‘Best hitter of all time’
By Stephan Drew, Editor
He was a legend and was revered all over by the greatest ball players in America but, you may have never heard of him. Charles “Chino” Smith was born to Thomas and Leila Smith in 1901, in the Antioch community of Darlington. Most people in the rural south were poor and life was extremely difficult. By 1910, his parents, two siblings and Charles moved to Society Hill, SC. Here, at age 9, he learned about baseball, playing with others at the Antioch ball field.
By the 1920s, he was known as “Charlie” or, more often, “Chino”, because of his Oriental features, particularly his almond-shaped eyes. Smith threw the ball righthanded and batted lefthanded and, in 1925, he broke into the Eastern Colored League (ECL), playing for the Brooklyn Royal Giants. He instantly became a starter playing both second base and the outfield.
In 1927, he established himself as the leading hitter in black baseball and finished the year as the Eastern Colored League batting champion with a .451 averrage and a league leading slugging percentage of .703. But, the team’s popularity and success was not as great as Smith’s own fame, talent and charisma. To fix this, the Brooklyn Royal Giants teamed up with Babe Ruth for several barnstorming games and Smith was able to play ball with and against “the Babe” and Lou Gehrig. As great as Smith was, he alone could not save the Brooklyn Royal Giants. During the late 1920s, he also played for the Baltimore Black Sox, as well as the Pennsylvania Red Caps of N.Y., the Philadelphia Giants, the N.Y. Stars, the Harlem Stars, the Mariano Tigers and the Habana Leones (Cuban league). He lived baseball and it showed. Whenever and wherever he played, large crowds showed up just to see him.
1930, he signed with the New York Lincoln Giants. Larry Brown, a NYLG teammate praised Smith and called him, “One of the greatest hitters you ever saw. He’d hit ‘em between ‘em, over ‘em, to the opposite field, in the trees, anywhere,” Brown said. Bill Yancey, another teammate said, “Chino Smith was out there. He could field a ball and if you made a wide turn at first base, he could throw you out trying to hustle back.”
Smith also had a cocky way of throwing the opposing team off-balance. William “Sug” Cornelius of the Chicago American Giants, recalled, “I’ve faced two tough hitters. Josh Gibson was one. But, the best hitter I think I ever faced was a fella named Chino Smith,” Cornelius said, “That was the best man I ever faced. Smith hit me just like he knew what I was going to throw him. He hit to all fields and he would spit at the first two pitches, then tell me, ‘Young man, you’ve just got yourself in trouble.” Chino was quite aware of his talents and his confidence never lacked. When a pitcher threw one a little close to his head, Smith would tell him, “Now, it’s your turn to duck.” James “Cool Pappa” Bell of the St. Louis Stars said, “He’d go out there, say ‘I guess I’ll get me three hits,’ “ Bell recalls, “and he’d go out there and hit that ball. I don’t care who pitched. He could hit everything.”
While playing for the N.Y. Lincoln Giants, he played in the first ever Negro League game held at Yankee Stadium in 1930. Later, on July 5, 1930, an event occurred which made history. It was the first time two black teams played in “the house that Ruth built”, when the Baltimore Black Sox faced the N.Y. Lincoln Giants in a doubleheader. Even Satchel Paige admitted that Smith was one of the two greatest hitters he had ever faced.
Although his career only lasted 6 years, from 1925 to 1931, he achieved so much. He was the only player in ANY professional league to end his career with a batting average over .400. In 1929, he ranked higher than any other league player in batting average, on-base percentages, slugging percentages, runs scored, total bases, doubles and home runs. He broke barriers in a segregated baseball organization and won not only tremendous fame but also deep respect as an African-American during the Jim Crow era. He played ball in the largest, most prestigious stadium in the United States, against other black players, 20 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. In only 6 years, Smith’s batting average was far above Ty Cobb’s throughout Cobb’s entire career. He played in the Cuban league and won many games with ease, as well as the respect of the other players, until ill health forced him to return to New York City. He had received an injury during a game in Havana and, suspected this, or a case of Yellow Fever, as the cause of his pain. It was discovered later that he was suffering from pancreatic and stomach cancer, as well as exhaustion. He was only 31 years old when his loving wife, Bessie, was left a widow.
His body was shipped to Darlington and he was buried in an unmarked grave under a big tree near his parents’ graves at New Hopewell Baptist Church Cemetery in Antioch community. After his death, the media asked Cumberland Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, to comment on Chino Smith as a player. Posey said, “He was one of the best hitters of all time, if not the best.” He is listed as No. 16 in the “50 Greatest Sports Figures” of the 20th Century from South Carolina. There is no memorial, no statue, no tribute and no flowers to honor this great native of Darlington. But, a community-led movement to erect a marker at New Hopewell and have him installed in the Baseball Hall of Fame began last October. Hopefully, this great man will begin receiving the recognition he deserves. It is long overdue but, we owe him at least that much.