In 1978, when I was collecting the 3-D super Stars cards in my Frosted Flakes, I was learning who the elite players were in baseball.
Kelloggs had narrowed them down for me.
Some were already familiar as there were a smattering of Red Sox players in there and lots of Yankees and Phillies stars who I was familiar with.
The players from the west, especially the Dodgers, seemed far away from New England and somewhat less familiar. I never got to see Steve Garvey or Davey Lopes or Don Sutton play on the TV in 1978.
Reggie Smith was another player who caught my attention. He had the same first name as the coolest player in baseball, Reggie Jackson. He also was an All Star who played right field for the World Series team, like Jackson.
I didn’t know anyone else named Reggie except for Jackson and Smith, so I figured that was a name designated for cool right fielders. (Seeing dorky white guy Reggie Cleveland was a pitcher for the Red Sox kind of spoiled that theory.)
But imagine my surprise when I flipped over his card and began to read what teams he had played for.
He was a member of the Red Sox for a long time! MY team could have had a Reggie in right.
Reggie Smith was born in Louisiana but grew up in Compton at a time when that was not a pleasant place to be. He was a gifted infield prospect who was signed by the Red Sox in the mid 1960’s. But 1967, he was the every day centerfielder for the Impossible Dream Red Sox.
He was a 5 tool prospect with power, speed, defense, hitting prowess and a great arm. He was also a switch hitter, which drew comparisons to Mickey Mantle. He finished 1967 second to Rod Carew in the Rookie of the Year vote. Smith hit a pair of homers in the World Series against St. Louis.
Over the next few years, he won a Gold Glove and made the All Star team. Smith was also a black player playing in 1970’s Boston under that walking piece of human excrement, Tom Yawkey. He received racist hate mail, got N bomb taunts from his own fans all the while playing for an organization that never warmed up to integration. (Remember, this was the same team that LOST a racial discrimination suit in 1985. Do you know how hard it is to lose a racial discrimination suit in the 1980’s?)
As a 6 year old, I did not understand this. I just wanted Red Sox players of any color to win. I didn’t realize what a toxic place Boston was at that time.
Despite getting votes in the MVP race of 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972, Boston never embraced Smith. After the 1973 season, he was dealt to St. Louis for Bernie Carbo and Rick Wise.
In 1974, he starred with the Cardinals. He batted .309 and posted an OPS of .917. He slugged 23 homers and drove in 100, being named to his fourth All Star team and finishing 11th in the MVP vote.
After a few solid years in St. Louis, he was off to Los Angeles. In both 1977 and 1978, he finished 4th in the MVP balloting. 1977 saw him have the highest on base percentage in the league, walking 104 times, homering 32 times while seeing his OPS soar to 1.003. He hit 3 homers in the World Series loss to the Yankees.
His numbers continued to be solid in 1978, seeing another All Star berth and trip to the World Series.
But injuries cut down his playing time in 1979 and 1980 and by 1981, he was a pinch hitter and part time plater. He did manage to get a pair of hits off of the bench in the 1981 World Series where he finally won his World Series ring with the Dodgers. He played 1982, his final year, as a member of the San Francisco Giants.
After making some money in Japan, he returned to America and has opened baseball clinics in Southern California, teaching kids the fundamentals of the game.
I often wonder how Reggie could have fit in with the Red Sox had he remained. Carl Yastrzemski, who by all accounts was close and friendly with Smith during his Boston days, shifted from Left to First when Jim Rice arrived. (Rice had his own issues with Boston fans which seem to have been resolved over many years.) George Scott returned, one of the few black players really embraced by Sox fans, in 1977 to play first and pushed Yaz to left and DH and Rice to DH. Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans were planted firmly in center and right.
Perhaps Smith would have been the switch hitting power DH. Maybe the need to trade Cecil Cooper for George Scott would not have been there.
You would think a team would find room for an MVP candidate switch hitting Gold Glove slugger with speed.
You would have thought a lot of things.