One Word At A Time: Wendell Smith Changed Sports For Black Athletes
Without Wendell Smith, the history of sport may look completely different.
He challenged ideas, racism, and exclusion in sport one word at a time.
It’s a history that started in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, where Smith’s father, John Smith, was born and raised.
When a job too good to pass up fell into John Smith’s lap however, he moved his family to Detroit where he would work as the personal chef for the Ford Motor Company’s founder, Henry Ford.
Here in Detroit is where his son, Wendell Smith was born.
It was also here that Wendell Smith became aware that his dream to play Major League Baseball would never come true because of the prejudice and discrimination that existed in the world, and it’s where Smith decided he would dedicate his life to helping others overcome racist barriers.
“It was then that I made the vow that I would dedicate myself and do something on behalf of the Negro ballplayers,” Smith said, when recalling his time in Detroit.
A star baseball pitcher growing up, Smith once threw a 1-0 shutout game in integrated American Legion action. A scout Major League scout at the game signed Smith’s catcher, and the losing pitcher, before telling Smith he would have loved to sign him, were he not Black.
From there, Smith continued playing baseball at West Virginia State College, where he was also the school newspaper editor. The power of Smith’s words, and his love for sport would soon change baseball forever.
In the years that followed, Wendell Smith would be instrumental in getting Jackie Robinson into the Major Leagues. In fact, it was Smith who recommended Jackie Robinson to be the player to tackle this daunting task.
Through his writing, and advocacy for Black rights Smith would forge a career that would leave an impact few writers, regardless of genre or medium, could even hope to approach.
While working for the Pittsburgh Courier during World War II, Smith took to the pages to advocate for Black rights in America, highlighting the hypocrisy of Black soldiers fighting for freedom abroad, while many freedoms were still denied at home. Particularly, he tied this to the still existing colour barrier in Major League Baseball.
“Major League Baseball is perpetuating the very things thousands of Americans are overseas fighting to end, namely, racial discrimination and segregation,” Smith wrote in 1942.
Starting that same year, pressure from media, including the writing of Smith, began influencing Major League Baseball’s gatekeepers on behalf of Black athletes.
In 1943, Smith was integral in organizing the attendance of a Black delegation to the Joint Major League Meetings where leaders appealed for the integration of professional baseball.
It wasn’t however, until 1945 when Smith helped orchestrate the attendance of Black baseball players to official tryouts for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox. One of the ball players to attend the Red Sox tryout was named Jackie Robinson.
During this time, Wendell Smith struck a working relationship with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, a bond that would inevitably pave the way for Robinson to enter Major League Baseball
Smith and Rickey were united in the search for Major League Baseball’s first Black player. Smith offered the names of several players to Rickey, but it soon became clear that Jackie Robinson was the best suited for the role…not because he was the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time, but because they believed Robinson had the character it would take to face the inevitable racism, scrutiny, and hate that would come during the desegregation of baseball.
Following the 1945 season, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, and hired Wendell Smith to travel with Robinson and assist him in this monumental journey.
“It is, of course, interesting to note that you still have a very deep interest in following up on the historymaking initiative which you undertook last fall,” Wendell Smith wrote in letter to Branch Rickey in January 1946. “I am most happy to feel that you are relying on my newspaper and me, personally, for cooperation in trying to accomplish this great move for practical Democracy in the most amiable and diplomatic manner possible.”
Smith and Robinson’s first foray together was Brooklyn Dodgers spring training, which was held in the Jim Crow south in Florida. Smith also travelled with Robinson while he played for the Dodgers minor league affiliate in Montreal during the 1946 season.
In 1947, Robinson made his MLB debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, officially breaking the sport’s colour barrier.
Branch Rickey would later give Smith credit for the desegregation of professional baseball stating “This whole program was more or less your suggestion.”
In 1948, Wendell Smith continued to break barriers, leaving the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black weekly paper, to become the first Black sportswriter in America to work for a “white” newspaper when he was hired by the Chicago Herald-American.
That same year, Smith became the first Black sportswriter to gain entry to the Baseball Writers’ Association of American. Smith also served as the ghostwriter for Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, My Own Story, which was released in 1948.
Although the colour barrier had been broken, Smith’s activism and advocacy for the rights of Black baseball players continued for years to come. It was while working with the Chicago American in the early 1960s, that Smith successfully campaigned for the integration of MLB spring training facilities in Florida.
In 1971, Smith’s contribution to the game, and his role in helping Black athletes break racist barriers, saw him named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Special Committee on the Negro Leagues.
Wendell Smith, who gradually transitioned from baseball coverage to covering boxing during his time in Chicago, not only left an impact on baseball, he was the foundation for desegregation, and the inclusion of Black players at the Major League level.
And although their relationship drifted after Smith moved to Chicago, his connection to Jackie Robinson remained. Smith would pass away only a month after Robinson did in 1972. Fittingly enough, the final article Smith wrote in his storied career, was Jackie Robinson’s obituary.
Quite a legacy for a man whose family began in rural Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
By Ian Kennedy