Standing tall with his hands held high and a menacing stare locked on the enemy pitcher, Reggie Smith was one of baseball’s instantly recognizable hitters of the 1960s and '70s. During a major-league career that spanned 17 seasons, the seven-time All-Star had a .287 average and topped 2000 hits, 1,000 runs and RBIs, and 300 home runs. He batted .300 seven times, slugged .500 six times and finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1977 and ’78.

Reggie made it to the majors before free agency, when ballparks were bigger, players were smaller, fundamentals were preached at every level and winning the World Series was every player’s sole motivation. For the switch-hitting slugger, this was the essence of the sport. Reggie was a man who spoke his mind back then, and he still speaks his mind today. As baseball has evolved, so have the priorities of the players and teams. This, he maintains, has been a change for the worse.

The seventh of eight children, Carl Reginald Smith was born on April 2, 1945 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was still young. There, Reggie was exposed to all nationalities and races. He learned to embrace diversity at an early age.

The Smith home was full of love and music. Reggie’s father, Lonnie, was a singer. His mother, Nellie, played the piano. Reggie tried every instrument put in front of him, including the cello, saxophone, clarinet, flute, trombone, violin, bass and drums. He also inherited a passion for sports (not to mention a load of talent) from his dad, who caught for the Jacksonville Red Caps and other teams in the days when baseball’s color line kept blacks and whites from competing on the same field. Reggie was an All-State performer in both baseball and football, enjoying a celebrated career at Centennial High School in Compton, and attracting offers from college and pro teams.

 


 
JockBio.com:

As a kid, you had many different interests, from music to sports. Did you always assume you’d become a professional athlete, or did you have other dreams?

   
Reggie Smith:

I dreamed about playing baseball and football, which was actually my first love. But I didn’t limit myself to sports. I wanted to be a pilot. Science also intrigued me. I thought I might be a scientist some day, or perhaps a teacher.

 
JockBio.com:

Who was your hero growing up?

   
Reggie Smith:

Jackie Robinson, mainly because he was the first African-American to play in the major leagues. In my generation, he was looked up to as someone who opened doors at a significant time of life. Jackie affected the social consciousness of the country. And the world, for that matter.

 
JockBio.com:

Is he the reason you settled on a professional baseball career?

   
Reggie Smith:

No. I chose baseball because my father was very sick, and signing with a pro team was an immediate way to help my family. I was very close to my parents. I worked in the family business selling eggs as a kid, and spent a lot of time with my father. He had been a great athlete in his day. You could say I benefitted from his gene pool.

My father didn’t want me to go pro out of high school. He told me to follow my dream, and attend college, where I could have played baseball and football. But I felt an obligation to my parents, so I signed with the Minnesota Twins. I’m glad I did. I have no regrets.


At 6-0 and 195 pounds, Reggie was a classic five-tool prospect. A shortstop, he hit with good power from both sides of the plate. The Twins assigned him to Wytheville (in Virginia) of the Appalachian League, where he encountered far more problems off the field than on it. In his first year in the minors, the 18-year-old acquitted himself well enough, batting .257 with eight doubles, three triples and eight home runs. Reggie’s transition to professional baseball, however, was nothing compared to his first taste of living in the South.

   
JockBio.com:

How hard was the ‘63 season for you?

   
Reggie Smith:

Very difficult. Growing up in LA, I had never experienced blatant racism. I was very angry during my first year. That anger manifested itself into a lot of fights. I was often reminded of Jackie Robinson, but it took time to learn the tolerance he showed. I resisted at first. One thing I knew for sure, I didn’t want to go back to the South to play ball.


The Twins left Reggie unprotected after his first year, and in December of 1963 he was drafted by the Red Sox. Boston’s initial plan was to make him a third baseman. But by the middle of the 1964 campaign, the team realized his speed and instincts were being wasted at the hot corner, and moved him to the outfield. He spent three productive seasons in the Boston farm system, including 1966, when he batted .320, belted 18 homers and knocked in 80 runs. After a cup of coffee with the Red Sox in September of that year, Reggie was ready for a full-time job in the majors.

 
JockBio.com:

The jump to the majors wasn’t much of a shock for you, was it?

   
Reggie Smith:

No, it wasn't. I was pretty fortunate because my first contract with the Red Sox was a Major League deal. That meant I went to spring training with the big club every year. There I met superstars like Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. I listened to everything they said, and tried to take it all in.

