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Wendell Smith: Visionary Writer

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smith 2 p.jpg
Photos courtesy of Wyonella Smith

Wendell Smith wrote a series of 1961 articles for the Chicago American that changed the fabric of baseball.

His Jan. 23, 1961 front page story for the American appeared under the headline "Spring Training Woes." Smith wrote in detail about the bubbling resentment among black players who suffered "embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities" during spring training in Florida. Hank Aaron and Minnie Minoso were segregated from white teammates and families. White players stayed in some of South Florida's finest hotels such as the Sarasota Terrace in Sarasota.

Ernie Banks told Smith, "I am sure I am speaking for every Negro player in the big leagues when I say we are very grateful to the Chicago American for bringing this situation to the attention of the American public."

And this was already 14 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line.

"It was quite a series that Wendell wrote," Wendell's wife Wyonella said after a recent preview of the Jackie Robinson bopic "42." "His friends who were writers said he should have gotten a Pulitzer Prize for the series. Wendell broke it down. (The White Sox) Bill (Veeck) and Arthur Allyn refused to stay at those (white) hotels. They said they would go somewhere else.........

....."Every year (White Sox pitcher) Early Wynn hosted a dinner and invited all the writers and their wives. He didn't invite Wendell and me. Jerry (Holtzman, the legendary Sun-Times and then Tribune baseball writer) and Marilyn didn't go. They were the only other couple that didn't go. They had dinner somewhere else.
"It didn't matter to us, because that's Early Wynn's problem, not ours. You knew what kind of people they were.
"They were segregationists."

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L to R: Jackie Robinson, Chicago Cardinals great Duke Slater, Wendell Smith, Ralph Metcalfe
Courtesy of Wyonella Smith

As early as 1939 Smith conducted a series of interviews with the managers of white major league teams. He wrote that 5 of the 8 managers were willing to sign black players. Leo Durocher, the future Brooklyn Dodger manager of Jackie Robinson was one of them.

Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972 at the age of 53.
Smith died on Nov. 26, 1972 at the age of 58.

At the time of Robinson's death he was writing a Sun-Times column.
Wyonella told me his final column was Robinson's tribute. (reprinted here.)

Wendell larger.jpg

Smith wrote, in part, "...Jackie Robinson was always himself. He never backed down from a fight, never quit agitating for equality. He demanded respect, too. Those who tangled with him always admitted afterward that he was a man's man, a person who would not compromise his convictions."

Wyonella donated boxes of Wendell's papers to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "He was an avid reader of course," she said. "He was a civil war buff. He had many books pertaining to the civil war. When I moved I sold all those books. I had no place to keep them."

Brian Carroll wrote a fantastic paper titled "Wendell Smith's Last Crusade: The Desegregation of Spring Training, 1961," which was published in the 13th Annual Cooperstown Symposium of Baseball and American Culture.
Carroll said that one of the more "bothersome inequities" for black players was their inability to spend spring with their families. According to Smith, black players who faced discrimination and poor housing were unwilling to bring their families into a hostile environment.

Wyonella, 91, loved "42," but she was skeptical about the way the movie depicted how much time Rachel Robinson spent with her husband on the road, for this very reason.

Andre Holland as Wendell Smith in "42."

Smith also suggested the players of '61 meet with club owners.

Carroll wrote, "Organizing the article like a legal argument, Smith then described the contributions black players had made since Robinson broke through in 1947, specifically those of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays Ernie Banks and Minnie Minoso. Echoing Robinson's argument in "The Sporting News" in 1956, Smith also cited the money clubs spent in and attracted in Florida towns in which they trained, revenue few towns would have wanted to lose......
".....Smith's approach was consistent with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. in it's tone, dignity, and first-hand experience with the conditions being challenged. Though Smith is due credit for the spring training campaign, which according to one columnist (Milton Gross), was hugely successful, that credit has for the most part eluded him."

Earlier this week Major League Baseball announced the White Sox will host baseball's annual Civil Rights Game on Aug. 24.

There will be no better time to honor Wendell Smith with a statue or the renaming of the U.S. Cellular press box in recoginition of his crusade.

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what a beautiful tibute. I vaguely knew who he was, now I understand the man. Your curiosity about such people gives all of us a perspective that would otherwise elude us.

I remember watching Wendell Smith on TV in the late 1960s until his death. His obituary gave details about his background, but not nearly as much as Dave's coverage. Who knew the gentleman on WGN was such a great man? I didn't, so it's wonderful "42" is bringing attention to his life. Not only should the Sox name their pressbox after Wendell Smith, but he should be in the Hall of Fame. Thanks, Dave, for your contributions.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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