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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Roy Smalley, Jr.- A Baseball Classic


This past week baseball lost Roy Smalley, Jr., another member of the World War II generation that has been rapidly slipping away in recent years. He was a player, a manager, an armed services veteran, and the father of Roy Smalley III, also a major leaguer. He was part of a vanishing generation that played during the golden age of baseball, and had many accomplishments and experiences from that time.

Before the likes of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Derek Jeter made it more commonplace, Smalley was one of the first shortstops of larger stature. At 6’3 and 190 pounds, he was about 5 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than those who typically played the position in his era. 

The right-handed Smalley was signed by the Cubs in 1944 and spent several years in the minors and the military before debuting in the majors in 1948. He went on to an 11 year big league career with Chicago, the Milwaukee Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies. Over 872 career games he hit .227 with 61 home runs and 305 RBI. 1950 was easily his best season, as he hit 21 home runs and drove in 85 runs. More information on Smalley’s career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/smallro01.shtml.

Smalley was a defensive anomaly. While metrics show that he had excellent range and was renowned for a powerful arm, he was also consistently near or at the top of the league in errors committed. The 51 errors he committed at shortstop for the Cubs in 1950 represent the last time a major league player committed at least 50 miscues in one season.

Other interesting information about Smalley includes him being the last regular shortstop for Chicago prior to Ernie Banks. He was also married to Jolene Mauch, the sister of his former teammate and famed manager Gene Mauch. They got married on August 5, 1950 in Boston, where the Cubs were playing the Braves. Despite the nuptials, Smalley played in the game that day, but went hitless in the Cubs’ win.

Baseball lost a good one when Roy Smalley, Jr. passed away last week. Although he is gone, his accomplishments on the field, his gentlemanly reputation, and the success of his son mean that he will never be forgotten. In 2010 I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Smalley, and gained a lot of insight about his experiences in baseball.

Roy Smalley Jr. Interview:

How did you first become interested in baseball?: My Dad took me to minor league games in Springfield, Missouri, my birth place. We had a Class-C St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team there in a league called the Western Association. 

Back in those days there was no television and none of the other sports had become major, so baseball was it. It was like there was a minor league team in every town. It was a good, solid league, and a lot of good ball players came through there. So that’s what sparked my interest, and I started playing, and began to play in the kids’ league in town that was sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. I went through that program and on into high school, amateur, semi-pro ball, and ultimately to the pros.

You were a great deal bigger than the typical shortstop of your day. Did you meet any resistance from coaches who didn’t want you to play that position?: I don’t think that there was ever any resistance to my playing of the position. My strongest asset was throwing, and a shortstop needs to be able to throw and have a good arm. Even though I only had average running speed, I did have quickness and some agility. I think that’s why nobody ever objected to me playing shortstop.

Did you serve in the military during WWII?: I went into the Navy. I was drafted after my first professional season which was with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. At that time a draftee could choose his branch of service, so I chose Navy. It was just 22 months. I go out in, I think it was late July of 1946.

While in the military, were you still playing baseball on base?: Yes I did. That’s a good question because there was a lot men playing. Almost every military base had athletic teams. I went to boot camp in San Diego and then went to radio operators’ school. While I was doing that I played on the base team. We had a very good team. 

Basically we had a baseball officer, lieutenant junior grade who had been a good major league player. His name was Ernie Koy, and I think he had played for Brooklyn and also the Boston Braves (Koy played from 1938-1942 with the Dodgers, Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies).

Do you have a favorite moment from your playing career?: Probably hitting for the cycle in 1950, and hitting a home run in the first game of a double header, and then hitting a home run in the second game was kind of a highlight. Other than that I don’t recall anything that really stands out. 

Is there any particular pitcher that stands out that you hated facing?: I always thought that it was Ewell Blackwell of Cincinnati. They called him “The Whip.” He was a side-armed pitcher, a long and gangly frame. He had great stuff. I think he had three or four really exceptional years, then he began to have health problems. He had a bad kidney or something like that. I think once that started, he wasn’t the same.  I think a lot of right-handed hitter thought he was the toughest they ever faced.

Did you have a favorite stadium that you played in?: Yeah, I miss those old ballparks. I think they had ambiance, atmosphere, and of course their features were unique. Like in Cincinnati, the terrace in left field, and the Polo Grounds being in the shape of an oval. It was a very short distance down both lines, especially in the right field corner, only 259 feet. 

I really liked the old ballparks. Forbes Field was one. I always hit well in the Braves’ field in Boston. There were several others I didn’t hit so well in. 

Ebbets Field was unique. The fans, the configuration of the park, and the little Dixie Land band that would go marching through the stands; it was a special place.

What was Frankie Frisch like as a manager?: I can’t speak as to what he did as the best manager in St. Louis. He had managed those Gas House Gang Cardinal ball clubs in the ‘30’s, and they won. So that speaks well for him. He also played; he was a playing manager then.

Frank was kind of a fiery guy. I never thought of his as a real strategist. I liked him and he liked me. It is difficult not to like somebody who likes you and promotes you, but I didn’t think that Frank was a great manager. 

You played against Jackie Robinson in the years following him breaking the color barrier. What type of reception did you witness him experiencing?: Well it wasn’t fun. I think in his first year in 1947, there was more resistance and more resentment on the part of some white players. Then in 1948 there was still some there. 1948 was my first year. The black players had a tough way to go and they did take a lot of abuse. There was resentment, I think particularly from players who had been raised in the South. I think that Dixie Walker was pretty well publicized, among others.

I really admired Jackie. He didn’t seem to let it bother him. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t let it stop him from being probably the best player I had ever seen for the first five years that I saw him. He didn’t get there until he was 28, I think it was. The next five years he was a wonderful ballplayer. He could do so many things to beat you and was so competitive. The respect he eventually got, he more than earned. 

What did you do after you stopped playing baseball?: I managed in the Dodger organization for a couple of years. In ’60 and ’61 I managed the Reno club for the Dodgers. That was a fun experience. I had some really great young kids starting out their careers. We had success, and some of them had pretty decent major league careers. I can think of Ken McMullen, Bill Singer, Dick Nen- Rob Nen’s father, and Jimmy Lefebvre.
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