One of the most versatile and athletic ballplayers of the 1950s, Al Smith was a professional at the age of 17 in the Negro American League for the Cleveland Buckeyes. He led the league in doubles and triples as a 17-year old, and caught the attention of Latimer “Laddie” Placek, a scout who scoured the midwest for the Indians. Pacek got Smith’s name on a contract when he was 18, and five long years later, Smith was in the big leagues.
Smith was a strong right-handed batter with thick thighs and strong forearms. He was quick but also powerful. As a high school athlete in St. Louis in the 1940s, Smith reportedly scored 10 touchdowns in one game, and 33 in a season. At 16 years old he was a Golden Gloves boxing champion in the 160-pound weight class. His athleticism made him a useful player on the diamond.
Smith’s managers liked to rotate him around the diamond to take advantage of his abilities. He played right field as well as left field, and briefly was considered to replace Larry Doby in center for Cleveland. His arm was strong enough that he played a few seasons at third base, where he twice received MVP votes. He was strong enough to hit in the meat of the order, but got on base so much that he made sense as a leadoff man. In 1954, his first full season in the integrated major leagues, Smith scored 101 runs and had a .398 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. He smacked a leadoff home run in Game Two of the World Series.
The man they called Fuzzy
His friends nicknamed him “Fuzzy” when he was a teenager because he was the first in their group to get facial hair. He was quiet, but an intense competitor. Once, in a high school track meet, he angrily snatched a baton from a teammate and ran a blistering final leg to win a relay race. He was also an excellent billiards player and a great bowler. He usually liked to play pool or frequent a bowling center when his team was on the road.
In 1955, when he was 27, Smith led the league in runs scored and also batted .307 with a .407 OBP and 22 home runs. He finished third in Most Valuable Player voting behind Yogi Berra and Al Kaline. Despite his stellar play, the Indians traded him to the White Sox in a deal that brought Minnie Minoso to Cleveland. The fans in Chicago loved Minnie and welcomed Smith with raspberries.
In his first season with the ChiSox, Smith was booed so mercilessly that team owner Bill Veeck held an “Al Smith Night,” on which anyone named Smith or Smythe or Schmidt was given free admission to Comiskey Park and a button that read “I’m a Smith and I’m for Al”. Unfortunately, in the game that evening, the ballplayer named Al Smith made an error in the outfield that lost the game for the Sox.
A star in Chicago for the Pale Hose
But Smith’s play eventually won over his teammates and the fans. In 1959, playing for Al Lopez (who had been his first manager in Cleveland), Smith hit 17 home runs as the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years. That club, known as “The Go-Go Sox,” relied on speed, defense, and pitching to dethrone the Yankees and advance to the Fall Classic. Smith, with his athleticism and gritty play, became a popular figure on the South Side of the Windy City that summer.
In the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Smith earned unwanted fame when he was doused by a beer as a fan tried to catch a ball over his head. The famous photo showing Smith with beer pouring down his head and face was reprinted around the country and became a keepsake of that memorable season.