be a good guess that either he was so disillusioned that he bailed or that Dunn, angered over his lackluster performance, sent him home.

During the winter of 1923-24, it was announced that a blockbuster deal sending Boley to the Yankees was all but done. The Yankees were on their way to becoming baseball's greatest dynasty and what better way to cinch it than installing the game's best shortstop between Lou Gehrig and Joe Dugan. By Christmas the deal fell apart due to financial reasons and Joe Boley remained property of the Baltimore Orioles. Dunn's asking price cost Silent Joe his place on one of the most famous teams in the history of the game.

Boley returned in 1924 but hit .291, his only time as an Oriole that he failed to reach the .300 mark. He was now 27 and his price was dropping accordingly. Time was running out for Boley and he knew it. After the 1925 season he refused to resign with the Orioles and Jack Dunn reluctantly agreed to set him free. All through the 1926 season he shopped Boley around, finally agreeing to deal him to the Athletics for what was variously reported as $50,000 to $65,000. 

So, at the age of 30, Joe Boley finally made the major leagues. Joining the A's, Silent Joe found himself in company with former Orioles Lefty Grove and Max Bishop. George Earnshaw would join the club the following year and by 1929 the A's would be the World Champions. Boley for his part had a phenomenal rookie year, hitting AL pitching at a .311 clip and turning plays in the infield that made even the most jaded sports writer take note. Along with Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Boley sparked the A's to winning 3 straight pennants and two world championships. The 29-31 A's teams are often considered the best team ever assembled and Joe Boley was the center of it's defense.

With each passing summer, Silent Joe's talent decreased rapidly as injuries took their toll. By 1931 he was a well-used 34, and Joe Boley was at the end. He hung on in the minors through 1936 and then returned to the coal region he originally sprang from. He worked various jobs before rejoining the A's organization in the late 40's as a scout. 

Boley was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 1954, but one wonders if he would have his own plaque in Cooperstown had he reached the big leagues long before the age of 30. Instead of being a footnote in baseball history, perhaps the name Joe Boley would be mentioned along side Honus Wagner, Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese  and Barry Larkin...

  • Hanson, Darrell, Joe Boley (SABR Online Biography)
  • Bready, James H., Baseball in Baltimore  (Johns Hopkins Press, 1998)
  • Bready, James H, The Home Team (Self-Published, 1959)
  • The Sporting News, 1919-1927