Hilton Smith

Hilton Smith

Hilton Lee Smith

  • Born: February 27, 1912 in Giddings, TX
  • School: Prairie View A&M University
  • Died: November 18, 1983 in Kansas City, MO (Aged 71)
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame by Veteran's Committee as Player in 2001.
  • View Hilton Smith Page at the Baseball Hall of Fame (plaque, photos, videos).
  • View Player Bio from the SABR BioProject

Hilton Smith: Better Than Borderline

Why has no one heard of Hilton Smith? This former Negro Leaguer is in the Hall of Fame, as he should be. But start talking about the greatest pitchers of all-time, and one Negro League name comes up – Satchel Paige. Hilton Smith's whole career was overshadowed by his teammate, but many who hit against both said that there was no difference in effectiveness between the flamboyant Paige and the quiet Smith, or that Hilton was even better.

Hilton Lee Smith was born on February 27, 1912, in Giddings, TX. His father was a teacher, and he had two uncles who loved the game of baseball. He started off early, playing on that trio's town ball team at the age of fifteen before he enrolled in Prairie View A&M College that fall. As a freshman, he made the college baseball team, but the school overlooked his pitching talents until his sophomore year, early in 1929, when his sweeping curveball and devastating fastball made him the school's #1 pitching option.

In 1931, as a nineteen-year-old righthander, Hilton completely outpitched former Negro Leaguer Willie Owens of the semipro Austin Senators. When the powerful Chicago American Giants came to town, Austin quickly signed Hilton, who beat Chicago 5-4 in eleven innings.

Hilton traveled with the Senators down to Mexico, where they readied themselves for a series against a Mexican team that boasted future major leaguer Chile Gomez and legendary Cuban hurler Ramon Bragana. On Saturday, the Senators' starter was ripped apart by Mexican hitting, and Hilton came in and shut them down. The next day, sore-armed Hilton Smith was sent out to pitch, and this time was hit hard.

By Thursday, however, he was well-rested, and won 5-1, knocking in all five runs for Austin. Hilton said, "I struck out so many of them, they didn't think I was the same pitcher."

Later in the year, the Negro Southern League's Monroe Monarchs came to Austin. Hilton told this story: "Monroe, Louisiana, had a real good Negro team then. They were champions of the Southern Conference, had beaten everybody... They had a tremendous ball club." Monroe had Negro League stars like Red Parnell, Goose Curry, Ducky Davenport, and Barney Morris playing for them. "They came out to Austin and played us two games. They were talking about they heard of this little schoolboy up there and said, 'Well, we came to work him over.' But we had a great big ball park and I beat 'em 2-1. They couldn't believe it. They said, 'Well, this big old park, no wonder you won. When you come to Monroe' – Monroe had a small park – 'we'll hit so many home runs off you...' So I went to Monroe the following Sunday and beat 'em 4-2." Then Monroe signed Hilton to a contract.

Hilton's curveball has often been called the best in Negro League history. A tall and slender 6'2", 180 pounds, the force of his hard rising fastball was often unexpected. A sinker, slider, straight change, and screwball were great complements to such a solid foundation. His electric stuff was made even more so by the fact that he could keep pinpoint control on all six pitches from a multitude of arm angles.

The Monroe Monarchs certainly benefited from Hilton's great assortment of pitches, as he went an astonishing 31-0 in his first season there, 1932. With this amazing record, he was already garnering respect as a rookie twenty-year-old.

The following year, Hilton jumped around more, putting time in with the New Orleans Black Creoles, New Orleans Crescent Stars, and Bismarck Churchills, although still pitching mostly for Monroe.

In 1934, the quiet but confident pitcher again threw well for the Monarchs. His moving fastball and feared curve made more talented teams start scouting him. After a fourth solid season with Monroe in 1935, Double Duty Radcliffe recruited Hilton for the increasingly talent-laden Bismarck Churchills. Although Hilton had played there two years previously, Negro League superstars were flocking to the National Baseball Congress tournament, which Bismarck was a part of.

