Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Meet the Brewers #39: Bernie Smith

It's about time that I get back to writing about one of my favorite interests: the history of the Brewers. Today, we get to Brewer #39, Bernie Smith. Bernie debuted with the Brewers by playing in both halves of a July 31 doubleheader in which the Brewers were swept by the New York Yankees. 

1971 Topps
Calvin Bernard Smith has an incredible story for a man who who only played in 59 games and got 127 plate appearances between 1970 and 1971 as his entire big-league career. Smith was 28 years old -- almost 29 -- when he made his debut in Milwaukee. He got his first hit in the nightcap of the doubleheader: an infield single off Fritz Peterson. How Smith arrived at that point in time, though, is the intriguing part.

He was listed at 5'9" tall and allegedly weighed 164 pounds. In the two long articles about him that I have read, however, Bernie immediately laughed those numbers off and admitted that he might reach 5'7" tall in spikes and played at 152 pounds. Being so slight of stature hampered his opportunities. While he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge -- a school which 30 years later produced Brewers first round pick Rickie Weeks -- Bernie Smith did not play baseball at Southern. He was too busy trying to get signed to play pro baseball.

His efforts to get signed led him to simply show up in Columbus, Georgia, in 1962 in the spring at Mets minor-league training camp. By "simply show up," I don't mean that Mr. Smith hopped in his car and drove from his hometown of Lutcher, Louisiana, to Columbus. Oh no. Despite being a black man in the Jim Crow South travelling over 400 miles on the hopes of getting a shot to play minor league baseball and despite that timeframe being in the wake of the Freedom Rider movement, Bernie Smith hitchhiked the 400+ mile trip to ask for a tryout.

That took serious guts and serious self-belief.

1971 O-Pee-Chee

He played well enough to get signed to play at Class D Auburn in the New York-Penn League. Not long after, he became a regular outfielder. As the year progressed, Bernie proved to be the best player on the team and was named the Auburn Mets MVP for the year. 

The Baby Mets ended up winning the playoffs of the NY-Penn League that year. Despite his starring role on the team, however, Bernie was not going to be able to afford coming from Lutcher all the way to upstate New York for the annual Mets baseball dinner. As the February 23, 1963, The Sporting News article noted, Bernie was the lowest paid player on that team, so not being able to afford getting to the dinner is perhaps unsurprising. But he made the dinner anyway -- because the guards and prisoners at the state penitentiary in Auburn chipped in to thank him for the excitement of the previous season to pay for Smith to come to Auburn by bus. The article noted that they raised enough money so that "Bernie could eat steaks during the trip."

Despite the auspicious debut in Class D, Smith hardly became a top prospect in the Mets system. He hit nearly everywhere -- over parts of 11 total seasons in the minors, he hit .287/.367/.408 with 87 HRs and 177 SB (though with 84 CS) in 5311 plate appearances. Yet, despite being named the MVP of the Eastern League in 1967 (451 PA, 4 HR, 50 RBI, 22 SB, 37 BB, 47 K, .306/.376/.405; that .306 made him the only qualifier to hit over .300), he barely got a chance with the Mets system as players like Ron Swoboda and Ed Kranepool passed him by in the Mets' eyes. In 1968, he was optioned into the Pittsburgh system for a year at Triple A, but that didn't help either to be behind Clemente and Stargell. 

1994 Miller 25th Anniversary
Smith's break came when the Mets traded him to the Seattle Pilots for minor leaguer Gary Upton. His debut season of 1970 was dreamlike -- first major league hit, of course, and his first major league homer came in the top of the tenth inning on August 25, 1970 to win a game for the Brewers. His break was short-lived, though, as Smith got passed just as quickly in Milwaukee as he did in New York -- especially after the change in general managers after the 1970 season led to the acquisition of journeyman Andy Kosco. 

