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SMITH, HILTON LEE

Pitcher Hilton Lee Smith (1907–1983).
Pitcher and Giddings native Hilton Lee Smith (1907–1983) was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001. Courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

SMITH, HILTON LEE (1907–1983). Negro League baseball player Hilton Lee Smith has been heralded by baseball historians as the best all-around pitcher in black baseball history. Noted for his fine curveballs, Smith played most of his career with the Kansas City Monarchs where he became known most as Satchel Paige’s relief pitcher. In games, especially barnstorming exhibition games, Paige pitched the first three innings as a draw to attract fans, and Smith pitched the final six innings. Because of his quiet demeanor, Smith never attracted the public attention at the same level as Paige, but those connected to black baseball considered Smith an equal in ability to his more famous contemporaries.

Born on February 27, 1907, in Giddings, Texas, to John and Mattie Smith, Hilton Smith first started playing baseball as a youth on the local town team. His father, a teacher, also played on the team but encouraged his son to get an education. As a result, Smith enrolled at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), the historically-black college west of Houston in 1927. For two years he attended Prairie View and pitched for the school team in his last year.

Smith made his professional debut in 1931 with the Austin Black Senators of the Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana League. The league closed down following the 1931 season, so Smith moved on and joined the Monroe Monarchs (of Louisiana) of the Negro Southern League. He pitched with Monroe for four seasons and also pitched for the New Orleans Black Creoles and New Orleans Crescent Stars in 1933.  

In 1936 Smith made the last team change of his career and joined the Kansas City Monarchs; he remained with them until he retired from baseball in 1948. The Monarchs spent 1936 as a touring team, but in 1937 they joined the newly-formed Negro American League (NAL). During his twelve-year tenure with the Monarchs, Smith won more than twenty games each year. During this time, he helped his team win five of the first six Negro American League pennants and the 1942 and 1946 “Negro World Series” championships over the rival Negro National League.

Adding to Smith’s personal accomplishments, he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago American Giants in 1937 and made six consecutive East-West All-Star games from 1937 to 1942. In 1938 he won every NAL game he pitched. During his peak period (1939–42), Smith compiled a record of ninety-three wins and eleven losses against all levels of competition. Furthermore, in exhibition games against white major league players, Smith won six games and only lost one.

As Smith neared the end of his career, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the white major leagues approached him about joining their team. Having just signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, the Dodgers sought other African American players to add to their team. Smith declined the offer and felt his age too great for a rookie. Two years later, following the 1948 season, Hilton Smith retired from professional baseball. He had a career record of 161–32 in league play.

Following retirement, Smith became a teacher and coach in the Kansas City, Missouri, public school system. He later worked until 1978 as a foreman for Armco Steel in Kansas City. Then Smith took on the role of associate scout for the Chicago Cubs until his death in 1983.

Smith married Louise Humphrey in 1934; their marriage lasted forty-nine years. The couple had two sons, Hilton and DeMorris. Hilton Lee Smith died in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 18, 1983. He was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in that city. In 2001 Smith received election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2009 the city of Giddings dedicated a baseball field in Smith’s name, and the Hilton Lee Smith Baseball Memorabilia Collection was established at the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Rob Fink, Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2010). Lawrence D. Hogan, Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2006). Ken Mandel, “The closer: Smith best known for relieving Paige,” Negro Leagues Legacy, MLB.com (http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/mlb_negro_leagues_profile.jsp?player=smith_hilton), accessed August 31, 2016. National Baseball Hall of Fame: Hilton Smith (http://baseballhall.org/hof/smith-hilton), accessed August 31, 2016. Robert Peterson, Only the Ball was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994).

Rob Fink

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Handbook of Texas Online, Rob Fink, "Smith, Hilton Lee ," accessed October 20, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsm97.

Uploaded on September 7, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.