Monroe's funds were diminishing, and Hilton went with Bismarck when Mayor Churchill – mayor of Bismarck – offered him $150 a month to play with the team. The Churchills were fairly set in the pitching category, so Double Duty utilized Hilton's hitting talents by putting him at first base or in the outfield. Sherwood Brewer had this to say about Hilton's move: "Usually teams would put a pitcher out in right field because they had nobody else. But Hilton could have played outfield with any of the great teams! The Grays, Chicago, any of 'em. He could hit!" And Hilton Smith backed up Brewer's claims, hitting .343 with four home runs as Bismarck won the tournament.

Hilton stuck with the Churchills through the 1936 season, but many other stars had not. This opened up a spot in the pitching rotation. Hilton filled it well, going 5-0 including four shutouts – a National Baseball Congress tournament record. However, as the top-to-bottom talent level had diminished, Bismarck failed to repeat as champions.

That fall, the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, J.L. Wilkinson, signed Hilton for the season's homestretch. The Monarchs were Hilton's first team who played against top-tier competition. Although he pitched rarely, Hilton got by on raw ability before he came to Kansas City, but blossomed into possibly the best all-around pitcher in baseball once there. He attributes this to Wilkinson, manager Andy Cooper, umpire and former pitcher Bullet Joe Rogan, and his catcher, Frank Duncan, Jr.

Wilkinson was a great baseball man and knew a lot about the game. Andy Cooper was a smart pitcher, a great teacher, and a knowledgeable manager. Hilton learned by watching Cooper pitch to phantom batters in the bullpen. Rogan would talk to Hilton after the game about what to do in certain situations. The next time Rogan umpired, he would track Hilton down after the game and say, "Un-huh, I see you're picking up." Duncan was a second-generation pro ballplayer, and really understood the game.

With multiple sets of watchful eyes guiding him, Hilton developed into a very smart pitcher. One of his trademarks was picking men off first base. His actual move was not especially good – he did the whole thing by brains. When an exceptionally fast player was on base, Hilton would hold the ball a few extra seconds in the stretch, then step off the rubber instead of going home. The movement would make the base runner think he was pitching and take off for second. Then Hilton would simply throw him out.

Hilton proved that he could play at the highest level of competition in 1937. He finished the season at 6-4 in league play, 4th in the Negro American League in wins and 5th in winning percentage at .600. He also finished second in total run average (TRA) at 2.17 and third in strikeouts (28). He very rarely walked anyone and had the stamina to sometimes pitch four complete games in a week. On May 15th, Hilton no-hit the powerful Chicago American Giants, allowing just one walk and letting just two balls out of the infield. He was selected as the starter for the East-West All-Star Game – although he was the game's loser – and to top off the season, the Monarchs won the Negro World Series. In the World Series, Hilton did not pitch, hitting .167, but he went 2-0 and hit .300 in the earlier playoffs against the American Giants.

Again he was used in the outfield or at first base when not pitching, hitting .281. His outstanding throwing arm and great hustle afield made up for his lack of speed and other defensive deficiencies.

In the fall, the Monarchs played a seven game series against a major league all-star team headed by Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Johnny Mize. Hilton started three games, pitching eighteen scoreless innings and holding Mize hitless. Hilton hit .333 (three-for-nine) in the series. Feller called him better than Satchel Paige. Then Hilton headed to the Caribbean for the Cuban Winter League, where he went 6-3 for Marianao.

In 1938, Hilton broke into the open, by far the best pitcher in the NAL. He went 12-2, leading the league in wins, winning percentage (.857), and strikeouts (77), while finishing second in TRA (3.39). He was again selected to pitch in the East-West Game. Playing with Santa Clara in the Cuban Winter League, Hilton went 4-2.

A 25-2 record in 1939 against all competition opened more eyes to the greatness of Hilton Smith. He went 8-2 in league play, led the league in strikeouts with 60, was 2nd in TRA at 2.06, 3rd in wins, and 4th in winning percentage (.800). Hilton faced Satchel Paige during the 1939 campaign, who was pitching for his Satchel Paige's All-Stars. Hilton cruised, 9-0. Hilton pitched in the East-West All-Star Game for the third year running.

In the later portion of the season, Satchel came to Kansas City. By far the biggest drawing card in Negro League history, Satchel often would pitch the first three innings of a game to attract fans, and Hilton would come in for the other six without much difference in effectiveness. Sometimes when Satchel was billed to pitch, he would fail to show up at all, and great pitchers like Hilton and Booker McDaniel would have to suffer the indignity of posing as Satchel to keep fans in the stands.

