Wednesday, November 26, 2008

#85 Willie Smith

Willie Smith by you.
You are face-to-face with the lantern-jawed Willie Smith, a versatile athlete from Alabama. He originally signed with the Tigers in 1960, and split his time between the pitchers' mound and the outfield. He proved skilled at both, posting a 14-2 record and a 2.11 ERA at Syracuse in 1963. He also hit .380 in 79 at-bats, prompting Detroit to call the 24-year-old up in June and again in September. The following April, Willie was traded to the Angels for pitcher Julio Navarro. His new team used him as a pitcher and pinch hitter, and he compiled a 2.84 ERA in 31 and two-thirds innings, mostly in relief. But the Halos were so weak offensively (.242 team batting average) that by mid-June they switched Smith to the outfield. Although he was hitting in the .230s at that time, his bat caught fire with more regular playing time. He finished the season at .301 (only one other Angel topped .300) with 11 home runs and 51 RBI. He was also in the top ten in the league with six triples.

1965 saw "Wonderful Willie"'s average drop to .261, but he was still a reliable power source, climbing to fourth in the A.L. with nine triples to go along with career highs of 14 HR and 57 RBI. He was entering the dark ages as a hitter, however. The following season his playing time was more than halved as he hit .185 and homered once. It was back to the minors for much of 1967, when Smith's contract was purchased by Cleveland. After another poor start in 1968 (.143), the Indians traded the outfielder to the Cubs. In part-time duty with Chicago, he turned things around with a .275 batting mark and five longballs. 1968 also saw Willie make a few cameos on the mound. In seven and two-thirds innings, he allowed two hits, one walk, and no runs. Not bad for a guy who hadn't pitched in a major league in four years.

Smith started the 1969 season with a bang for the Cubbies. On Opening Day at Wrigley Field, he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eleventh with one out and Randy Hundley on first base and walloped a walkoff two-run homer to erase a 6-5 Phillies lead. The Cubs were in first place and would stay there for 129 days, but ultimately blew a lead that was as large as nine games in mid-August. The Amazin' Mets chased the Bruins down and ultimately left them eight games back. Willie hit .246 with nine homers in his last semi-productive season. After hitting .216 in 1970, he finished his big league career the next year as a Red. Not ready to call it a career, the outfielder spent 1972 and 1973 in Japan, hitting .259 with 29 dingers for the Nankai Hawks. Following his playing days, Willie returned home to Anniston, Alabama and volunteered at youth baseball camps. He passed away nearly three years ago, reportedly due to a heart attack. He was 66 years old.

Fun fact: According to an obituary, Smith was the first of four Willies to hit an upper-deck home run at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The others, of course, were Hall of Famers Stargell, Mays, and McCovey.

Willie Smith (back) by you.


  1. I'm always learning something from these cards and your write-ups, Kevin. I love the backs of these cards. What a cool assignment it must have been to be the guy (or gal) who wrote the text blurbs.

    Happy Thanksgiving!!

  2. Thanks Bob! I love the card backs too...the cartoons are awesome. Topps still does something like that for the Heritage sets, but they're not as varied and creative as these.