Sunday, October 5, 2014

Earl Smith, last player to wear 21 on Pirates before Clemente, dies at 87

Pittsburgh Pirates fans can hardly remember a day when number 21 wasn’t worn by Roberto Clemente, but for the first month of Clemente’s 1955 rookie season, the famed number was on the back of another upstart Pirates outfielder, Earl Smith. The Fresno State graduate who challenged for the Pirates center field spot alongside Clemente that season, passed away September 27, 2014 in Fresno, California. He was 87.

Smith signed with the Pirates in 1949 and hit .324 during his first two minor league campaigns, driving in 100 runs with Modesto in 1950; however, it wasn’t until 1954 that he garnered the full attention of the Pirates front office. He hit an astonishing .387 with 32 home runs, 195 RBIs and 42 stolen bases for Phoenix, which earned him an invite to spring training in 1955.

Earl Smith  -  Kevin Baskin
Coming from one of the lowest levels of minor league ball at the time, he was facing an uphill battle going into spring training. Despite the long odds, he was excited to get the chance to compete for a spot on the major league roster after spending six seasons in the depths of their minor league system.

“It was something that you strive for,” Smith said during our 2011 phone interview. “You think you deserve a chance after awhile. … I don’t know all of the politics of it, but I was real happy to have the opportunity to get the chance to go there.”

Most observers felt that Smith was going to be sent down for more seasoning after a trial in front of the big wigs, but Smith persisted. In an outfield that was only returning one starter in Frank Thomas, Branch Rickey was looking to fill the rest of the lineup with promising young talent. Smith batted over .400 during spring training to earn his place with Pittsburgh when they broke camp.

The plan was for Smith to platoon with Tom Saffell in center field, handling the left-handed pitchers of the National League. He made his debut in Pittsburgh’s second game of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies, going 0-3 against Herm Wehmeier. The road didn’t get any smoother for Smith. He played in four of the Pirates first six games, going 1-12 with only a single off of the Giants’ Don Liddle. He sensed his window of opportunity closing faster than expected.

“I was supposedly alternating with Tom Saffell,” Smith said. “He came from the Pacific Coast League. He was left-handed and I was right. I didn’t get too much of a chance; I had 12 [sic] at-bats or something. What I’m telling you is probably speculation; the facts I didn’t know because we weren’t told that much of anything really.”

Pirates manager Fred Haney put him in the lineup only one more time, starting in a 5-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on April 29, 1955. His 0-4 performance left him with a career batting average of .063 (1-16). He never returned to the major leagues.

“When [Branch] Rickey took over, he brought his own fellows in,” he said. “We were the last of the guys to be from the old regime so to speak, before he took over Pittsburgh. … He knew what he wanted and we didn’t fit the mold.”

His departure allowed Clemente to drop number 13 in favor of Smith’s 21. It was the last time anyone else in a Pirates uniform wore the number. Even though their time together was brief, Smith could see Clemente’s talent and the backing he had from management.

“Without a doubt, he was one of the better up and coming young guys,” he said. “He had the full support of all the staff and that made the big difference.”

Smith last just one more season in professional baseball, calling it quits at the end of the 1956 season after bouncing around different farm clubs. The toll on his family became too great to bear.

“I look back on it, and that was probably my fault a little bit because they weren’t playing me too much in New Orleans because they had their team set,” he said. “I wanted to play more and I didn’t produce like I should have when I got in, so they moved me to Lincoln and that was sort of the downfall. ... I had a family and we were traveling. One year my wife traveled five or six-thousand miles just to keep up with me. … It was a tough go for the dough in those days so to speak.”

Back home in Fresno after hanging up his spikes, Smith found himself in a completely different line of work than what he intended to do. He studied at Fresno State to work in the athletic coaching field, but one of his baseball contacts swayed him into running a grocery store.

“When I was here and I played for the Cardinals, one of the backers had a grocery store chain,” he said. “I had gone to college to become a coach, but at that time coaching didn’t pay very much. A grocery job paid more, so that’s what I went into and stayed 40 years.”

Long removed from his playing days, Smith said enjoyed the correspondence from the Pirates semi-annual Black and Gold alumni newsletter, which gave him the chance to keep up with his former teammates.

“They send me information quite often and schedules for different things,” he said. “I haven’t been one to join up with some of the things they wanted, but I’m still interested in seeing the facts of the guys I played with.”

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