The extraordinary, unsung career of Al Smith

He's like the Forrest Gump of baseball

February 19th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

You may not even know who Al Smith is. It's a pretty generic name. You might look up his Baseball-Reference page and think, "well, he had a pretty solid career," and then move on to something else.

But what if I told you he was the subject of one of the most bizarre images in MLB history? Or that he was on the field for two other historic baseball moments -- one amazing, one frightening. That he's the record-holder for one of the rarest feats of all time, that he integrated a team and an entire pro league? That he made a scoreboard explode and was a champion boxer?

This is his story.

10 touchdowns in one high school football game

Back in high school, Smith was a star in track, baseball and football. He reportedly scored TEN touchdowns in one game at Missouri's Douglass Webster High, and 33 total that season. That's Forrest Gump-level greatness. His highlight reel would've broken the internet. He also was a fantastic boxer as a teenager -- winning both the St. Louis AAU and Golden Gloves championships in 1944.

A Negro Leagues phenom and trailblazer

Smith was so young when he joined the Negro Leagues in 1946 that his mom had to sign his contract with the Cleveland Buckeyes. As a 19-year-old in '47, he was top 10 in the league with a .347 batting average and led everybody with an otherworldly 1.065 OPS. His team went to the Negro World Series in '47, and Smith had a walk-off hit in Game 2. The Buckeyes ended up losing the Series to the New York Cubans.

A Cleveland Indians scout signed Smith after the '48 season and he started his Minor League career with Class A Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League in '49. He was the first Black player to join the league, but noted, according to this SABR account, that manager Bill Norman was always in his corner:

"He was down there to train and get ballplayers ready to go to the big leagues and if anyone didn’t like the idea that I was playing they could get up and leave."

Smith proceeded to lead all batters with 17 triples and hit .311. He eventually moved up to the American Association in '52, integrating the Indianapolis Indians. His consistent production and defense got him called up to Cleveland in 1953.

An on-field witness to Willie Mays' catch and Herb Score's line drive

Smith played full time in 1954 and helped get his team to the World Series against the New York Giants. They lost in four games, but Smith homered in Game 2 on the first pitch he saw and he was, of course, right there watching perhaps the greatest catch in baseball history.

Unlike the awe of being on the field for Mays' catch, three years later, Smith experienced the fright of playing third base when pitcher Herb Score was infamously struck in the face with a line drive up the middle. Smith actually fielded the carom and threw out Gil McDougald before rushing to the mound to help his teammate. He was heartbroken by what he saw.

"I think he would have been another Koufax if it hadn’t happened," Smith said. "When he came back the next year it was like he was shy. He was still throwing hard, but it was almost as if he was still thinking about someone else hitting the ball back through the middle. He just never found himself again."

Score was an outstanding 36-19 with a 2.68 ERA and 508 strikeouts in the two seasons before the injury, but was never the same after. He pitched parts of five more seasons and then retired before he turned 30 years old.

His own theme night

Smith had his first of three All-Star years in Cleveland in 1955 -- leading the American League in runs (123), while posting 22 homers and 77 RBIs. In 1958, he was traded to the White Sox for beloved White Sox player Minnie Miñoso. Fans were angry and took that anger out on Smith, booing him at every turn. He struggled.

Bill Veeck, former owner of the Indians and now owner of the White Sox, had a brilliant idea: He staged an "Al Smith Night." Anybody named Smith, Smythe, Schmidt or Smithe could get in for free, but had to wear a button that read, "I’m a Smith and I’m for Al.” Smith ended up going 1-for-4 and making an error, but Veeck proclaimed that it turned his year around. Smith hit six homers during the last four weeks of the season -- including one in Chicago's pennant-clinching 4-2 victory over the Indians. Smith raved of Veeck's kindness and understanding toward players, especially Black players, during his time in baseball. From "When the Cheering Stops:"

“In my early years there were a lot of places I couldn’t stay,” he explained. “Even in Chicago and Baltimore, and in Florida during spring training. But guys like Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck did a lot to change that. They would tell the guys who owned the hotels that if everyone couldn’t stay there, they would move the entire ballclub.”

The iconic photo

We're guessing you've probably seen this before, but we're guessing you didn't know it was Al Smith.

It happened in Game 2 of the '59 World Series, on a home run by the Dodgers' Charlie Neal. A fan, going for the ball, accidentally knocked his beer off the ledge straight onto Smith's face. The photo appeared in newspapers nationwide and went as viral as photos could go in the 1950s (imagine the GIFs and videos on Twitter if it happened today).

Unfortunately, the moment is what many people associate Smith with, overshadowing what a good career he had. He did keep a blown-up copy of the photo at his home and said he'd signed copies of the photo for fans "200,000 times."

The all-time leader in scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly

Scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly is not a common occurrence. It's only been done 50 times since 2000. Billy Hamilton was the latest to do it in 2019, and he's one of the fastest men alive.

Most of the all-time leaders are tied at two in this bizarre category, but there is one person who pulled off the feat a ridiculous FOUR times.

Yup, Al Smith.

Although he did hit leadoff many times during his career and led the league in triples in both the Negro and Minor Leagues, he wasn't the fastest player on the diamond during his era. He only had 67 total steals in 12 seasons. Like any great baserunner, he just knew when to make his move.

First homer to set off Comiskey Park's exploding scoreboard

One of Veeck's wildest ideas was the Comiskey Park exploding scoreboard -- which was inspired from a pinball machine in a James Cagney movie. It was referred to as Veeck's "Frankenstein monster" or a "screaming banshee." More from the Chicago Tribune:

"The eight small ladders atop the scoreboard will flash into electrical patterns. Strobe lights are atop the two higher ladders. Bombs and fireworks also will be exploded from the firing platform."

And things didn't always go so well ...

"Once the Sox hit back-to-back homers," the Tribune's David Condon wrote in 1982, "and the scoreboard had not been reloaded to salute the second blast. Another time a flaming rocket landed on second base, bringing out the field crew with extinguishers."

Guess who hit the first homer to set it off? The man who was everywhere doing and seeing everything: Al Smith. He hit a two-run homer off Jim Bunning in May 1960. "The fans loved it," he said.