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Pittsburgh Courier writer helped Jackie Robinson break MLB color barrier

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Years before he became an influential journalist at The Pittsburgh Courier, Wendell Smith was a hard-throwing teenage pitcher in his native Detroit.

During a city All-Star game in the early 1930s, he took the mound with professional baseball scouts sprinkled in the stands. For nine innings he dominated, leading his team to a 1-0 win.

After the game, scouts poured onto the field. They signed his catcher. They signed other teammates. But Smith, the team's only black player, signed nothing that day.

“He's on the mound and he's saying, ‘What about me?' ” said Chris Lamb, a professor of journalism at Indiana University-Indianapolis and author of two books on race integration in Major League Baseball. “It was then that he realized he'd never get to be a ballplayer and instead he decided, ‘I'm going to be a reporter, and I'm going to change this.' It was this moment that changed his life.”

More than a decade later, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson would be the first black player to integrate MLB. The movie “42,” opening across the country on Friday, chronicles Robinson's first two years with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, brought in by General Manager Branch Rickey in 1946.

After years of being overlooked, Smith and The Pittsburgh Courier are part of that story.

“My greatest fear when I heard about ‘42' was that Smith wouldn't even be in the film,” said Brian Carroll, a journalism professor at Berry College in Georgia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies the black press. “The national narrative of Jackie Robinson's breakthrough has never had room for anyone but Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. There's been no room even for someone as important as Wendell Smith.”

In “42,” Smith rightfully becomes central character.

He started working for the Courier, then the country's most influential and widely read black newspaper, in 1937.

Back then, the Hill District-based Courier had 400,000 subscribers and 21 offices. Papers heading south often were diverted and destroyed by whites who did not want black Southerners reading news, said Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier, now in the South Side.

Reporters would drive the papers down themselves and drop off bundles with ministers, who distributed them to church members.

“Part of our mission was to fight racism, segregation and discrimination,” Doss said. “I think we've done an admirable job.”

Full-time confidant

From the beginning, Smith pushed doggedly to get a black man into MLB, historians said. He met with the commissioner of baseball and showed up unannounced with black players at pro tryouts, said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

“He pushed and prodded; he was very aggressive,” Kendrick said. “But most of all, he and the other black press reporters used the power of the pen to invoke change. Those papers had big readerships. The Pittsburgh Courier was read everywhere in the country; it was USA Today before there was USA Today.”

Rickey turned to Smith for advice when he sought to break the color line. Though Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues, Smith told Rickey that he was the one.

Robinson played four sports at the University of California at Los Angeles with white players, so he was used to that setting. He was married to a beautiful and intelligent woman, softening his edges. And he was an everyday player, unlike a pitcher, meaning fans would be drawn to the ballpark every day, historians said.

Rickey signed Robinson to a contract and hired Smith to be his full-time confidant.

“Wendell Smith is essentially hired by Branch Rickey to help Jackie Robinson adjust to what was an extremely difficult challenge,” said Rob Ruck, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Smith traveled with Robinson, one year in the minor leagues and during his first year with Brooklyn.

As the film accurately depicts, historians said, Smith rushed Robinson out of Sanford, Fla., during spring training when white residents threatened him. When he wanted to quit after a series of racist attacks, Smith and others persuaded him to stay.

Power of black press

“The black writers were, in many ways, social activists,” Ruck said.

Objectivity was not their goal, historians said.

“The black press was fighting to end segregation in all walks of life, and they saw baseball as the leading wedge,” Carroll said. “Change baseball, and everything else will follow.”

In 1939, Smith — barred by skin color from the field, team clubhouse and press box — spent months asking white players visiting Pittsburgh if they would oppose playing with a black man. They all said no. For months, their interviews filled his column in the Courier, putting the onus on the franchise owners to integrate.

Smith died in 1972. Twenty-one years later, the Baseball Writers' Association of America honored him with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The black press were always crusading,” Lamb said. “They knew this was going to have a great impact on society. This was their moon landing. When it happened, it didn't surprise anyone in the black press. It surprised the white press, but not the black press.

“We grew up thinking the story is Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson,” Lamb added. “It's not. There are so many other people who made it happen, and none more than Wendell Smith.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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