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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 985

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This is the grave of Hilton Smith.

Born in 1907 in Giddings, Texas, Smith was a successful pitcher and good enough to play some college ball at Prairie View A&M, an HBCU that still exists today. He was a real smart guy and made the dean’s list there in 1928 and 1929, showing that he was not just about baseball. But he was very, very good at baseball. He got his professional start with the Austin Black Senators based out of Austin, Texas. That was a pretty small team. But by the early 30s, he was playing for the Monroe Monarchs, out of Louisiana, which was a full-fledged professional team. But he was mostly in semipro ball, which was super common at the time in the Negro Leagues, which were barely functional by and large, being wildly underfunded and held together with spit and string. He played with a quite good semipro team out of Bismarck, North Dakota in 1935 and 1936, some of that time with the great Satchel Paige. Other than Paige, Smith was the best pitcher on those teams, a righthander who had a killer curveball, probably one of the very best curves that any pitcher ever threw.

Smith got his big break in 1936 when the Kansas City Monarchs signed him. Playing for the Monarchs was about as good as it got in the Negro Leagues. He stayed there until 1948, also with Paige. Now Paige was the big star and started many games. But often, they would just use Paige for 3 innings, in part because he was used to sell tickets, and then bring Smith in to pitch the final 6 innings. Paige was the star. But many hitters thought Smith was the tougher guy to hit. Also, whereas Paige was a crappy hitter, Smith was quite good for a pitcher, with a ton of power though he was a very slow runner. He was a 6-time Negro League All-Star, every year between 1937 and 1942. He also pitched a lot in the offseason in Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. He almost got tagged for the big leagues at the end of his career, but he was just a little too old for the teams to want a slightly washed up but probably still effective Black reliever.

After retirement, Smith worked as a teacher for awhile and then got a job as a foreman in a steel mill. The Cubs also hired him as a scout as the game integrated. Later in his life, he was big into getting the Negro Leagues accepted as equal to the major leagues.

Smith died in 1983. He was 76 years old. But he was not yet in the Hall of Fame. He finally got that well-deserved honor in 2001.

Hilton Smith is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other Negro League Hall of Famers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Josh Gibson is in Pittsburgh and Buck Leonard is in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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