At the end of his life, Hilton Smith often sat at the dinner table and wrote letters to the baseball Hall of Fame. It was out of character. This was a man so quiet, so humble, that many people who knew him - knew him well! - never knew he played baseball. They never knew about his wicked curveball. They never knew that, for a time, Hilton Smith might have been the very best pitcher on earth.
He just never talked about all that.
But at the end of his life, suddenly, Smith was seized with this desire. He wrote letters to the Hall of Fame. He sent newspaper clippings. He scribbled out a short autobiography. He waited by the phone.
“I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” his son, DeMorris Smith says. “I’ve always been like my father. Quiet. Reserved. Never make a fuss. I simply could not understand it.”
DeMorris Smith shrugs his shoulders.
“I suppose,” he says, “that my father knew he was dying.”
This is a happy day. Tuesday, Hilton Smith was elected into the baseball Hall of Fame. Hallelujah. You know that game where people ask: If you could talk to any athlete ever, who would it be? Well, for me it would be Hilton Smith. My book Baseball and Jazz, if it ever gets finished (please, Lord, help me finish it), is framed around Hilton Smith. On my desk, next to a slinky, a Darth Vader voice box and a cigar box filled with baseball cards, is a photograph of a young Hilton Smith.
Our puppy, a miniature schnauzer, is named Hilton.
“Hilton?” people ask. “Why? Isn’t Marriott better?”
To me, Hilton Smith represented everything beautiful about sports. The Negro Leagues represented everything beautiful about sports. I’m not talking about the clowning around you see in movies like “Bingo Long,” or the sweet myths, like the one about how Cool Papa Bell was so fast, he once hit a line drive up the middle and got hit by the baseball while sliding into second base.
No, there was a dignity to these men, and that’s the part that clutches the heart. They played baseball because they loved it, because they were good at it, and it didn’t matter to them that the major leagues would not let them in because they were black, didn’t matter that the money was lousy (when the money was actually paid), and hotels wouldn’t let them stay, and they often had to drive a hundred miles out of the way to find a restaurant that would let them buy a sandwich.
They knew they were good. They played proudly.
Hilton Smith knew he was good. As a young man in Texas, he would throw curveballs against a fence, over and over, until he could make that ball do magical things. Nobody could throw a curveball like him. By the time Hilton Smith joined the Kansas City Monarchs, he was a phenomenon. He threw a perfect game his first time out. “No Hit” Smith they called him for a while, but not for long. Nicknames never did suit Hilton Smith.
According to the best statistics available, he did not lose a league game in 1938. He was an All-Star his first six seasons and the Monarchs won the pennant five of those seasons, and Buck O’Neil says, “There was nobody better in this whole wide world.”
He should have been the first. People who knew Hilton Smith believed that. He was a great pitcher, but he was an even stronger man. When teammates were out at 18th and Vine on a Saturday night, you would usually find Hilton Smith at the Street Hotel, writing a letter back home. When the Monarchs got a player who could not read, Hilton Smith would take him to the back of the bus and teach him, letter by letter.
“He was one of the best men I’ve known,” Buck O’Neil says.
Yes sir, Hilton Smith could have handled the burden of being the first to play in the major leagues. He had that kind of strength inside. But he came along just a few years too soon, before the war, and America was not ready for a black major-leaguer. Smith’s brilliance, like the desert flower in the poems, was wasted on the desert air. He struck out hitters in Memphis and Birmingham and at the old ballpark at 22nd and Brooklyn. Nobody kept score.
One thing people should remember about Hilton Smith: He was the one who asked Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson to sign an old college football star and army lieutenant named Jackie Robinson. Wilkinson did. And Jackie Robinson lived what could have been Hilton Smith’s life.
Toward the end of his career, Hilton Smith became known as “Satchel’s Relief.” Satchel Paige would go out there and pitch three innings to entertain the crowd. Then, Hilton Smith would pitch the six other innings, quietly and magnificently. When he was 35, the Dodgers called and asked him to go to the minor leagues. He refused. It was too late.
And then, suddenly, he retired, and for many, many years he almost never talked about his days as a baseball player. He was a teacher and a coach and a mentor for the neighborhood kids. He worked for Armco Steel. Don Motley, executive director of the Negro Leagues Museum, was a friend, and for the longest time he did not even know that Hilton Smith played.
“He was just very quiet about himself,” Motley says.
Then came those last few months. This is how it ends for so many Negro Leagues stars: They reach the end of their lives, and suddenly they wonder whether they will be forgotten. Who will remember? They look to the Hall of Fame for salvation. Hilton Smith, this reserved, mild and wonderful man, sent clippings of his glory days along with little notes.
He never heard back. He died Nov. 18, 1983. DeMorris said the family never got the newspaper clippings back.
On March 6, 2001, Hilton Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame. It is the third time in four years that a Kansas City legend was elected. First came Bullet Joe Rogan, then George Brett and now Hilton Smith.
It’s a happy day. Hilton Smith will be remembered.
And when people ask “Why did you name your puppy Hilton?” I now have a better answer. We named him after a Hall of Famer.