Charlie “Chino” Smith is considered by some to be one of the greatest hitters ever in baseball. He was listed in Sports Illustrated‘s “Top 50 Athletes from South Carolina.” Yet, his legacy remains a mystery to many.
The mystery begins with the basics. Smith’s birthdate is disupted as being sometime between 1901 and 1903. In addition, his hometown has been disputed as well. One source places his birthplace in Hamlet, N.C. Many others place it in Greenwood, S.C.
No matter the year or the birthplace, Smith had developed a reputation as a great hitter in the Negro Leagues by the time his life was cut short in 1932 (placing his age at his death somewhere between 28 and 30).
In just six seasons, Smith is credited with a career batting average of no less than .428. He was also the first Negro League player to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium.
Getting his start
Smith’s baseball career can be traced back to Benedict College in Greenwood, South Carolina, where he was a part of the baseball tame in the early 1920s. Following his time at Benedict (sometime in or before 1924), Smith moved to New York and found a job carrying bags at Penn Station. During the evenings, he would play semi-pro baseball as a part of the Pennsylvania Red Caps of New York.
In 1925, he became a professional baseball player with the Brooklyn Royal Giants of the Eastern Colored League. In his debut season, Smith played second base and is reported to have hit a robust .341 in his first season.
In the next few years of his career, his style of play would draw comparisons to Lloyd Waner, a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a future member of the Hall of Fame. Smith’s style of play was also compared to a later player, Rod Carew.
Skill and swagger
Smith, just 5-foot-6, quickly earned a reputation as a hitter — and a fighter. In a publication from the Society of American Baseball Research, Bill Holland, a top Negro League pitcher in the 1920s, recalls Smith as one who openly sought disapproval from the crowd.
“This guy could do more with the fans down on him,” Holland said. “He’d get up to bat and the pitcher would throw one in there and he’d spit at it.
“The fans would boo him, and he’d come out of the batter’s box, turn around and make like he was going to move toward them, and they’d shout, ‘Come On!’ He’d get back in there and hit the ball out of the ball park and go around the bases waving his arms at the stands.”
He played with the Royal Giants from 1925-1928. In 1927, he finished second in the league with a .439 batting average. According to reports, Smith rarely struck out.
In 1929, he joined the Lincoln Giants and promptly established himself as one of the league’s top players. His .464 average led the league. He added 23 home runs in 237 at-bats — also enough to lead the league. His most astounding feat, however, was a slugging percentage of .930.
‘He could do everything’
Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell is quoted in a Society of American Baseball Research publication as saying Smith would “go out there, say ‘I guess I’ll get me three hits,’ and go out there and hit that ball. I don’t care who pitched, he could do everything.”
One of Smith’s biggest accomplishments came on July 5, 1930. The Lincoln Giants faced the Brooklyn Black Sox in the first game between Negro League teams at Yankee Stadium. Smith responded by becoming the first Negro Leaguer to hit a home run in the “House that Ruth Built.” He added a triple and another home run in that game, driving in six runs.
Smith had the honor of playing in the same spot that Babe Ruth played during New York home games. He also bat in the same spot in the order — third — as the Great Bambino. The Giants continued to use Yankee Stadium when the New York Yankees were on road trips.
Offense was not the only thing that got Smith noticed. He earned a reputation as a fielder. According to stories, Smith had a knack for quickly throwing the ball to first and catching unsuspecting baserunners off guard.
“Chino Smith was out there, and he could field a ball, and if you made a wide turn at first base, he could throw you out trying to hustle back,” recalled Giants teammate Bill Yancey.
Following the 1930 season, the Lincoln Giants challenged the Homestead Grays to a championship series. In the 10th and final game of that series, Smith collided with a teammate while chasing down a pop fly. Smith was hit with a knee in the stomach and had to be removed from the field.
A career cut short
It was the last time he would ever play in the United States. He took just a few at-bats that winter in Cuba. Some suggest that the injury led to Smith coming down with yellow fever. By the time the 1931 season started, Smith had fallen victim to the disease.
Smith’s accomplishments in his short career weren’t confined to Negro League competition. In games against Major League teams, Smith collected 22 hits in 48 at-bats for a .458 average. In 1926, Smith faced Major League pitching for the first time and hit a single and a home run off New York’s Roy Sherid.
Smith only played six seasons in the Negro Leagues, but many view him as one of its early stars. In “Only the Ball was White” by Robert Pearson, legendary pitcher Satchel Paige labels Smith as one of the two greatest hitters ever in the Negro Leagues.