I was also exposed to a lot of great players in the minors. Back then the caliber of players at those levels was much higher than it is today. Guys like Lenny Green, Earl Wilson, Felix Mantilla, Stan Johnson, Felix Maldanado, Joe Foy and George Scott taught me a lot, on and off the field. The Red Sox had very few black players in their organization. I think it was less than 10. The players I mentioned took me under their wing.

No one taught me more than Billy Harrell. I learned tolerance from him. He told me that if I let the racial slurs and taunts affect me, then that’s what I thought of myself. Billy showed me how to focus on the baseball side of things.


Felix Mantilla,
1965 The Sporting News
   
JockBio.com:

What was spring training with Boston like for a hot prospect in 1967?

   
Reggie Smith:

I was naive in many ways when I joined the Red Sox. The team was really like a country club back then. During spring training, the coaches always had tee times to play golf. If you were a rookie, you didn’t get a lot of time in batting practice. I asked someone what I should do to get more swings, and was told to grab a bucket of balls and hit them out of my hand..

   
JockBio.com:

Were you expecting to be Boston’s everyday center fielder that year?

   
Reggie Smith:

I had led the International League in hitting in ‘66, so I figured I would at least earn a roster spot. Then in spring training, George Smith and Mike Andrews, both second basemen, got hurt. Since I was the only player around with infield training, the Red Sox moved me back to second base. Over the next week or so, I got a crash course in infield play. In fact, I’m the answer to a great trivia question. Who was Boston’s starting second baseman on Opening Day of the 1967 Impossible Dream season? It was me.

   
JockBio.com:

You were surrounded by some interesting players on the Red Sox, including Scott, Joe Foy, Tony Conigliaro, Rico Petrocelli, Ken Harrelson, Jim Lonborg, Elston Howard, John Wyatt and Carl Yaztrzemski. Yaz was a particularly close friend. Talk about him.

   
Reggie Smith:

Yaz and I spent a lot of time together. We threw a lot of BP to each other. We were good friends and good fishing buddies, and we still are.

   
JockBio.com:

How about Ted Williams? What was your relationship like with him?

   
Reggie Smith:

Williams took to me because he knew I was a big prospect who wanted to get better. He always tried to avoid the reporters, so during spring training he usually came through the dugout to get to the field. One day he saw me hitting balls out of my hand, like I was told to, and he asked me what I was doing. I answered that I was trying work on my hitting. He could tell I shared his commitment to greatness. From that point on, he began working with me.

I had always been interested in anything dealing with science. And, like Williams, I loved the science of hitting. But he helped me understand it so much better because of the demands he placed on me as his student. He would ask me questions like, Why does a curve ball curve? At first my reaction was, “Why does is matter? I just want to hit it.” But I learned that by trying to answer these kinds of questions you train yourself to pay attention to detail. And that has a positive effect on your performance.


Ted Williams, 1952 Red Man
   
JockBio.com:

Williams also was instrumental in the development of your stance, right?

   
Reggie Smith:

Yes. When I came up from the minors, I had trouble with the high pitch. That was a problem in the American League because the umpires wore those bubble chest protectors. They stood more upright behind the plate, which made for a higher strike zone.

Williams liked you to figure out things for yourself. When I told him I wanted to work on hitting the high ball, he told me that I had to either get my hands closer to the pitch or lay off it. I couldn’t lay off it, because it was usually called a strike. So I had to learn what Williams meant by “getting my hands closer to the pitch.” Eventually, it made sense. If I raised my hands up high, I could drop them to hit the high strike. This was a lot easier than trying to raise them to hit it.


With sluggers like Yaztrzemski, Scott, Petrocelli, Conigliaro and later Carlton Fisk surrounding Reggie in the batting order, the Red Sox featured a fierce lineup year in and year out. In his rookie year in 1967, Boston captured the pennant—the famous “Impossible Dream” campaign—but lost Game 7 of the World Series to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Fenway Park.

Reggie used his new stance to bat .246 with 15 homers and 61 RBIs that season, and hit a pair of homers against St. Louis. He led the league in doubles in 1968, and produced back-to-back .300 seasons in 1969 and 1970. After moving from center field to right field for the 1971 season, Reggie clubbed 30 homers and topped the league in two-baggers again. He was selected to play in the All-Star Game in ‘69, and again in 1972. During that campaign, the Red Sox were in a dead heat with the Tigers heading into the final series in Detroit. Boston dropped two of three and finished a half-game out of first.

