Jackie Robinson earned acclaim right from 1941 when he became the first athlete in the history of UCLA to earn a letter in four different sports in the same year – basketball, football, track and baseball. After being drafted into the Army, he was discharged in 1945. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro League before eventually becoming the first Black player in major league baseball.
At the time, everyone was aware that the first Black to break the color barrier in baseball would not only have to be talented but strong enough to withstand a barrage of racist attacks. Robinson did just that. With courage and sacrifice, he confronted Jim Crow, both as a baseball player and as a civil rights activist, and helped changed America.
Through it all, Black journalist Wendell Smith was by his side. Smith, who grew up in Detroit, dreamed of being a professional baseball player but was denied the chance to make an MLB (Major League Baseball) team. This heartbreak inspired him to bring change in the game, using the power of the press. He used his work as a sportswriter to help Robinson break baseball’s color barrier 75 years ago. But it was tough considering he too faced discrimination in his work as a journalist.
Smith was born in 1914 in Detroit, where his father worked in the household of automobile magnate Henry Ford as a chef. Smith was the only Black student at Southeastern High School in the motor city and played on the school’s baseball team. He was also one of the leading pitchers on an American Legion team that included future Chicago White Sox catcher Mike Tresh. While at West Virginia State College at Charleston, Smith played baseball there and also became the sports editor for the school newspaper during his junior year.
Right after graduating in 1937, Smith started working at the Pittsburgh Courier, then the largest Black newspaper in America. He first began as a sportswriter before becoming the sports editor the following year. During World War II in 1942, the paper started a “Double V” campaign for victory in the war abroad and for victory against racism in the U.S., calling for equality in professional sports, according to MLB.com.
Smith was among those who led this call. “He realized that you can’t get your hands around all of racism. But you can get your hands around a baseball. So his feeling was, ‘If I can get baseball integrated, I can make a big difference,'” Chris Lamb, a journalism professor and author, told MLB.com.
With that in mind, Smith, in 1939, asked Ford Frick, the president of the National League, why African-American players were absent in the Majors. Frick told him that players, managers and fans would not allow it. But Smith knew that was false, and he proved that when he spoke with several Major League players and managers who said they had no qualms about having Black teammates.
Smith shared his findings with team owners but didn’t make any headway until 1945. As MLB.com reports: “Smith found an ally in Boston city councilor Isadore Muchnick, who threatened to revoke the ability of the Boston Braves and Red Sox to play on Sundays if they didn’t consider signing black players. The Braves never followed through, but on April 16, 1945, Smith brought three players from the Negro Leagues to try out with the Red Sox: Marvin Williams, Sam Jethroe and Robinson. The Red Sox reportedly didn’t take the tryout seriously, didn’t offer any of them a contract and ultimately became the last team to sign an African American player.”
However, the tryout by Smith attracted Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who contacted Smith about his plans to organize a third Negro League in 1945 and eventually sign the Dodgers’ first Black player. Smith recommended the Dodgers sign Robinson, an Army veteran and a college-educated man who could also control his temper considering he would come under attack as a Black man in the game.
On October 23, 1945, the Dodgers disclosed that Robinson had been signed to play for the Triple-A Montreal Royals during the 1946 season. Smith became a counselor, traveling companion and a confidante to Robinson from October 1945 when he signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers to when he became the Majors’ first Black player in 1947 and after. Smith chronicled the baseball great’s journey in the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote his first biography, “My Own Story”, and served as the ghost-writer for the player’s pieces in the newspaper.
Smith left the Pittsburg Courier after Robinson’s rookie year and became the first Black columnist at the Chicago Herald-American. In 1964, he started working at the Chicago Sun-Times before working for the television station WGN. He was still fighting for equality in baseball at the time and even helped lead the movement to end Spring Training segregation in Florida. Before that, he had become one of the first Black writers to join the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Smith passed away on November 26, 1972, and was posthumously named the first African-American winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 1993 after his story was largely forgotten. One of his best pieces of advice to Robinson was in a February 4, 1947, letter he wrote to the baseball player:
“You should not worry about the plans they have for you,” Smith wrote to Robinson. “As I see it you are definitely going to get a chance. All you have to do is keep a cool head, play the kind of ball you are capable of playing and don’t worry about anything else. … I don’t see how you can miss.”