However, there was much less difference in the skill level of the two pitchers than the amount of publicity they attracted. Asked which was better, Hall of Famer and veteran of both the Negro and major leagues Roy Campanella said, "Migod, you couldn't tell the difference!" Negro League star Gene Benson said, "You better get your runs early" – against Paige – " 'cause you ain't gonna get any runs after Smith came in." Another Negro League star, catcher Quincy Trouppe, said, "Hilton, in my estimation, had the most ability of any pitcher of my time."

Hilton went 21-4 in 1940, including 6-4 in league play. He was tied for first in wins and third in TRA (2.74). He pitched in the All-Star Game for the fourth time in a row. That winter, Hilton traveled down to Mexico and played for the Torreon Cotton Dealers team, going 5-3.

Another career year came from Hilton in 1941, and again he was disputably the best pitcher in the league. He went 25-1 (10-1 in league play), and led the league in wins, shutouts (2), saves (3), and hits allowed per nine innings (3.9), finished second in win percentage (.909) and strikeouts (35), and was fourth in TRA (2.28). He was the starter in the East-West Game, and even hit .571.

His one loss came to a team from Dayton, OH. After relieving Satchel, who had given up one hit and no runs, he gave up just a single hit for the rest of the game, and allowed an unearned run on an error, losing 1-0.

In October of 1941, Hilton had a great game but no support against the Bob Feller All-Stars. Satchel threw the first four innings, giving up four runs. Hilton entered the game and threw five one-hit innings. He even hit a double with none out and his team down one, and failed to be knocked in. Even with his efforts, the Monarchs lost, 4-3. After the game – in which Hilton, Feller, Paige, and major leaguer Ken Heintzelman had pitched – Bob Burnes of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote, "Smith showed the best speed and the sharpest curve of the quartet."

Hilton returned to Torreon of the Mexican League that winter, and went 3-5 although his earned run average was fifth in the league at 3.88.

Hilton Smith had another solid season in 1942, at 22-5. He went 4-3 in league play and hit .375. For the sixth straight year, Hilton pitched in the East-West All-Star Game, starting for the third time in his career. It was his last East-West Game, after which he was tied for second on the All-Star Game strikeout list with thirteen, tied with Satchel Paige and just one behind leader Leon Day.

A step was made toward integration in the 1942 season – the first game at Wrigley Field in Chicago ever to include a black person. Dizzy Dean's All-Stars took on the Monarchs in a game for charity – the Navy Relief Fund. After Satchel left at the end of the fifth, the score was 1-1. Hilton pitched four shutout innings, striking out three and allowing just an infield hit. The biracial crowd at the game totaled 29,000, outdrawing the all-white White Sox-Browns doubleheader across town by 10,000 fans.

In the World Series of that year, Hilton pitched game three, winning 8-4, although he didn't allow a run. The Monarchs won the Series, and toured the country after the season. While touring California, Hilton discovered a young ballplayer named Jackie Robinson, whom he gave a chance in pro baseball by signing him to a contract with the Monarchs. The man who broke baseball's color barrier got the chance to do so because of Hilton Smith's eye for talent.

Against all competition over the years of 1937 and 1942, Hilton had 129 wins against only twenty-eight losses, or an .822 winning percentage. Although this was an impressive total, even more impressive was his four-year total, from 1939 to 1942: 93-11, or an .894 winning percentage. Anyone who can win nearly ninety percent of his games deserves consideration among the greatest of the great.

An arm injury in 1943 held Hilton to a 4-2 record in league play. Regardless, he was 5th in TRA at 3.79. He healed very well over a dormant winter and returned like a man possessed.

In 1944, Hilton threw several one-hit shutouts and averaged eight strikeouts per game. His earned run average was 2.74 but he went just 2-5 in league play. Pitching to future Hall of Famer Biz Mackey one day, everything was working. Masterful pitcher handler Mackey got Hilton on an edge, completely unhittable. "I don't see how in the world you ever lose a ball game," Mackey said after the brilliant performance.

The following year, Hilton went 5-2 in league play with a 2.31 ERA while hitting .243. This includes an April 22nd shutout in which Jackie Robinson hit an inside-the-park homer to help win Hilton's start 4-0.

