LITTLE ROCK — Hal Smith's playing career ended June 8, 1961, when he was diagnosed with a heart ailment, seven days after he'd turned 30. Then in his sixth season with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was widely considered one of the two or three best defensive catchers at work in the major leagues.
His total baseball career lasted 48 years, from 1949 when St. Louis signed him as a 17-year-old prospect off Fort Smith's American Legion team, until 1997 when he retired as a St. Louis scout. Between playing and scouting, he'd been a big-league coach, minor league manager and catching instructor.
Smith is the subject of a new book, The Barling Darling: Hal Smith in American Baseball, by Billy D. Higgins with Hal Smith, 240 pages, $16.95 paperback, published by the Butler Center and distributed by University of Arkansas Press.
(For the uninitiated, Barling, where Smith was born, is a community near Fort Smith, just outside the gates of Fort Chaffee.)
Higgins is a history professor at Arkansas-Fort Smith and a member of the Society of American Baseball Researchers. The Smith biography, exhaustively researched and comprehensively written, is a neat job - certain to stir nostalgia for Cardinals fans with long memories.
It's safe to assume the pro baseball industry never knew a more wholesome citizen than Hal Smith. For him, a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor masked a tough, competitive nature.
He was diagnosed with "an angina condition" in 1961. As he explained, "When your heart pumps, the veins close and then open. Well, mine would close and then wouldn't come open enough. That's what caused the pain."
In an interview with a Democrat-Gazette reporter several years ago, he was asked if medication and treatment developed several years later would have permitted him to continue playing.
"There's no question in my mind," Smith said. "Coaching or managing, I threw batting practice every day. In fact, I did about everything on a baseball field except play."
As a Pittsburgh Pirates coach in 1965, with two catchers on the disabled list, he was activated to catch in four games with no ill effects.
He was part of a generation of Cardinals that included Ken Boyer, Bill White, Bob Gibson, "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, Wally Moon, Lindy McDaniel, Don Blasingame and Joe Cunningham. They came up in the middle to late 1950s.
In 1957, St. Louis fought the Milwaukee Braves for first place most of the season. The Braves clinched the pennant Sept. 23 with an 11th-inning home run by Henry Aaron, off reliever Billy Muffett, who had two strikes on Aaron. Here is the way Smith remembers it:
"Alvin Dark [the shortstop] called timeout and beckoned me to come to the mound. Dark asked Billy if he could throw a fastball that rises.Billy said, 'Well, I'll try'. I went back there and Muffett threw a fastball and boy did it rise after Aaron hit it."
After driving in six runs against the New York Giants in a 1957 Polo Grounds game, Smith was interviewed by Frankie Frisch on a postgame TV show sponsored by Brylcreem, a popular hair gel of the time, with a slogan proclaiming, "A little dab'll do ya."Smith was hoping for a $25 stipend or maybe a new watch as "star of the game."
Instead, he got a six-pack of Brylcreem. He claimed he took a look at his thinning hair in a mirror and decided, "sure enough, a little dab will do me." More than 50 years later, he said he still had five tubes of the stuff left.
After striking out in the 1959 All-Star Game, he said, "I didn't want to show up Ted Williams."
Preparing to face the Giants early in the 1959 season, Smith told pitcher Larry Jackson, "When I give you the fist, that's the pitchout, just like last year. And when I take my cap off and scratch my head - that means I'm lost, or at least I'm thinking."
A country music devotee, Smith wrote songs with titles like "Sitten', Spittin' and Whitlin;' " "I've got a Churn Full of Chitlins and a Bellyfulof You;" "Pert Near, but Not Plumb" and "I'll Never Forget What's Her Name."
After winning a game in Philadelphia with a ninth-inning home run, Smith said he pondered a song entitled "I hit a Dilly in Philly, Millie," but never got around to finishing it.
Sports, Pages 16 on 05/12/2009