AP sports editors pay tribute to late Pittsburgh writer

Courier's Wendell Smith wins major award

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Beyond the most knowledgeable baseball experts, civil rights historians and journalists, Wendell Smith's name is one that many people don't know. But without the work of this black journalism icon, baseball in the mid-20th century would have looked different, Jackie Robinson might not be a household name and the civil rights movement would have been without one of its biggest influences.

Smith, who died in 1972, will be honored today with the prestigious Red Smith Award by The Associated Press Sports Editors at their annual conference in Washington.

Smith was a sports writer and civil rights advocate who was widely credited for playing an integral role in the integration of Major League Baseball.

It was Smith who recommended Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey in 1946, and that led to Robinson being signed as Major League Baseball's first black player. Smith also traveled and lived with Robinson -- often enduring the same discrimination -- in his first season while documenting all the highs and the lows of this transformative period.

Despite being one of the most important sports journalists in American history, Smith often has been overlooked if not forgotten.

For example, it took 33 years from the inception of the Red Smith Award for him to win it.

"I think it took a long time to recognize the achievements and contributions of Wendell Smith because he was such a humble man," said Larry Lester, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "He took his work serious but he never took himself seriously.

"He was not a self-promoting type individual. He was all about trying to integrate the game. That was his primary passion and mission in life."

A native of Detroit, Smith grew up playing baseball for his high school and an American Legion team.

He pitched a no-hitter in front of major league scouts for the American Legion team, but was not signed because he was black.

The losing pitcher and Smith's catcher were white, however, and they both received an opportunity to play pro baseball.

"Wendell decided that day that if he was going to do anything in his life, he was going to make sure blacks played in the major leagues," said Wyonella Smith, Wendell's wife, in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

After graduating from West Virginia State, Smith took a job writing for the Pittsburgh Courier and decided it was through journalism that he could leave his mark on baseball and the civil rights movement.

Through the pages of the Courier, at the time a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 350,000, Smith documented Robinson's performances in games as well as the hardships he endured on the road.

In doing so, Smith also, became a champion of reform.

Smith and Robinson could have had deeper ties to Pittsburgh had Smith been able to convince Pirates ownership to sign Robinson before Rickey did.

According to Lester, Robinson had a tryout scheduled with the Pirates in 1945 that failed to occur because general manager William Benswanger never followed through.

Smith left the Courier in 1948 to join the Chicago Herald-American and eventually becoming the first African-American accepted into the Baseball Writers Association of America. He became a sports anchor for the WGN-TV in 1964 and wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Sun-Times until his death from pancreatic cancer.

"He was a very underrated writer," Lester said. "I've read hundreds of his articles, and he had a freshness of viewpoint not exhibited by most writers.

"He was an originator, very motivated to correcting injustice."

Alex Nieves: anieves@post-gazette.com.

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