Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 9 – The Boston Red Sox
Back in the 1970’s, a powerfully built young black man roamed the outfield in Fenway Park. Although he would go on to hit over 300 home runs in his career, he would never ingratiate himself with the powerful Boston sports media.
Born in the South, he found himself playing for an overwhelmingly white baseball team, the last to integrate in the years subsequent to Jackie Robinson’s arrival 200 miles south in Brooklyn.
But, although by now the Red Sox were integrated, they were far from harmonious. According to an article published in Sports Illustrated on October 2, 1978 (about the Red Sox clubhouse in the late 1960’s-mid ’70’s), the Red Sox were divided up into at least four different cliques.
There was a Carl Yastrzemski group, a Jim Lonborg group, a Ken Harrelson group, and a Tony Conigliaro group. Apparently, each group would throw parties primarily to exclude teammates they didn’t like.
Entering this fray, a black man on a team that had never had a black hero, was problematic enough. But this particular black man, young and brash, was unafraid to speak his mind.
This did not turn out to be a good career move.
Labeled for years afterward as a negative clubhouse presence, his reputation overshadowed his physical skills as an athlete, particularly his powerful bat in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.
Reggie Smith, therefore, did not become Boston’s first great baseball superstar, although, by all rights, he should have.
Drafted by the Red Sox in December, 1963, Reggie Smith made his Major League debut in 1966 at the age of 21. A switch-hitter with speed, power and a strong arm, Reggie Smith patrolled center field in Fenway for seven years. During that time, he threw out base-runners, tracked down fly balls, slammed line drives, alienated fans, and pissed off the Boston media.
In that same S.I. article, Smith said he first realized that Boston was a racist city to play ball in when one of the Red Sox executives told him, early in his career, that Smith had the kind of body that would last a long time in the Major Leagues. At first believing he had been complemented, the executive then added, “Blacks have that kind of body.”
In another instance, Smith, running late for the team bus one day in his rookie season, complained that the team bus always waited for the sports writers and journalists, no matter how late they were, but sometimes threatened to leave players behind for being late. Smith thought this was unfair, and said so. In retaliation, a Boston sportswriter told Smith, “Son, I made you, now I’ll break you.”
Meanwhile, during his tenure with the Sox, Smith made two All-Star teams, led his league in doubles twice, in Total Bases once, batted over .300 three times, finished in the top ten in Slugging Percentage five times, led the A.L. in put-outs once, and in outfield assists once, and hit at least twenty home runs in five consecutive seasons.
Reggie Smith’s Best Forgotten Season with the Boston Red Sox was in 1971.
In 1971, at the age of 26, Smith led the A.L. in Total Bases with 302, in Extra Base Hits with 65, in doubles with 33, and in center field Range Factor at 2.94 chances per game.
Smith also finished second in Runs Created – 106, Assists – 15, third in RBI’s – 96, and forth in hits – 175.
Mysteriously, Smith finished only 17th in the voting for league M.V.P. in 1971. Freddie Patek of the K.C. Royals, who amassed an embarrassingly flaccid .697 OPS (143 points behind Smith), placed sixth in the voting.
During his tenure in Boston (excluding his rookie year), Smith’s OPS+ range was between 126-150, meaning he was always significantly better than a typical, league-average outfielder.
But by the end of 1973, Smith’s final year in Boston, the Fenway faithful were singing out to him, “Goodbye, Reggie, we’re glad to see you go.”
In 1974, still very much in his prime at the age of 29, Reggie Smith was traded to the Cardinals. He enjoyed two productive seasons in St. Louis, including his first 100 RBI campaign in ’74, before finally settling in with the Dodgers in 1976. Smith finished 4th in N.L. MVP voting twice in L.A., in both ’77 and ’78.
In Los Angeles, Smith came to be looked upon as a respected clubhouse veteran, a leader on and off the field. In his thirties, Smith had found a place that recognized his talents, and that allowed him to shed his prior reputation, deserved or not, as a malcontent.
Switch-hitting Reggie Smith retired after playing one season with the Giants in 1982 at the age of 37. He played on seven All-Star teams throughout his career, and was one of the best overall players in the decade of the ’70’s.
Ironically, in 1975, a couple of years after Smith’s turbulent exit from Boston, another young, black slugger (also born in the South), moved into the Red Sox outfield. He, too, would experience his fair share of run-ins with the Boston sports media.
Jim Rice, however, gradually learned to keep his opinions to himself. As a result, he spent his entire career with the Red Sox. Rice, unlike Smith, finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit after a 15-year wait.
Interestingly, although Rice generally posted better counting stats than Smith in his career, they aren’t that far apart in certain key statistics. For example, Rice’s career OPS is .854; Smith’s is .855. Rice’s career OPS+ is 128; Smith’s career OPS+ is 137.
It is, of course, impossible to say in retrospect how Smith’s career would have turned out if he had played for 15 years in the bandbox that is Fenway Park. What we can say for sure is that, in 1971, Reggie Smith enjoyed one of the Best Forgotten Seasons in Red Sox history.