Charles Smith, now usually known as “Chino” (his nickname in Cuba), but called simply “Charlie Smith” in the newspapers of the late 1920s, died in New York City in the early hours of the morning on January 15, 1932. Aged only 31 at his death, “Smitty” was eulogized by the Homestead Grays’ Cumberland Posey as “one of the best hitters of all time” (Pittsburgh Courier, January 23, 1932). The New York Amsterdam News called him one of baseball’s “most outstanding characters and an all-time hitter whose ability drew many fans to the games in which he appeared” (January 27, 1932). He was a pugnacious, crowd-baiting hitter of ferocious line drives who terrified pitchers. Satchel Paige deemed him one of the two toughest outs he ever faced (the other being Jud Wilson).
Smith’s statistics in the 1929 American Negro League were unworldly:
Smith led the ANL with a .464 average, 214 total bases, and a .903 slugging percentage (Rap Dixon was a distant second in the last two categories with 189 and .784). Of course, this was in a league that batted .317 with a .448 slugging percentage, and it was in the Bronx’s Catholic Protectory Oval, a park that was only 180 feet down the lines on both sides. Still, Smith comfortably outhit his Lincoln Giants’ teammate John Beckwith (.443, .776), and nobody else on the Lincolns, a team that challenged for the pennant (and by some accounts actually had the best overall record in the league), was even remotely close to Smith’s numbers. It was not a bad year for Mr. Charles Smith.
According to John Holway in Blackball Stars, Bill Holland thought that Smith might have died of yellow fever. Holway also notes that Smith’s death could have been linked to an on-field collision with Walter Cannady during a Lincolns-Homestead Grays game at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1930, when Cannady accidentally kneed Smith in the stomach, and Smith had to be carried off, as shown in this photo from the New York Amsterdam News (October 1, 1930). Incidentally, the day before (Saturday, September 27) Josh Gibson reputedly hit the only home run ever to leave Yankee Stadium (though the story has probably been greatly exaggerated).
Even in this poor reproduction, Oscar Charleston of the Grays is recognizable behind Smith. Various accounts have it that Smith was knocked unconscious, which of course sounds more like a blow to the head than to the stomach.
Although he never played for the Lincoln Giants again, Smith had recovered sufficiently by November to appear in the special “Unico” championship in Cuba. The following spring he joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants and spent the whole season with them, though he did miss quite a few games.
His death came on January 15, 1932. Here’s his death certificate (which I originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, July 21, 2010):
Chino Smith died, not of yellow fever, but of stomach and pancreatic cancer, made worse by exhaustion. John Holway’s report about Cannady kneeing Smith in the stomach might be the product of vague memories about Smith having stomach trouble in the months before his death, conflated with the dramatic incident at Yankee Stadium in 1930 that marked the end of his Lincoln Giants career.
Charlie Smith’s body was shipped to Darlington, South Carolina, where his family had lived at least since the 1910 census was taken.
Which raises the question of his birth place and date. The death certificate (January, 1932) has him aged 31; in the 1930 census “Charles Smith,” “Ball Player,” born in South Carolina and living in Harlem with his wife Bessie, is listed as aged 29. In the 1910 census young Charles E. Smith, living with his parents Thomas and Leila and several siblings in Society Hill, Darlington County, South Carolina, is listed as aged 9. (Incidentally, Smith’s mother, according to his death certificate, was “Lelia Anthrum”; the Smith family in Society Hill in 1910 lived next door to a family named Antrum.)
In the winter of 1925/26 a number of Negro league players from New York City traveled to Puerto Rico, presumably to play ball. I have not yet found any kind of public record of a Negro league tour of the island or of North American players being hired by teams that winter, but various players can be found on passenger lists returning from San Juan to New York from January through April, 1926. These included Chino Smith’s Brooklyn Royal Giants’ teammates Dick Redding, Connie Rector, Charles Spearman, and Bob Scott, along with George Scales, Merven Ryan, Tom Finley, Richard Gee, Judy Gans, and Bardell (or Budell) Young of the Lincoln Giants.
When George Scales returned to the U.S. from Puerto Rico aboard the S.S. Caracas on March 8, 1926, he was accompanied by one Charles Smith, on a passenger list that otherwise consisted entirely of Hispanic names:
This Charles Smith had a Harlem address (4 W. 129th St.), and was listed as born in “Hamet,” North Carolina, on September 24, 1901. There is no “Hamet” in either of the Carolinas, but there is a Hamlet, North Carolina, which is located in Richmond County, right on the border with South Carolina—about 30 miles away from Society Hill, South Carolina.
Coincidentally, Hamlet was also the hometown of John Coltrane, who was born there on September 23, 1926. Coltrane’s playing, like Smith’s, has been described as aggressive, even angry; did they also share a hometown and (nearly) a birthday?