But that is not where the story ends in baseball for Bernie Smith. He had one last hurrah: he became the first black manager in the Midwest League, named as the manager of the Brewers affiliate Danville Warriors just a few days before Deacon Jones was named manager of the White Sox affiliate Appleton Foxes -- both for the 1973 season. And Bernie was much more successful than Jones. Jones's team suffered through a 15-game losing streak to start the season and finished the year 44-76. On the other hand, Danville finished 66-57 and won the Southern Division.

Yet, that was Bernie's end in baseball. It appears that he went back to Lutcher and opened a store there. That led to some legal and financial issues in the 1980s. To be clear, one of his legal issues sounds fishy in how police targeted his store in 1980, but it appeared that Bernie got in trouble for receiving and trying to sell stolen typewriters in his store. The warrant the police got was bogus, in my non-criminal-lawyer opinion. He received an excessive five-year sentence for the crime, and it happened shortly after his wife Creola had died suddenly after four sons had been born to them. His conviction was just ridiculous, in my book -- I feel assured that a white man in a similar circumstance (especially in the South in the early 1980s, but probably anywhere) would have gotten a lighter sentence.

At any rate, I know Bernie is still alive in Louisiana. I have been meaning to get in touch with him, and my failing to do so is what led me to hold off on writing this. But, now that I have written this up, there are so many questions.

Such as: what was it like to hitchhike to Georgia across the backroads of Mississippi and Alabama?

To close, you see the three baseball cards of Bernie Smith that appear in the Trading Card Database. I do not own the 1971 O-Pee-Chee of Bernie with George Kopacz, but I do own the Topps version and the Miller card.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Fall Wrap-Up

It's shocking, I know, that I'm actually posting today. Or is nothing shocking?

I've got a ton of things to post to catch up on all the great stuff I've gotten over the past three months -- since mid-October, when I last posted, but also about the time I last scanned. So, I'm pretty sure that I got some of these items in September even. 

It's been a busy fall for me. I've seen Georgia play football in person more times this year than in any year since I was in law school at Georgia and got very cheap tickets for all the home games in the student section. I saw Georgia play in 6 games in 5 different cities -- 2 in Athens and 1 each in Jacksonville, South Bend, Auburn, and Atlanta. 

It was worth it.

But, all that travel got me very behind. So, let's just start plowing in and catch up.

From Mark Hoyle

Mark sent me a couple of packages. One featured something I asked rhetorically for on Twitter:

The Robin Yount RC Cola can from 1977 is a great addition to the Robin Yount collection for me. Soon, perhaps, I'll get my player collections updated. That was the second package, though. The first one Mark sent included something interesting:

Seeing this heavy-paper placard for the induction ceremony onto the Brewers' Walls of Honor for Milwaukee made me wonder if there are others of these out there. There must be, but I've never seen them. Thank you, Mark, for the can, the placard, and the stickers and other cards you sent my way.

Shane sent me a package filled up with 80s oddballs like that Ben Oglivie Fleer Star Sticker, that Ron Belliard autograph, and, in the middle, the Yovani Gallardo mini Topps 206 card. Interestingly enough, Gallardo appears to be returning to the Brewers on a one-year deal pending a physical. Gallardo does not seem to have much left in the tank from all indications -- his past two years for Baltimore and Seattle were a car-crash like 248-2/3 innings of a 5.57 ERA (a FIP of 5.30) with 1.4 HR/9, 4.4 BB/9, and 6.5 K/9. I can't imagine the Brewers are paying him much. Maybe he'll get a card in the Traded set. 

Thanks, Shane, for the great oddballs and the Belliard!

Joey from Dub Mentality has seemingly burst onto the scene this year thanks to getting his brand out on Twitter and Facebook to the point of where he now is a freelance writer for Beckett. Good for him! I'm sure that my invitation to write for Beckett got lost in the mail. That, or Beckett would rather have someone who doesn't constantly complain about all of Topps's bullshit. 

Personally, I like Joey because he's a fellow Georgia Bulldog fan who seems to have gone to as many games as me. Plus, I mean, look at the cards he sent me!

