A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.
PITTSBURGH -- Wendell Smith grew up in Detroit, by his own account mostly free of racial discrimination. His father was a personal chef for Henry Ford, and Smith dreamed of playing baseball.
In 1933, at age 19, he pitched a shutout in an American Legion state championship game. Professional scouts approached plenty of players afterward, including the opposing pitcher and Smith’s catcher, Mike Tresh. They didn’t talk to Smith.
Smith took it upon himself to ask one scout from the Tigers: What about me? He heard the same line that so many talented young athletes were told at the time, that they’d love to sign him. But they wouldn’t, because Smith was black. And there weren’t black players in Major League Baseball in 1933.
“He’s got that same story that a lot of talented young black ballplayers heard: ‘If we could only paint you white,’” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “From what I understand, that stayed etched with Wendell Smith.”
Smith went home that night heartbroken but resolved to create change and triumph against racial injustice. That pursuit of equality ultimately led Smith to the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, to Branch Rickey and to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier as the first African American player in the Majors on April 15, 1947.
“As fate would have it, through his voice and the power of the press, he was able to have that influence in changing how the game looked,” Kendrick said, “and ultimately having an important role in shaping this country for the better.”
Smith graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 and went to work for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most widely read and influential black newspapers. In '42, during World War II, the weekly paper promoted a “Double V” campaign for victory in the war abroad and for victory against racial discrimination in the United States.
The Courier, with its offices in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, also made a strong push for equality in the world of professional sports. Smith covered boxing and baseball, including the Pirates and the Negro Leagues’ Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, while leading the charge for integration in baseball.
“He realized that you can’t get your hands around all of racism. But you can get your hands around a baseball,” said Chris Lamb, a journalism professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and author of Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball. “So his feeling was, 'If I can get baseball integrated, I can make a big difference.'"
In 1939, Smith asked National League president Ford Frick why there weren’t any African American players in the Majors. The response Smith received, historians say, was that players, managers and fans wouldn’t tolerate it. Smith set out to prove that wasn’t true.
“He knew what he’d find. He knew, overwhelmingly, players and managers would say, ‘Hey, if we can win a pennant, we don’t care what color anyone is,’” said Brian Carroll, a communications professor at Berry College and author of When to Stop the Cheering: The Black Press, the Black Community and the Integration of Professional Baseball. “He sort of backed baseball into a corner by getting everybody to point fingers at everybody else, demonstrating that none of the parties would own up to this gentleman’s agreement or its enforcement.”
Like the players he covered, Smith was also subjected to segregation in his line of work. He initially was not granted membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, so he didn’t have access to press boxes or teams’ clubhouses. He covered games from the stands and conducted interviews in hotel lobbies, both in Pittsburgh and on the road.
Over a period of several weeks, Smith surveyed Major League players and managers to learn if they’d object to having black teammates. Most players and managers -- more than 75%, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame -- said they wouldn’t. He wrote about those results and presented them to team owners.
“Not only out front in the papers but behind the scenes, [reporters like Smith] were trying to help, see what they can do to make it possible to get black players into Major League Baseball,” said Dr. Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
In meetings and in his writing, Smith continued to challenge the league and team owners regarding their unwritten rule against signing African American players. In 1945, Smith found an ally in Boston city councilor Isadore Muchnick, who threatened to revoke the ability of the Boston Braves and Red Sox to play on Sundays if they didn’t consider signing black players.
The Braves never followed through, but on April 16, 1945, Smith brought three players from the Negro Leagues to try out with the Red Sox: Marvin Williams, Sam Jethroe and Robinson. The Red Sox reportedly didn’t take the tryout seriously, didn’t offer any of them a contract and ultimately became the last team to sign an African American player.
But Smith’s tryout caught the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
“He’s a known change agent within a change-agent institution, the black press. It’s Branch Rickey who reached out to him,” Carroll said of Smith. “I think that speaks to his profile, to his prominence, to the awareness within baseball that he was somebody to be reckoned with.”