After the 1973 season, Reggie was traded along with pitcher Ken Tatum to the Cardinals for Rick Wise and Bernie Carbo. He welcomed the deal on many levels. Playing in a racially divided city like Boston had been very difficult for him, especially given Beantown’s aggressive newspaper writers. Escaping to St. Louis, which had more of a small-town feel and was intensely supportive of its Cards, gave him a new lease on life. Just as important, Reggie believed his style of play was much better suited to the National League..


Reggie Smith, 1971 Topps
 
JockBio.com:

How excited were you to go from Boston to St. Louis?

   
Reggie Smith:

It was time for me to leave when the Red Sox traded me. The clubhouse in Boston was a very antagonistic atmosphere. The reporters were stars in their own right, and there were unrealistic expectations put on the team every year. In addition, I had always felt I was a National League player trapped in the American League. This was my style of play—the running, the way pitchers challenged you with the fastball. The National League also had more established stars back then.

St. Louis was a great baseball city. The fans understood and appreciated the game on a high level. Playing there had much less to do with the media. And the Cardinals were also winners. It was a different feel on the field and in the clubhouse. I had played against a great St. Louis team in the 1967 World Series. Joining a club with names like Bob Gibson, Joe Torre, Lou Brock and Tim McCarver was a big thrill.


In his first two seasons with the Cardinals, Reggie established himself as a difference maker. In 1974, St. Louis improved by five games in the standings, but was edged by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the N.L. East. The following year, he filled in at first base after Torre was traded, hit .302 and led the team in homers.

   
JockBio.com:

The Cardinals lost in painful fashion to the Pirates in ‘74. How disappointing was that finish?

   
Reggie Smith:
It was tough. We played Pittsburgh late in the season with a chance to close them out. We had them down by four runs in the ninth with two outs. Manny Sanguillen struck out, but Ted Simmons dropped the ball. Sanguillen reached first safely, and the Pirates came back to win.
   
JockBio.com:

You were traded to Los Angeles midway through the 1976 season. What were the circumstances behind that deal?

   
Reggie Smith:

The trade was kind of unexpected. It was the first year of free agency, and the Cardinals were afraid I was going to leave after the season. They moved me to get something for me, though all they got was Joe Ferguson and a couple of minor leaguers.

The trade actually turned out to be a blessing. The Cardinals sent me home to L.A. when I was absolutely at my best. I was well established by that point. Playing in front of my hometown folk was very exciting.


Reggie batted .307, drove in 87 runs, and topped the NL with a .432 on-base percentage in 1977. He also joined Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker as one of four Dodgers to hit 30 or more homers. Los Angeles ran away with the West and beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS to reach the World Series, where another Reggie—Jackson—stole the show in a six-game victory. Reggie Smith did some slugging of his own that October, launching three home runs against Yankee pitching. The two clubs returned for a rematch in 1978, and L.A. took the first two at home. But New York ran the table for world championship.


Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker,
Rony Cey & Steve Garvey,
1977 The Sporting News
   
JockBio.com:
Despite losing to the Yankees in 1977, was that your most enjoyable year of baseball?
 
Reggie Smith:

It was one of them, especially because it had been 10 years since I’d last been to the World Series. That’s why you play this game.

It was also a memorable year because of the way we dominated the National League, and overcame the Big Red Machine. Teams expected to get beaten by us.

   
JockBio.com:
What was the Dodger clubhouse like? Who were the real leaders on those teams?
   
Reggie Smith:

It was typical of what you would expect to find in a big-league clubhouse. We had a lot of fun, and our ups and downs, but all of our problems stayed in the clubhouse. We were a team in every sense of the word. We liked to call ourselves an octopus. If one arm didn’t get you, another one would.

As far as the leaders were concerned, that’s determined by what you do on the field. In my case, I didn’t need to talk big. I had expectations of myself, and my teammates responded to my performance. My motto was: If I have to carry you, jump on my back. I wanted to win, so I carried myself like a leader.


Reggie’s body began to betray him after the ‘78 campaign. Over the next four years, knee, ankle and shoulder injuries limited him to just 307 games, and by 1981—when the Dodgers won the pennant again—he was a pinch-hitter and back-up first baseman. Reggie signed with the San Francisco Giants as a free agent that winter, and had a nice comeback year, batting .284 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs in limited duty. After a thrilling down-to-the-wire race in 1982, Reggie and the Giants parted ways. Looking to extend his career, Reggie became the first major U.S. star to cross the Pacific to Japan.
 
   
JockBio.com:
How was your experience with the Yomiuri Giants? Didn't you become close to Sadaharu Oh?
   