Thanks, Joey!

So, when I got this package split between Bulldogs and Brewers, my wife was a bit fast on the draw in getting rid of the envelope that the cards came in and threw it out before I wrote down who sent it and scanned it. I know now who sent it, and I *think* I recall it being the braintrust behind Condition Sensitive. 

*edit* Nope, Buckstore Cards it is!

In any event, great Paul Molitor autograph and great cards of Georgia Bulldogs Chris Conley and Cordy Glenn. Thanks!

When Kenny sends cards, I can often count on cards of scantily clad, hot Japanese girls. The "mini-zapping" I got, though, had more than just Kana Momonogi.

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Cool minor leaguer cards, a Ricky Bones autograph, two Manchester United guys (including the best goalkeeper in the world, David De Gea), a card for a PC of Mike Caldwell, and even a guy who is hitting like crazy in the minors -- 2017 First Round pick Keston Hiura. He could be at second for the Brewers as soon as 2019.

Thanks, Kenny, for all the great cards!

Huge scan dump, I know, but with Wes there is always great quantity and great quality. Lots of autographs, lots of relics (including a guy from the Milwaukee Bucks...though not the Greek Freak) and lots of serial-numbered cards too.

As is usually the case with Wes, he added a nice note:

I hope 2018 is the Brewers' year, my friend. I definitely hope so.

Thank you as always, Wes!

I'll admit that I had no idea that Eddie Mathews was on a "Fire" card. Indeed, I'm not sure that I know what a "Fire" card is, but I'm glad the Bru sent it to me. 

This is the problem with such cards getting issued for me. Topps throws up so many different sets each year that I've given up keeping track of them. I'm thinking that my collecting habits are going to change in the coming year thanks to this. In fact, if my collecting habits don't change, it's because I've given up collecting entirely.  #ThanksTopps

Seriously, though, thank you to Bru for sending these cards. I'll always take new issues from y'all!

Tom sent me these cards -- two Topps Fire and two Topps Gallery cards with a Fleer sticker -- in two different PWEs. Tom got the bizarro blaster of Topps Gallery that included as many Yankees in the blaster as it did Brewers (two). Tom got the Villar and the Arcia in the course of putting that set together. His duplicates are my only cards.

Thanks again, Tom!

From Angus of Dawg Day Cards

It's been awhile since Angus blogged -- even longer than it's been for me -- but he is still sending out great cards here at Christmas time. This package showed up in my mailbox last week, so this is like almost new news here!

An Oyo Gary Garter? Yes please! Especially when accompanied by a bunch of O-Pee-Chee stickers!

Oddballs galore came from Canada to me -- Kellogg's, stickers, Post cereal, and minor league cards. All of these are great additions to my collection. In fact, I'm thinking that that Gorman Thomas is a completely new card to me. 

As always, my right Honourable friend, many thanks go out to you!

I wish I knew exactly who to thank for these cards. EDIT: Thanks go out to Angels in Order for the great cards! I know they came from the Dallas Metroplex -- from a city called Mansfield that's about equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth south of Arlington. I have guesses about whom that might be, but I just don't know for sure. 
Oh, yes, the cards:

I mean, I want to thank my secret Santa for the great vintage cards from the 1960s, the 1980s oddball, and the Warren Spahn/Fernando Valenzuela stamp. 

If only I knew who to thank!

At any rate, that's me all caught up on cards I've gotten from others during the past several months. Thank you all who sent me cards. 

I am going to be trying to do more posts again soon, with an eye toward getting back on the "Meet the Brewers" path and, in addition, finding a way to rediscover the love for collecting after feeling like I've given up this year. With Judge-mania driving baseball cards this year, I have really tuned out. The Brewers were the last team eliminated from playoff contention, yet Topps treated them like the sub-.500 team that they were in 2016.

So, to hell with Topps and its money grabs. Onward and upward for 2018 with finding more police cards!