Thursday, August 9, 2018

Reggie Smith sharing Chet Brewer's lessons at MLB Elite Development Invitational

Reggie Smith has a passion for teaching baseball that stems from the lessons he learned in Los Angeles during the early 1960s that continues to resonate through his instruction at the 2018 Major League Baseball Elite Development Invitational in historic Dodgertown. The 73-year-old Smith was excited to return to Vero Beach where he spent many years honing his craft as a both a player and coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s always great to be back here at historic Dodgertown,” Smith said via telephone from Dodgertown.  “It’s home, I spent a lot of time hereJust as important, the collaboration between Major League Baseball and MLBPA to run such an event and have such a project where we can interact and spend time with kids at the Elite Development Invitational here at Vero Beach is just gratifying.”

Reggie Smith at the Elite Development Invitational
Courtesy of Ruth Ruiz

The two-week Elite Development Invitational is part of the MLB Diversity Pipeline, aimed at encouraging and developing minority participation within the game. Smith views the interaction between the kids and the former players as the key link to this program’s success.

“To see how this collaboration put their shoulder into a project with not only the financial resources, but the human resources too, that is really special to me,” he said. “[We are able] to provide the opportunity for kids that need financial help and educational help to be able to use baseball as a vehicle to get into college and professional baseball. As it relates to the African American kids, it is just exciting for me to be here to impart that kind of knowledge that is necessary so that these kids have some hope.”

While Major League Baseball has seen a slight rise in the percentage of African-American players on major league rosters (8.4% as of Opening Day 2018), that number is still well below the double-digit amounts during Smith’s heyday in the 1970s. He felt a responsibility to help foster a passion for baseball with the current generation.

“Looking at the contribution that the African American player and the Hispanic player contributed to baseball, it’s disappointing to see the decline in that area of the communities that were given the opportunity to play baseball,” he said. “Baseball is expensive and unfortunately for economic reasons, it became difficult for African-Americans to play. Some of the glamour in baseball was lost because it is a long hard road to play this game to get to the highest levels of it, going through the minor leagues and hopefully on into the major leagues. 

“We have an opportunity to reintroduce the sport to kids to give them hope so that they can one, get an education by using baseball as a vehicle and two, see if they can provide economic mobility as well as educational mobility by getting back into the sport and playing baseball. It was incumbent on the ex-players like myself and many others who have the knowledge and informational resources to provide it to these kids and get them back out there to fall in love with the game again.”

Smith’s presence at the camp is a continuation of Chet Brewer’s legacy. Brewer was a famed pitcher who spent over 25 seasons in the Negro Leagues, where he was a frontline starter alongside Satchel Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs. He mentored a young Jackie Robinson in the California Winter League, and continued in that role well after his playing days were over, guiding the likes of Smith and many others towards major league careers

When the conversations of great Negro League pitchers come up, rarely does it include Chet Brewer. It should,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. “Chet was an outstanding pitcher and is one of the most important players in Black Baseball history because of his global play, his role as a pioneering major league scout, and his dedication to youth baseball where he nurtured and developed future MLB stars like Smith, Bob Watson, Dock Ellis, and Enos Cabell.”

Brewer holds a treasured place in Smith’s heart for showering him with baseball wisdom at a young age. Relishing the opportunity to reminisce about his teacher, Smith cited the invaluable contributions that Brewer made to not only his own career, but also a host of other African-American major league stars.

“The love [I have] for Chet is always remembering him and the contributions that he made not only to the Negro Leagues, but to professional baseball from the standpoint of the number of young African-Americans with that he came into contact with,” Smith said. “He provided us with infinitely valuable information and knowledge to continue to play the game.

Smith had the fortune of playing for Brewer as a teenager against seasoned Negro League veterans. The sage Brewer slowly introduced Smith to the fierce competition, giving him the necessary time to find his place.

“Chet was very instrumental to me because I first started playing with him when I was 15 years old and at the time there were kind of the remnants of the many players that were in the old Negro Leagues. … At the time, [Negro League] players would always come out west and barnstorm. I was fortunate enough in 1960 to be able to play for him because Chet had spotted me and gave me the opportunity to sit on the bench, learn a little bit, and then get into a game or two until ultimately that I was able to play with him on a regular basis. In doing so, that brought in other players like Bob Watson, Bobby Tolan, Leon McFadden, Dock Ellis, and a whole group of other young African-American players who had an opportunity to play with that team. They all went on to have long and prosperous major league careers. Chet was very influential in the number of players that he came into contact with to teach us not only how to play this little boy’s game, but that we had to be men to do it.”

Smith’s deep baseball lineage created an opportunity at the EDI to link almost a century of knowledge that started from Chet Brewer’s time in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s. He applied those lessons and combined them with his fifty-plus years in professional baseball to pass along the fundamentals to the next wave of African-American talent in Vero Beach. 

“You take the information and the old school mentality that baseball is still a game where you still have to catch the ball, you have throw it, you have to hit itand you have to run,” he said. “You have to try to do all these things as efficiently, expertly,and as smartly as you possibly can. The nuances of the game that we learned back then; these are the things that we try to teach the kids to help in their development to make it that much more fun and ultimately get to the professional level.”

While Smith is committed to refining their skills within the lines, his ultimate goal is to show them how to make their baseball careers a path to education. With odds of a major league career rather slim for the few hundred in attendance at the EDI, he stressed the primary importance of using baseball as a tool to gain an advanced degree

“Education is first on the list,” he said. “At any given time, we look at the number of people that actually have a chance to make it to the major leagues and play at the highest level; you would probably have a better chance going to your local store and buying a lottery ticket. You have a better chance of winning than making it to the major leagues, but the one thing they can never take away from you is education, so I teach that first. Out of that, I hope that they play not only the love of the game, but also as a vehicle to further an education and get something that can never be taken away from them.”

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