Reggie Smith:

I was an old man by the time I got there. I was almost 40-years-old and basically playing with one arm because of shoulder surgery. Still, I was the first player of my caliber to go to Japan.

I didn’t get pitched to very often, but I learned my role. The most frustrating thing was the unrealistic expectations. That, and the different strike zone. There were pitchers over there who could have been effective in the majors—though no position player—but they benefitted from the generous strike zone.It was two-and-a-half to three balls off the plate on both sides.

Sadaharu Oh and I had a good relationship. He was a true Samurai. He understood the nature of being, and what baseball was all about. Like me, he was a foreigner. Oh was Chinese, and people treated him differently because of it. They were rude and disrespectful to him. That was something else we had in common.


Sadaharu Oh, SI for Kids

 

JockBio.com:

David Halberstam wrote an explosive profile on you for Playboy during your time in Japan. You were quoted as saying some harsh things about baseball overseas. Did that story have an impact on your life?

   
Reggie Smith:

Not really. He did the story that he wanted to write. Some of the things I said weren’t fully understood. Probably the most controversial thing was, “It looks like baseball, it smells like baseball, but it’s not Major League Baseball.”

People in Japan were angry because they thought their game was on par with the U.S. But it wasn’t, and nothing I said was wrong. Remember, I ended up hitting 28 homers with 72 RBIs in 261 at-bats, and I wasn’t at full strength.


Reggie returned to the States in 1984, and ultimately reconnected with the Dodgers as a minor-league instructor. He enjoyed working with young prospects at the lower levels, teaching them the basics and the nuances of the game. Among those he tutored were Raul Mondesi, Mike Piazza, Eric Karros and Todd Hollandsworth, all of whom went on to earn Rookie of the Year honors.

In the mid-1990s, the Dodgers asked Reggie to join the big club as a coach. He resisted, telling the team he was more valuable roving the farm system. When the L.A. brass disagreed, he walked away from the majors. In 1995, Reggie started a baseball camp for young players. Three years later, he opened the first Reggie Smith Baseball Center (www.reggiesmithbaseball.com), in Encino, California. Reggie hopes to expand into other West Coast areas in the coming years.

   
JockBio.com:

Do you prefer working with players just learning the game?

   
Reggie Smith:

In many instances, yes. I find it difficult now to watch baseball at the Major League level, because of the lack of experience and fundamentals. I understand why this is the case. The cost of developing players has become prohibitive. Very few teams now make the investment. The Braves are a good example of a team that spends its money wisely on its farm system. They are what the Dodgers used to be.

The Reggie Smith Baseball Centers are an extension of my coaching career. I wanted to be a teacher growing up, and today I consider myself an instructor. We stress as much as possible the mechanics of all aspects of the game. Our approach is scientific—the how and why of baseball—for all age groups.

 
JockBio.com:

Along with former stars like Ozzie Smith, Bob Feller and Yaz, you’re also an advisor for Akadema, one of the more innovative baseball equipment manufacturers out there. What’s that relationship all about?

   
Reggie Smith:

Akadema takes the same approach to baseball as I do. They’re willing to listen to athletes when designing a glove or bat. Akadema equipment makes sense to players—it’s stuff they can use to the best of their ability.

   
JockBio.com:

Speaking of ability, one more question about your playing career. You cut such an imposing figure from both sides of the plate. Why did you become a switch-hitter, and what was the most valuable advice you ever received?

   
Reggie Smith:

I started switch-hitting mostly out of curiosity. Ambidexterity ran in my family. Though I was a natural righty, I could always throw left-handed. I hit from the right side exclusively until my junior year in high school. In batting practice, I took swings as a lefty, and launched a couple of 400-foot shots. After seeing a bunch of those, my coach made me hit from both sides.

As I mentioned, Ted Williams helped me a lot with my stance once I got to the majors. But it was Mickey Mantle who gave me the best advice for switch-hitting. I had to go see the Yankees team doctor in New York. When I showed up at the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, Mantle was in the trainer’s room getting wrapped. I had never met him before. I was in awe—he set the standard for switch-hitters.

We introduced ourselves, and started talking baseball. I asked about his approach at the plate. Mantle gave a great answer. He told me that as a switch-hitter you have to realize you’re two different people. He was right. I was a better high-ball hitter as a righty, and a better low-ball hitter as a lefty. From that day on, I was better from both sides of the plate.


Reggie Smith, 1978 Topps
     
 

 

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