Sportswriter; Newsman; Athlete; Baseball player
John Wendell Smith was determined to bring the best to other people’s lives, thus changing the world of sports for African Americans. Kalu Ndukwe Kalu quoted, “The things you do for yourself go when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain and become your legacy.” Smith’s legacy lives on as one who accomplished significant milestones in the lives of others. He was regarded as an expert newsman, modest personality, and a respected professional.
Smith was born on June 27, 1914, in Detroit, Michigan. He was an only child to John Henry Smith, raised in Ontario, Canada, and Lena Gertrude Thompson, a Detroit native. Smith dreamed of playing baseball.
For the first time in his life, Smith witnessed a Negro League baseball and later joined the Detroit Athletic Association team to play basketball.
In 1933, Smith experienced racial problems and underwent a devastating setback as a teenager. He pitched a shutout in a championship game in an American Legion state, yet he was not signed in. They signed his losing teammates, and Smith cried. The incident spurred his activism.
Education and Career
In 1933, Smith joined West Virginia State College and majored in physical education. He competed for baseball and basketball teams in the black school.
Smith developed his media skills in college. After his graduation in 1937, he created a campus newspaper column for sports and covered Negro League baseball. He secured a job with the Pittsburgh Courier.
In 1938, Smith created a column, “A Strange Tribe,” to launch his fight against baseball segregation. In the 1940s, Smith received a promotion to city and sports editor. He worked with other sportswriters to merge key baseball leagues.
Smith and Sara Wright met at the West Virginia State University and were married in the late 1930s. In 1940, they had their first-born son, John Wendell Smith Jr.
Wendell Smith met Wyonella Hicks while they worked together at the Courier. He married her as a second wife in 1949.
Smith worked as a sports editor in the Pittsburgh Courier. He recommended Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 to enter Major League Baseball.
Smith later joined the Chicago Herald-American and was accredited among the pioneer black sportswriters for a daily newspaper.
Wendell Smith published a book, “Jackie Robinson: My Own Story.” and released it in 1948. In 1953, Smith was elected the president of the Chicago Boxing Writers and Broadcasters Association.
He won a prize among Chicago sports reporters in 1961. In 1964, he became a sports anchor of Chicago television station WGN.
In 1969, Smith instigated for the Chicago Sun-Times a weekly column for sports. He became the Chicago Press Club’s first black president in 1972.
Death of a Heroic Sportswriter
Smith became sick and was hospitalized. He suffered pancreatic cancer, and on November 26, 1972, in Chicago, Illinois, he died at the age of 58, a month after Robinson. Even though he did not attend his funeral, Smith wrote Robinson’s obituary as his last article.
Awards and Honors
After Smith’s death, the scholarship fund offered by the Chicago Press Club was rebranded to Smith-Chicago Press Club Scholarship Fund.
In 1973, the Chicago Board of Education named an elementary school in honor of Smith. The Chicago Baseball Writer’s group formed the Wendell Smith Award, usually presented to the best player. In 1975, a park was named after Smith by the Chicago Park District. In 1982, Smith joined the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.
In 1993, Smith won the J. G. Taylor Spink Award of excellence in journalism. He was inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. The Philip Merrill College of Journalism in Maryland formed the Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award. In 2014, Smith won the prestigious sports journalism award of Red Smith.
Even though he had earned a lot of respect and admiration, Smith experienced criticisms. Fay Young, the Chicago Defender columnist, claimed Smith’s fret to seize glory over their trial engagement with the Red Sox.
The Chronicle sportswriter for Michigan, Bill Matney claimed that Wendell Smith endorsed an inexperienced player to Rickey.
A team official attempted to castigate Smith for writing an angry letter to a black Brooklyn player for choosing a black hotel over a white-owned hotel.
Mark Ribowsky, author of “A Complete History of the Negro Leagues,” disparaged Smith for destroying the Negro Leagues, even though Smith’s actions seemed to contradict the claims.
In a nutshell, Wendell Smith made a complete turnaround in sports history. He challenged ideas, racism, and exclusion in sports, taking one step at a time. Having realized his dream of playing Major League Baseball, he changed baseball forever. He relentlessly fought against prejudice and discrimination and overcame racist barriers against the black community in sports.
The Black Male Archives
Preservation Publishing LLC