Theolic Smith ("Fireball"), born May 19th, 1914 in Wabbaseka, AR,1 was a Negro baseball player from about 1935-1951, a Mexican League baseball player from 1940-1948, and a minor league professional baseball player from 1952-1955.
Smith was the son of Fee Smith and Pearlie (nee Stevenson) Smith.2 He was born in Wabbaseka, AR and spent his earliest years on a nearby cotton farm in rural Jefferson County, AR, about fifteen miles northeast of Pine Bluff, AR. By 1930, the Smith family moved to St. Louis, MO3 where Theolic attended the Banneker School.4
Smith was a right-handed pitcher who earned the nicknamed "Fireball" for his notable fastball. In addition, he had a good curve ball5 and knuckleball.6 A switch-hitter,7 Smith hit well enough to also appear regularly in the outfield in between pitching starts. His well-traveled career began with the local semi-pro Compton Hill Cubs in St. Louis around 1934.8 9 The following year, Smith and several of his teammates10 were signed to play with the Claybrook (AR) Tigers, a team managed by St. Louis' Eggie Hensley.11 Smith played well with Claybrook in 1935 and earned the opportunity to pitch in the North-South all-star game held in Memphis on September 29th.12 His performance also drew the attention of the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League.13 Smith joined the Crawfords in 1936 and played the next three seasons in Pittsburgh, appearing primarily as pitcher with a workload split between relieving and starting. Despite being a well-touted prospect,14 his performance for the Crawfords was largely unimpressive. Meanwhile, Smith played with Almendares in the 1938-1939 Cuban League, his first experience in what would later become many seasons in Latin baseball.15 The following spring, Smith was expected to rejoin the Crawfords, though they had recently been sold and moved to Toledo. Instead, Smith jumped to the St. Louis Stars in the Negro American League, causing a dispute over which team owned his contract.16 17 Ultimately, Smith remained in St. Louis and played out the season for the Stars. His performance improved considerably,18 leading to his first selection to the annual East-West all-star game. Smith was chosen to start for the West team in the first of the two-game series held in Chicago on August 6th, pitching 3 innings on one earned run and four hits.19 With the bases loaded in the third inning, Smith forced a ground ball from Mule Suttles, fielded it and turned it into a double play to end the inning. This proved to be a crucial play that helped the West team win 4-2. On September 3rd, Smith pitched the deciding game of the Negro American League championship for St. Louis, allowing only two earned runs to the Kansas City Monarchs over eight innings.20 However, Smith was given poor support from the Stars and lost the game, giving the championship to the Monarchs.
Before the 1940 season, a large of number black American baseball players were recruited to play in the Mexican League. Many players choose to jump their Negro league contracts and play in Mexico, including Smith, who left the St. Louis Stars and joined the Rojos del Mexico of Mexico City. Smith quickly rose to stardom in Mexico as a two-way pitcher and outfielder. He became a league leader in both pitching and hitting, finishing his first season in the league with a 19-9 pitching record, 3.99 ERA and a .364 batting average. Smith returned to play in Mexico City the following two seasons and although he failed to repeat his initial success, he nevertheless finished with a respectable 16-8 record, 5.00 ERA and a .284 batting average in 1941, followed by a 13-11 record, 4.17 ERA and .296 average in 1942. In both seasons, he was among the league's worst in allowing walks, issuing 131 passes in 207 innings in 1941 and 111 in 198.2 innings in 1942. Notwithstanding this, Smith was selected to play for the South team in the 1942 Mexican League all-star game held on September 16th in Mexico City.21 He pitched two innings in the game and allowed three hits in the South team's lopsided 17-6 win.22
Owing to World War II, Smith returned to the States in 1943. He likely avoided being drafted as a result of an injury to his left shoulder.23 Instead, he joined the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League, though this move was disputed by the Harrisburg Stars of the Negro National League who claimed ownership of Smith's contract from when he played with franchise in St. Louis in 1939. 24 To retain Smith, Cleveland effectively bought the rights to his contract from the Stars, ending the dispute. Smith went on to have strong season and was again chosen to appear in the annual East-West all-star game. Playing for the West on August 1st in Chicago, Smith pitched hitless, scoreless 7th and 8th innings, but was pulled from the game after allowing a home run and two singles with two outs in the 9th.25 The West went on to win 2-1, its first victory since winning with Smith's help in 1939.