Rickey was known to be planning a third Negro League in 1945, though it was a cover to hide his interest in signing the Dodgers’ first black player. By publicly stating a desire to start another league, Rickey invented an excuse to send his scouts to evaluate Negro League players.
But Rickey wasn’t just looking for the most talented player. He wanted the right person, preferably a college-educated man who had played integrated baseball and could hold his temper, knowing that the Majors’ first black player would face racist resistance, hostility and unprecedented scrutiny.
“The first guy cannot fail. If the first guy fails, there is no second guy,” Kendrick said. “You absolutely have to have the right guy.”
Rickey initially focused on Monte Irvin, regarded as the Negro Leagues’ best young player, but contract issues and Irvin’s recent return from World War II scuttled those plans. So Smith recommended Robinson, and they agreed to a contract late that August. On Oct. 23, 1945, the Dodgers announced that Robinson had been signed to play for the Triple-A Montreal Royals during the '46 season.
The Pittsburgh Courier offered to pay for Smith to travel with Robinson, who had to stay in different hotels than his teammates due to racial segregation policies, but Rickey signed Smith as well to accompany Robinson.
“It’s not widely known that Branch Rickey effectively doubled [Smith’s] salary, which is to say he matched his newspaper salary with a Brooklyn Dodgers salary, to be the leading wedge for Jackie on the road, to find housing, to find restaurants, to ease the way for a black player into cities of discrimination,” Carroll said.
As accurately depicted in the 2013 film “42,” in which he was portrayed by actor Andre Holland, Smith traveled alongside Robinson in the Minors in 1946 and again as Robinson became the Majors’ first black player in ’47.
Smith chronicled Robinson’s journey for the nationally circulated Pittsburgh Courier, served as the ghost-writer for Robinson’s pieces in the newspaper and wrote his first biography, “My Own Story,” which was released in 1948. They persevered together despite the horrors they faced, especially on the road, like the time Smith rushed Robinson to safety when he was threatened by white residents of Sanford, Fla., during Spring Training.
"No player in history has tried harder to become a big leaguer,” Smith wrote in The Courier in April 1947, according to the Hall of Fame’s archives (The Wendell Smith papers). “If Robinson fails to make the grade, it will be many years before a Negro makes the grade. This is IT!"
Lamb noted that the white press initially covered Robinson’s story from afar, while the black press “covered it like it was the moon landing.” And indeed, what Robinson achieved -- and his role in the modern civil rights movement -- would change the country.
Smith was more than just a journalist documenting Robinson’s journey, though. He served as a liaison between Robinson and Rickey, as Robinson’s confidant, as his guide and chauffeur and, initially, as his voice to the public. As the Courier’s sports editor, Smith helped portray Robinson’s ascent as the remarkable achievement that it was, highlighting Robinson’s ability to overcome rather than the hostility he faced along the way.
“I don’t know if people realize how isolated these black players were,” Kendrick added. “You wonder sometimes if it lessened, I guess, the pain of what Jackie was having to endure. Otherwise, he’s completely isolated. Wendell Smith plays an important role because, if nothing else, you’ve got another shoulder that you can cry on. They were both there for one another.”
After Robinson’s rookie year, Smith left the Pittsburgh Courier and became the first black columnist at the Chicago Herald-American. He would eventually move to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1964 and work for the television station WGN. But he never stopped fighting for equality in baseball.
Smith and Sam Lacy, a columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, were the first black writers to join the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1948.
In 1961, Smith helped lead the movement to end Spring Training segregation in Florida. He led his column with the tremendously gifted writing and passion he was known for: “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro Major Leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during Spring Training in the south. The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in Spring Training.”
Long overlooked for his integral role in Robinson’s story, Smith was posthumously named the first African American winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 1993. His wife, Wyonella, spoke on his behalf in Cooperstown, where his name now resides in the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame.
Robinson died of a heart attack, at age 53, on Oct. 24, 1972. After a battle with pancreatic cancer, Smith passed away on Nov. 26, 1972. Smith’s last story was Robinson’s obituary -- the story of the man who changed baseball and society, written by the journalist who helped him do it.