Jack Smith, RIP: Haircut, shave, and pension throat cut

Jack Smith

Jack Smith, when he was a Dodger following seven years in their minor league system.

One of the last entries by longtime newspaper humourist Lewis Grizzard before his death in 1994 involved a haircut. Specifically, the one he received from “an old-school barber” whom he suddenly recognised as a one-time pitcher he’d seen with the 1960s Atlanta Crackers.

“THAT Jack Smith,” wrote Grizzard. “Hard to believe. There I was getting a haircut from a barber who was also a boyhood idol.”

Smith was a righthanded relief pitcher who’d bounced around the Dodgers system for seven years before he got a call-up in September 1962, when injuries sidelined reliever and former World Series MVP Larry Sherry temporarily. By his own admission, he was a hard thrower no matter what the pitch, but his number one issue was wildness.

He died at 85 on 7 April at the Westbury Health and Rehab facility in Conyers, Georgia, after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was also one of the now 612 short-career major leaguers between 1949-1980 who were frozen out of baseball’s pension plan when the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association re-aligned the plan in 1980.

That re-alignment changed pension vesting to 43 days major league time and health care vesting to a single day—excluding Smith and other short-career players during the time frame noted above. Their sole redress came by way of the 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-players union director Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days major league time up to four years worth.

Weiner’s death in 2013 took further chances to get better redress for those players off the table, where the issue still remains, and where today’s players union director Tony Clark seems too little interested in revisiting it.

Once again, I find it unconscionable and morally repugnant that [the MLBPA] is turning its back on older men and their families,” said A Bitter Cup of Coffee author Douglas J. Gladstone, whose book first exposed the pension freezeout. “I’d love to know if Frances Clark and her three kids, Kiara, Jazzin and Aeneas, know how badly Tony is treating the men who ushered in free agency?”

A year after he won the Southern Association (AA) earned run average title with the Crackers, Smith appeared headed for another such title with Omaha (AAA) when the Dodgers called him up after Sherry’s injury. He appeared in eight games, finished two, saved one, and posted a 2.42 fielding-independent pitching rate that belied his 4.50 ERA.

The lone save was part of the Dodgers’ effort to stay in the pennant race and, in due course, force a playoff with the Giants. Smith relieved Hall of Famer Don Drysdale for the ninth. After walking Cubs second baseman Ken Hubbs and giving up a single to Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, he retired Hall of Famer Billy Williams on a fly out, surrendered a run on pinch hitter Nelson Mathews’s ground force out to shortstop, and shook off a second walk to get George Altman out on a pop foul near third base.

The effort sealed Drysdale’s 24th credited win of 1962, en route his only Cy Young Award, which kicked off a streak of five straight Cy Young Awards (then strictly a major league award) awarded to Los Angeles pitchers: Drysdale, fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax thrice (1963, 1965-66) and Angels righthander Dean Chance (1964).

Smith appeared in the first two of the three 1962 pennant playoff games. In the first game, he got the sixth inning-ending double play after Sherry surrendered back-to-back home runs by Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda and pitched a shutout seventh, in a game the Dodgers lost 8-0. (Still struggling for a rhythm after a long layoff due to a finger circulation issue, Koufax himself got hit for a two-run homer by Mays in the first and a solo by Jim Davenport in the second.)

But Smith wasn’t quite so successful in the second game despite the Dodgers’ win. With the Dodgers up 7-5, he took over for Ron Perranoski after back-to-back singles (Davenport and Mays) opened the Giants’ eighth. He surrendered an RBI single to Ed Bailey and lost Cepeda when Frank Howard playing right field misplayed Cepeda’s fly.

Smith yielded to Stan Williams, who walked Felipe Alou and surrendered a sacrifice fly to John Orsino with the run charged to Smith, before getting Jose Pagan to ground out to third and getting the Giants out in order in the ninth. Ron Fairly won the game with a sacrifice fly. (The Giants won the third game and the pennant, 6-4.)

Jack Smith

Smith as a Brave; when they sent him down to the Atlanta Crackers, he decided to trade pitching for barbering after a final baseball season in 1965.

He made the Dodgers out of spring training 1963 and posted his arguable best major league effort on 28 April, against the Cardinals, with 4.1 innings of shutout ball, after the Cardinals jumped Johnny Podres for two in the first and reliever Ken Rowe for five in the second. The Dodgers managed to close the deficit to 7-4 while Smith was in the game; the Cardinals went on to win, 9-5.

After he relieved Pete Richert for the sixth, with the Dodgers in the hole 8-0 to the Pirates, the Pirates tore four runs out of him before he got the side out, a sacrifice fly by Smoky Burgess and a three-run homer by Bob Bailey. It was the last inning Smith pitched in a Dodger uniform; he was sent back to the minors, where the Milwaukee Braves claimed him in the subsequent Rule V draft.

He had a decent 1964 with the Braves, making 22 appearances, finishing nine games, and posting a 3.77 ERA and 3.70 FIP, but the Braves sent him down to the Denver (AAA) in the Pacific Coast League. In 1965, the Braves moved him to the Crackers, who’d moved to the AAA International League and become a Braves affiliate since he’d pitched for them last.

Smith had a solid 1965 in Atlanta (the Braves themselves, of course, moved there for 1966), but he decided he was tired at last of flying around the country playing baseball. He’d gone to barber college in the off-seasons and even brought some of his gear to the Braves clubhouse.

Smith opened an Atlanta barber shop, Smitty’s Bullpen, in a Marriott hotel while with the Crackers his second time. The place was so successful (then-Braves manager Bobby Bragan was a semi-regular customer) he decided to stay with it full time, retiring from baseball after the 1965 season, and finally retiring as a barber in 2016.

Some of those who follow the short-career player pension issue believe one reason they were frozen out was that they were viewed as little more than September call-ups. Smith was one in 1962, but he was on Opening Day rosters with the Dodgers in 1963 and the Braves in 1964.

His major league life didn’t last long enough to be part of the players union’s emergence as a serious force in the game. His career ended before a committee led by Hall of Fame pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, plus veteran pitcher Bob Friend and outfielder Harvey Kuenn, led to Marvin Miller’s hiring as their first independent executive director.

Smith wasn’t there to be part of the Players Association pushes and actions that led in due course to Curt Flood’s courageous but failed reserve clause challenge; the bidding war that followed Catfish Hunter’s free agency after Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment; and, Andy Messersmith’s pitching without signing a 1975 contract, then taking it to arbitration and winning the end of the reserve era, finishing what Flood started.

But Smith and his fellow 1949-80 short-career players weren’t allowed to pass the monies provided by the Selig-Weiner deal of 2011 on to their survivors after their passings. Smith is survived by his wife, Susan, three children, two stepchildren, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He may not have received grand dollars from the Selig-Weiner deal but they were something, after all. If any remained yet to come, they stopped with his death.

“It’s worth contemplating a reassessment of this,” wrote New York Post columnist Ken Davidoff, in an early February profile of a Smith contemporary, former Yankee reserve outfielder Jack Reed, “because these guys are part of the game’s tapestry and history that make it so special.”

When Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel skippered the calamitous Original Mets, he once told his barber, “Haircut, shave, and don’t cut my throat, I may want to do that myself.” Smith’s post-baseball success as a barber doesn’t change the fact that he and his fellow short-career pre-1980 players had their throats cut.

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