Smith proud of time in Boston
'67 Sox center fielder dealt with racism in stint with club
It wasn't until Reggie Smith arrived in St. Louis, and later in his hometown of Los Angeles, that he fully blossomed as a baseball player. But the switch-hitting center fielder, who had the type of raw aggression that served as a perfect complement to his wide range of skills, fully realizes how vital his years in Boston were in the grand scheme of what he ultimately became.
"I learned a tremendous amount in that Boston organization," said Smith.
The lessons were every bit as much about life -- sometimes the harsh reality of it -- as baseball.
"If anything, you look at what happened during the time, and the blacks we had in the organization at that time and their contributions to, I think, the metamorphosis of Boston going from a perennial loser to a team that started to win," said Smith, who aptly patrolled center for the Impossible Dream Sox of 1967. "If you look at it from 1967 on, Boston has always had winning teams or a realistic chance going into the season of battling for a pennant. I would like to think that I was a part of that change that occurred at that time."
Along with fellow African-Americans Joe Foy, George Scott and Elston Howard, Smith played a key supporting role for a Red Sox team that is still beloved all these years later. However, it was simply not easy to be a black man in Boston during that time period, even if you did happen to play for the beloved Red Sox.
Without a doubt, Smith dealt with plenty of racism while breaking in with the Red Sox from 1967-73. It was all but impossible to avoid. For in those days, Boston was a city full of racial problems, and Smith often felt himself paying the price.
However, he didn't let anyone -- no matter how mindless they might have been -- knock him down.
"I would like to think that I used the inner strength that I gained from the teachings of my parents, and that was that you only are what you think," said Smith. "So, if someone called you a name or referred to you as something and you think of yourself as that, then that's what you become. I knew better than that and I knew how I wanted to be treated. I treated people like I wanted to be treated, and that was with respect and as a man, not as a black man, but as a man, period.
"I tell people often times -- especially when I counsel young players, both white and black -- one of the toughest things that I had to do deal with is knowing that people hated you just because of the color of your skin. When you really stop to look at that, the ignorance and the stupidity of that, just says it all. What are you going to do? Again, you are what you think. I knew better than that. I couldn't let it affect me."
Needless to say, Black History Month is something that Smith takes immense pride in. For the past 10 years, he has been running the Reggie Smith Baseball Centers in Encino, Calif. He is able to help mold youths in both baseball and life. And during the month of February, anyone who is in his facility will see reminders of crucial history.
"The month of February is always noted and observed here because of the contributions that African-Americans have made to the welfare, well being, and the overall existence of this country," said Smith. "The contributions that have been made at all levels besides sports -- the world of science and literature, learning in general -- we observe it here.
"And I am very proud, and very thankful for it. Because I was able to play at the highest levels of professional sports, and that being Major League Baseball. Because of the sacrifices of those who came before me -- namely Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, all of the forerunners to Major League Baseball -- for African-Americans that made it possible for me to play. So that's something that I'll always honor and be thankful for and make it assuredly known that I am appreciative."
While Smith ultimately became unhappy enough in Boston that he asked to be traded (and he got his wish following the 1973 season), the Red Sox experience is one that he can look back on and appreciate.
"Why dwell on it or be bitter? I'm sitting here in my office as we speak, and I look at what I have hanging on the wall," said Smith. "One of the few plaques I have hanging on the wall is the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame plaque they gave me. Why be bitter? I left there under some difficult circumstances, but that was a decision I made. And that was, to me, the right thing for me to do at that time, and I have no regrets because I grew in the National League. My talents had a chance to really blossom, and I'm thankful for that early training and that toughness that I had to develop while I was in Boston."
One of Smith's fondest remembrances of Boston was the strong friendship he built with Carl Yastrzemski, the Hall of Fame left fielder.
"Yaz wanted to win. He didn't care who he was surrounded by, as long as people had that same attitude," Smith said. "He befriended myself and he befriended Joe Foy, to make it as easy on us as he possibly could. I owe a tremendous debt to Carl because of the time that we spent fishing and talking about baseball, the times that we spent after games taking extra batting practice, him throwing to me, me throwing to him."
Of course, Smith -- who hit .287 with 314 homers in 1,987 games -- knows he would have never had the opportunity to play with greats like Yaz if not for the road paved by Robinson.
"I don't think that there was an African-American that grew up during the late '40s and '50s that didn't take a tremendous amount of pride in Jackie Robinson and what he was able to accomplish and do for society in general," Smith said. "I'm very proud of him and wanted to play Major League Baseball, especially because I knew it's possible. Jackie made it so, as well as Branch Rickey and the Dodgers."
Smith would later become a part of that Dodgers family, first as a player, and later as a coach. But his best memories of the Red Sox came flashing back to him in October, when his original team finally won it all.
"It made me feel good," Smith said. "People asked me who was I pulling for, because I played for both St. Louis and the Red Sox, and I said I was pulling for the Red Sox. It was time for them to win. Boston, without a doubt, it's a tough city, but it's a good baseball city. If there was anything I knew and what I realized what I was walking away from, it was that they took good care of the players there. There was a chance for me to make a decent living during the offseason while I was there. But I gave that all up because I knew it was time for me to move on. For that, I have no regrets."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.