Behind every great starting pitcher lies a great reliever. For Satchel Paige, that reliever may have been Hilton Smith, who, himself, had a tremendous Negro League career mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs.
For teammates on those Monarchs teams, Smith was best known for being Paige's "relief." After Paige pitched three innings, Smith would toss the final six, and be just as effective. Despite his domineering mound presence, his quiet manner lost out to Paige's flamboyance.
"Most people never heard of me ... because I was Satchel Paige's relief," Smith said, in an excerpt from "Voice from the Great Black Baseball Leagues," by John Holway. "He'd go two or three innings. ... I'd go in there and save it. The next day I'd look in the paper and the headline would say 'Satchel and Monarchs Win Again.' I guess it really hurt me."
Hurt feelings aside, opposing batters certainly heard of the man who possessed the best curve in black baseball and whom many players thought was the game's best all-around pitcher. Though the curve was his best pitch, his repertoire also included a sinking fastball, a slider and change-up, all of which he threw both side-armed and overhand, maintaining good control with both styles.
Smith's playing career began with his father in a small town in Texas, possibly his birthplace of Giddings, Texas and it continued during his two years attending Prairie View A&M College in Texas. He began pitching during his final season there and joined the semipro Austin Senators in 1931. The next season, at age 20, he joined his first Monarchs team, of Monroe, La.; those Monarchs were also his first professional team.
They won the pennant that season and ended the season playing the mighty Pittsburgh Crawfords for the unofficial Negro League Championship. Smith learned how dominant a team with Paige, Josh Gibson, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Oscar Charleston, and Jimmie Crutchfield could be, as the Crawfords took the nine-game series in six games.
Smith then bounced around on poorer teams for the next three seasons in the Negro Southern League, before Double Duty convinced him and Monarchs ace Barney Morris to join a semipro team in Bismark. The trio combined with Chet Brewer to form what some consider the greatest pitching staff ever. Incomplete records say Smith won all but one decision - while batting .343 with 4 homers - but was overshadowed by Paige's 30 victories.
The next fall, without Satchel, Smith barnstormed with the Kansas City Monarchs, and became a permanent fixture there in 1937, when the Monarchs became a charter member of the Negro American League. During his 12 years with the Monarchs, the right-handed hurler often won 20 or more games, with his best years coming in 1939-1942, when he finished with records of 25-2, 21-3, 25-1 and 22-5. Hurling two winters in Cuba, the 6-foot-2, right-hander compiled a 10-5 record in the league.
Like seemingly every other Negro League great, Smith could also hit, and would play first base or the outfield when he was not pitching. This knack came in handy in 1943, when an injury to his pitching arm temporarily made him a .500 pitcher. He would return to form a few years later, but fashioned batting averages of .360 in 1942, and .333, .243 and .431 in 1944-46 on a World War II depleted team.
Negro Leaguer Sherwood Brewer spoke about Smith's hitting skills in James Reilly's "Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues.
"Usually teams would put a pitcher out in right field because they had nobody else. But Hilton could have played outfield with any of the great teams. The Grays, Chicago, any of 'em. He could hit."
By 1946, with many regulars having returned to the lineup, Smith resumed his pitching greatness full time, fashioning an 8-2 record and helping toss the Monarchs to the pennant. In Venezuela Smith went 8-5 for the champion Vargas team. He then topped it off allowing one hit in five innings against the New York Yankees in a March 1947 exhibition game -- just as Jackie Robinson was preparing to smash down the color barrier in his first spring with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Dodgers invited the 35-year-old to play in their organization, but, despite a 6-1 mark against Major Leaguers in exhibition play, Smith stayed with the Monarchs, perhaps feeling his best years were behind him. A year later, with a 1-2 record, he retired from the Negro Leagues with a 161-32 lifetime mark.
The six-time All-Star then pitched in New Mexico for two more seasons before closing his playing career. He then embarked on a career as a teacher and coach, and as an employee with Armco Steel until he retired in 1978. He died five years later, while working as an associate scout for the Chicago Cubs, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in March, 2001.