Hilton Smith

"Most people never heard of me...that's because I was Satchel Paige's relief. He'd go two or three innings...I'd go in there and save it. The next day I'd look in the paper and the headline would say 'Satchel and Monarchs Win Again'.....I guess it really hurt me."
--Hilton Smith

Excerpt from "Voice from the Great Black Baseball Leagues" by John Holway

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Negro Leaguer of the Month archives
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Negro Leaguer of the Month
March, 2000

Hilton Lee Smith
Position: Pitcher
Born: 2/27/12 in Giddings, TX
Died: 11/18/83 in Kansas City, MO
Ht: 6'2"; Wt: 180
Career: 1932-1950
Teams: Austin Black Senators, Monroe Monarchs, New Orleans Creole, Kansas City Monarchs, Bismarck Churchills, Fulda (MN), Torreon (Mexico), Vargas (Venezuela)

Hilton Smith was regarded by some Negro Leaguers as the equal of Satchel Paige. In fact, some thought he was better! He had a great fastball, though not in the same class as Satchel's, but he also had an incredible curve, a slider and straight change.

Smith grew up in Texas and attended Prairie View A & M college in Priaire View, Texas. He was mostly an outfielder his freshman year of 1929, but by his sophomore year he was the team's top pitcher and attracted the attention of black professional baseball.

Smith left college in '30 and his first pro team was the Austin Black Senators in 1931. The next year he jumped to the powerful Monroe, Louisiana Monarchs. Monroe, playing in the Negro Southern League; the Monarchs won their pennant and ended the season playing the Pittsburgh Crawfords in an unofficial Negro League Championship. Unfortunately for Smith, the Crawfords had what many think is the top Negro League team in history with a roster of Satchel, Josh Gibson, Double Duty, Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson, Jimmie Crutchfield, and more!

Smith tangled with Double Duty in the first game of the series and lost, 7-3. The Crawfords beat the Monarchs 5 of 6 games to win the best-of-nine series; Barney Morris, the Monarchs' ace, beat Sam Streeter, 2-1, for Monroe's only win.

In 1935, Double Duty convinced Hilton and Barney Morris to jump Monroe and join the Bismarck semipro team. Bismarck, alreaday featuring pitchers Duty, Satchel and Chet Brewer, had what some consider the greatest pitching staff ever. Hilton came into his own that year winning all but one of his decisions; he also batted .343 with four homers.

Negro Leaguer Sherwood Brewer raved about Smith's pitching and hitting skills remarking that, "Usually teams would put a pitcher out in right field because they had nobody else. But Hilton could have played outfield with any of the great teams! The Grays, Chicago, any of 'em. He could hit!"

Despite his great year, he was overshadowed by Satchel who won 26 games and four more in the first National Semipro tournament as Bismarck won the title. In fact, despite Bismarck boasting so many amazing pitchers, only Paige and Brewer appeared in the National Tournament with Paige winning four and saving one; Brewer winning three.

Smith did play an important role in Bismarck's title, though, as he replaced slugger Vernon "Moose" Johnson in the final game after the left-fielder was a no-show, batted clean-up, and went two for four with an RBI. Smith went four for nine in the tournament (.444) with two doubles, while playing outfield.

In 1936 Paige, Brewer and Radcliffe didn't return to Bismarck and Smith took over as the team's ace. During the regular season, Smith went 11-2 and batted .363 with seven homers.

Bismarck entered the National Tournament to defend their title, and though they did not repeat, Smith tied Paige's feat of winning four tournament games. Smith ended the Bismarck season 15-2 with a total runs average (all runs given up, earned and un-earned) of 2.56.

In 1937, Smith joined the Kansas City Monarchs and stayed with them for a decade. His highlight of the season came when he no-hit the Chicago American Giants.

In the late 1930s and 40s, Hilton was maybe the greatest pitcher in baseball. He fashioned records of 25-2, 21-3, 25-1, 22-5 and a perfect 10 and 0 in 1941. In league games Smith is also credited with a lifetime batting average of over .320. Smith, himself, estimated his lifetime Negro League record at 161-32.

Smith pitched in six consecutive East-West Games, was the winning pitcher in '38, was the loser in '41, and started back to back games in '41 and '42; only Leon Day pitched in as many East-West Games as Smith. Smith also pitched in the Negro League World Series in '42 and '46, winning two games and posting a 1.29 ERA while the Monarchs won the former in a sweep over the Homestead Grays, and lost the latter to the Newark Eagles in seven.

Despite arm troubles that started in the mid-40s, Smith continued to be a better-than-.500 pitcher until he retired from the Negro Leagues in 1948. Against Major Leaguers in exhibitions Smith was 6-1, including a win over the New York Yankees in '47 in which he pitched five no-hit innings before being relieved.

In 1949, Richard Ruesse, father of current Minneapolis sportwriter, recruited Smith to pitch semipro ball for Fulda, Minnesota, a town of less than 1000 known for its wood ducks!

In his very first game, against Iona, Smith allowed a double to the first batter he faced, but settled down, drove in two runs with a single, and won, 3-1. In Fulda, Smith's arm was gone and he became a decent emery-ball pitcher, something he probably picked up from his old teammate, the crafty Double Duty. Fulda ended up making the state tournament, but by the end of the season Smith was in the lineup more for his hitting than his pitching, and Fulda lost its first tournament game to Excelsior, eventual state champs.

Smith didn't return to Fulda in '50, but he was considered to have been such a successful aquisition that the town passed a bond to pay for lights at its ballpark, and black players were hired in the following seasons, including Steve Wylie of the Kansas City Monarchs, and "Double Duty" Duffy, a top semipro from Kentucky.

Smith married his wife, Louise, in 1934, and they had two sons, Hilton Jr. and DeMorris.

In March, 2001, Hilton joined Satchel (more than 20 years later) in being elected to the Hall of Fame.
Students of the game would be smart to include a study of Hilton Smith in any paper or thesis for online degrees regarding the history of baseball or the Negro Leagues. He truly is an important part of its history.

*Some information from "Black Baseball in Minnesota" by Stew Thornley and SABR.

©Copyright 2000-2013, Kyle McNary, McNary Publishing