In 1944, Smith returned to play in the Mexican League. According to Smith's teammate Quincy Trouppe in his autobiography 20 Years Too Soon (1977), it was around this time that he and Smith were denied entrance into Mexico by the U.S. Government.26 Although unverified, Trouppe's account suggests that he and Smith were allowed to return to Mexico only after a deal was made between the U.S. and Mexican governments in which the U.S. received in exchange 80,000 Mexican workers to aid in the wartime efforts. Regardless of the veracity of this story, Smith went on to play five more seasons for Mexico City, accumulating a combined 73-62 win-loss record as a pitcher and hitting consistently between .276-.299 each season. He was also named to the 1946 Mexican League all-star game, but did not play in the game.27 In a game on July 14th of the same year, Smith made national news in both the U.S. and Mexico when he assaulted umpire Irvin Weimer during a dispute over a call and was fined 1000 pesos and suspended for 15 games as a result.28 In 1947, he compiled one of the best overall seasons of his career, going 22-10 with a 2.77 ERA while also hitting .289. Meanwhile, Smith busied himself in the off-season by playing winter baseball with the Kansas City Royals in the 1944-1945 California Winter League29 and in the Mexican Pacific League with Guaymas from 1945-1948,30 earning all-star selections during the 1945-1946 and 1947-1948 seasons.31 In addition, Smith briefly played with Leones in the 1947-1948 Cuban League32 and appeared in late 1948 with a team of all-stars representing Jalisco in a series against an all-star team of white players from the minor league Pacific Coast League.33
Smith's career in the Mexican League came to a bitter ending following the 1948 season when he was accused of making defaming comments against the Mexican Government. According to reports, Smith and fellow player Art Pennington were charged with insulting the Mexican flag during Mexican Independence Day celebrations on September 16th, 1948.34 Smith denied the accusation, but Mexican authorities nevertheless issued Smith and Pennington an indefinite bar from entering Mexico and playing in the Mexican League. Instead, it was announced that Smith would return to Negro league baseball and join the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.35 The Monarchs had acquired Smith's contract several years earlier when he was traded from the Cleveland Buckeyes to Kansas City in exchange for Quincy Trouppe in late 1944.36 Smith may have reported to spring training with the Monarchs,37 but was seemingly absent from American baseball for the remainder of the 1949 season and most of 1950. He appeared in the 1949-1950 off-season with Magallanes in the Venezuelan League, going 8-3 with a 4.13 ERA.38 As champions of the league, Magallanes represented Venezuela in the 1950 Caribbean Series held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in February. Smith pitched only briefly in the series and Magallanes finished last. Among Smith's other winter baseball engagements in following years include California's Kansas City Royals barnstorming team in late 1950, 1951 and 1952;39 with Chesterfield in the Panama League in 1951-195240 and 1953-1954;41 and perhaps with Guaymas in the 1952-1953 Mexican Pacific League.42
Smith finally fulfilled a return to Negro league baseball in 1951 with Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League. By that time, the league's talent pool had been significantly weakened by the integration of professional baseball. Smith took advantage of this and quickly became one of the league's best pitchers. In August, he was chosen for the third and final time of his career to appear in the annual East-West all-star game in Chicago. Smith started for the West and pitched three scoreless innings on two hits, though the East team ultimately won 3-1.43 Smith carried his success into the following off-season when he drew attention for pitching 62 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run while pitching in Panama.44 As a result, multiple Major League teams began scouting Smith,45 including the St. Louis Browns, whose owner Bill Veeck may have been tipped off to Smith's performance by sports mogul Abe Saperstein.46 In March 1952, Smith was given a tryout with the Browns, who were training in Burbank, CA near Smith's home in Los Angeles.47 Smith, who was nearly 38, was sent to play with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. In his debut game on April 4th, Smith started for the Padres and allowed five earned runs on five hits in only 2.1 innings.48 After continued struggles in the first half of the season, he was delegated to San Diego's bullpen for a time.49 However, his performance recovered as the season went on he was able to finish the year with a respectable 3.24 ERA and a 9-10 record across 16 starts and 35 appearances for the losing-record Padres. Pitching in a similar role in 1953, Smith went 13-16 with a 4.52 ERA for sixth-place San Diego. He was shifted to the bullpen in 1954, helping the Padres win their first Pacific Coast League pennant with a 3-2 record and 4.03 ERA in 24 games. His final appearances with San Diego came in early 1955 when he went 2-1 with a 4.73 ERA in 7 relief appearances before he was released in early May, just shortly before his 41st birthday.50 He retired from baseball thereafter.
Smith died on November 3rd, 1981 in Los Angeles, CA.51 52 He was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Compton.53 Smith was later portrayed as a character in Mark Winegardner's 1996 fiction book ''The Veracruz Blues."
Negro League statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.
Statistics at the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.
10 At least two of Smith's teammate on the Compton Hill Cubs, John Hundley and Dan Wilson, also played with Smith on the Claybrook Tigers. Several other Claybrook players were from St. Louis as well, including manager Eggie Hensely, Jesse Askew, Emmett Wilson, and John Lyles.
22 El Informador, 9/17/1942, p.5
23 Pittsburgh Courier, 5/29/1943, p.18; Smith's WWII draft card notes "left shoulder partially dislocated."
26 20 Years Too Soon: Prelude to Major League Integrated Baseball, by Quincy Trouppe, 1977.
29 The California Winter League: America's First Integrated Professional Baseball League, by William McNeil, p.222
31 "Sinaloa Ganó el Juego de Estrellas," HistoriadeHermosillo.com; "JUEGO DE ESTRELLAS EN HERMOSILLO," HistoriadeHermosillo.com.
33 El Informador, 10/16/1948
38 "Theolic Smith," "REGISTRO HISTÓRICO ESTADÍSTICO DEL BEISBOL PROFESIONAL VENEZOLANO," pelotabinaria.com.
39 Visalia Times-Delta, 10/26/1950; St. Louis Globe Democrat, 11/5/1951, p.3C; Los Angeles Times, 10/22/1953
42 "LA LIGA DE LA COSTA DEL PACÍFICO," HistoriadeHermosillo.com; The Sporting News, 11/5/1952
45 Pittsburgh Courier, 2/16/1952, p.14 suggests that Cleveland was also interested in Smith.