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Jackie Robinson and sportswriter Wendell Smith: a team for the ages

Jackie Robins(from left) Duke Slater Wendell Smith Ralph Metcalf.

Jackie Robinson (from left), Duke Slater, Wendell Smith and Ralph Metcalf.

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Updated: May 8, 2013 6:07AM



When the eyes meet the mind, a baseball player can ascend to great things.

Jackie Robinson made history with such harmony.

He wore number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a number that has been retired by all Major League Baseball teams. In his rookie year, 1947, Robinson hit .297, striking out only 36 times in 590 at-bats despite an onslaught of racial taunts and death threats.

That is serious eye-mind coordination.

Robinson traveled America in 1947 with an extra set of pathfinder’s eyes that are familiar to Chicagoans.

Future Sun-Times columnist and WGN-Channel 9 sports anchor Wendell Smith watched over Robinson that year. Smith was sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey paid Smith $50 per week to travel with Robinson. Smith arranged housing with black families and chronicled Robinson’s life for the Courier.

In 1994 Smith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Smith’s character is prominent in “42,” a film starring Harrison Ford as the furry-browed Rickey and “Express” actor Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. It opens Friday, three days before the anniversary of Robinson’s first official appearance in a Dodgers uniform.

Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972, at the age of 53.

Smith died on Nov. 26, 1972, at the age of 58.

They are a team for the ages.

Smith was the ghostwriter of Robinson’s weekly column. “42” depicts an scene where Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurls racial slurs at Robinson. Smith was urban cool. As Robinson he wrote, “The things the Phillies shouted at me from their bench have been shouted at me from other benches, and I am not worried about it.”

Wendell Smith’s widow, Wyonella Smith, is 91 years old. She lives in the same Hyde Park retirement center as Mary Frances Veeck, the 91-year-old widow of Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck.

Wyonella met Wendell in the mid-1940s when she was a secretary at the Courier. They married in 1949. Her nephew is Biff Henderson, the longtime stage manager for David Letterman.

“I sat Biff when he was a little baby,” she said as we drove along Lake Shore Drive toward a screening of “42.”

Wendell Smith was from Detroit and grew up on the same block as future Chicago White Sox catcher Mike Tresh. They played on the same American Legion baseball team.

“Wendell told me major league scouts came to see American Legion teams,” Smith said. “Wendell was pitching and Mike was catcher. Wendell won the game 1-0. The scout wanted to sign Wendell, but he said, ‘I can’t take you because you’re a Negro.’ And he signed Mike Tresh. And he signed the losing pitcher. Wendell was 17 years old. He said he never cried so hard in his life.

“That’s when he was determined to see that Negroes got into the major leagues.”

Tresh, who died in 1966 at the age of 52, knew better. He was friends with Smith for the rest of his life.

“I didn’t know much about baseball, but I knew black [newspapers] were very much involved in fighting for players to get in the major leagues,” Wyonella Smith said.

Robinson paid tribute to Smith in his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made.”

Smith arranged a Boston Red Sox tryout for Robinson and two other Negro League players before “The Great Experiment” was launched with the Dodgers. “I had been grateful to Wendell for getting us a chance in the Red Sox tryout, and we put our best efforts into it,” Robinson wrote. “However for one minute we did not believe the tryout was sincere.” The Red Sox were the last major league team to break the color line with the 1959 debut of Pumpsie Green.

Wyonella Smith liked “42.”

Andre Holland, who plays a White House press secretary in the NBC comedy “1600 Penn,” has the role of Wendell Smith. Nicole Beharie (“American Violet,” “The Express”) plays Robinson’s wife, Rachel.

“I’m pretty sure Rachel didn’t travel with Jackie in those early years,” Smith said after the screening. “Certainly she wouldn’t. The discrimination was so bad. It was very difficult. But the movie was right on target with discrimination. The Branch Rickey performance was superb. Harrison Ford even looked like him. Of course, I’m crazy about Harrison Ford as an actor. I’ve seen most of his movies.”

“42” depicts several scenes of Smith writing his stories on a black typewriter while sitting in the stands. “Blacks weren’t allowed in the press box,” Wyonella said. She was at the Courier in 1947, the year in which “42” is set.

“What Jackie Robinson did was for all of us,” she said. ‘We were concerned about segregation because we all suffered it. It was terrible. White people said ‘git’ and Wendell left. What else could they do?”

Wyonella’s voice trailed off through the fog across the lake and she whispered again, “What else could they do?”

Wyonella said she was attracted to Wendell because of his sense of humor and modesty.

“He didn’t brag on anything,” said Wyonella, who in her later years worked in the public information office for the City of Chicago Department of Aging. “He never talked about what he did with Jackie. But he was highly respected. The Herald-American would give bonuses to their writers. He won $250, often.

“He died on our 23rd wedding anniversary. The happiest and saddest day of my life.”

The Smiths moved to Chicago in the late 1940s. Wendell Smith became the first black reporter at the white-owned Chicago Herald-American. He was also the first African-American member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Wyonella smiled and said, “The man in charge of Hearst papers in this area wanted to hire Wendell because the editor here was prejudiced. He wanted to get him upset.”

In Chicago, Wyonella got an office job with Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. The Chicago-based Saperstein was also a pioneer in Negro League baseball with the Ethiopian (and then Indianapolis) Clowns. Saperstein also helped secure Old Comiskey Park for the iconic Negro League East-West All-Star Game.

The Smiths met the Veecks in 1959 when the Bill Veeck purchased the White Sox.

Wendell Smith left the Herald-American to join WGN as a sports anchor in 1964. “Of course they paid more money than the newspapers,” she said. “He later started writing the column for the Sun-Times while he was at WGN.

“The last story he wrote for the Sun-Times was about Jackie Robinson.”

That Oct. 25, 1972, column closed this way:

“In fact, in his last public appearance with death just around the corner, he was still fighting for his people and equality. Last week at the World Series, he threw out the first ball and thanked baseball for all it had done for him,

“His final words were controversial. ‘I won’t be satisfied,’ he told the capacity crowd and millions on television, ‘until I look over at the coaches box at third base and see a black manager there.’

“As I sat there and listened and watched, I just knew Jackie Robinson was going to say something like that.”

To read Smith’s last column and learn about the Pulitzer Prize he should have won, see blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.



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