In 1946 Hilton went 5-2 in league play while finishing 5th in the league in TRA at 3.30. He even hit .431 as the Monarchs won the NAL pennant. He won his only World Series decision in two appearances and had a 1.29 TRA. In the 1942 and 1946 Negro World Series combined, Hilton was 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA. That winter he migrated to Venezuela, where he went 8-5 for league champion Vargas. During a game against the New York Yankees while with Vargas, Hilton threw five one-hit, two-walk, shutout innings and left the Yankees baffled in a 4-3 win.

After a few consecutive seasons in which he strayed from the best of the league, Hilton was again nearly indisputably the best pitcher in black baseball. An undefeated 7-0 league ledger and league leading 2.00 TRA put him back at the top. He finished 1st in TRA and tied for first in winning percentage (1.000). His season impressed major league scouts, and the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a contract. But Hilton knew that it was too late for him, at thirty-five years old. Age is likely the only thing that kept him from starring in the big leagues.

The organized leagues of blackball were fast deteriorating, so Hilton's league record was just 1-2 in 1948. He left a legacy behind in Kansas City – twelve straight seasons with twenty or more wins against all levels of competition.

Hilton's last gasp was an independent minor league team in Fulda, NM, with whom he played in 1949 and 1950. There he picked up an emery ball from his old friend Double Duty Radcliffe, the final addition to his crafty repertoire.

After his retirement from baseball at the age of thirty-eight, Hilton Smith went into his father's vocation, education. He taught and coached as well as working for Armco Steel. His retirement from Armco came in 1978, when he was sixty-six. When he died on November 18, 1983, in Kansas City, MO, Hilton was working as an assistant scout for the Chicago Cubs. In 2001, he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

For his career in Cuba, he was 10-5 (.667 winning percentage) in twenty-three appearances, which included nine complete games. In Mexico, he was 8-8, with nine complete games in twenty-six appearances. For his career in the Negro Leagues, he was 161-32 (.834 winning percentage), walking 1.6 batters and giving up 6.7 hits per nine innings for an 0.889 WHIP. He was 72-28 (.720 winning percentage) in league play.

To put this in perspective, the all-time leader in winning percentage is Hall of Famer Al Spalding at .796. Hilton's overall percentage beats this but not his percentage in league play. However, second place is just .717, meaning Hilton would be in that position at the very least.

The lowest walks per nine innings is .486, set by Al Spalding. Hilton would just barely crack the top 30 all-time with his 1.6, just behind Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson – whom some call the greatest pitcher ever. The lowest hits per nine innings is 6.6 by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, with Hilton being second at 6.7. But Hilton Smith had the best blend of these two – the best WHIP ever is 0.968 by Hall of Famer Addie Joss, putting Hilton’s 0.889 easily at the top. Hilton went 6-1 against white big league all-star teams.

What these statistics all mean is that, although Hilton Smith played much of his quiet but great career in the shadow of Paige's illustrious one, he is by no means a borderline Hall of Famer thrown in to meet the Negro League quota. Hilton Smith should be included in discussions of the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. Think about an earlier statement – he won twenty or more games a year for twelve straight years, and for nine of those years he was Satchel Paige's reliever!

There are two major reasons why Hilton Smith may not be remembered as he should be. First of all is the publicity that Paige attracted. This is not a knock against Satchel – he may be the greatest pitcher ever – but Hilton's baseball-focused, nicknameless, quiet dominance meant nothing to the many fans who flocked to the park to see Satchel call in his fielders and strike out the side.

The second reason is that Hilton knew when to quit. Satchel – six years Hilton's elder – signed a contract to play in the majors at forty-one. Hilton – at thirty-six – declined a contract because he knew that it was too late. For publicity, Satchel came back when he was fifty-nine and pitched an inning. Suddenly, trivia buffs everywhere had a new answer to the question, "Who’s the oldest man ever to play in the majors?" and a new group of people knew Satchel's name. There is a large group who know Joe Black, and Sam Jethroe, and Hank Thompson, only because they played a few years in the major leagues.

But plenty of people know Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston. The Sporting News 100 Greatest Players names all four. When the "experts" start naming Hilton Smith in his rightful place, maybe the fans will, too.

By BR Bullpen

2006 Hall of Fame, Hilton Smith


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