By Rhiannon Walker
University of Maryland
Sports Journalism Institute
WASHINGTON – Wendell Smith being honored with the Red Smith Award has been a long time coming.
An African-American sportswriter, Smith covered the Negro Leagues, boxing and is most famous for convincing Branch Rickey to give Jackie Robinson a shot in the major leagues. Once signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Smith chronicled Robinson’s playing career for The Pittsburgh Courier.
It was Smith who personally reached out to Dodgers general manager Rickey about Robinson’s major-league talents.
After striking a deal with the shortstop, Rickey then hired Smith for $50 a week to travel with Robinson as he trained with the Triple-A team in Montreal. The reporter continued to shadow Robinson into his debut season in 1947.
When Robinson had something important to say, he trusted Smith with his words.
The Baseball Writers Association of America rejected Smith the first time he applied for membership, but he applied again, and in 1948, Smith became the first African American admitted into the organization.
As Robinson settled into his career, Smith settled into his, and he became the first black reporter for the Chicago Herald-American. He then worked for WGN television as a sports anchor while serving as a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times.
Next month, Smith will be honored as the recipient of the Associated Press Sports Editors' Red Smith Award. The family of Smith, who passed away in 1972, will accept the award on June 27, which would have been his 100th birthday.
“I think it’s wonderful; I’m deeply honored,” said Wyonella Smith, Wendell’s wife. “After all this time, it’s wonderful. It’s a surprise. I was really surprised, but I am just deeply honored that he was remembered so, and respected and that his contribution has been acknowledged.”
George Solomon, director of the Povich Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, named an award after Smith and contemporary Sam Lacy to honor journalists who embody their ideals.
“[Smith] endured lots and lots of prejudices and slights, and we felt what a way to honor their memory,” Solomon said. “As for APSE honoring Wendell Smith, a friend of mine said it’s a long time coming, and it’s true. … He did so much for the cause of fairness in sports."
Even though her husband never sought recognition, his 92-year-old widow said she believes Wendell would have been delighted to win the Red Smith Award.
“He would be very pleased; I tell ya, he really would,” she said. “I was shocked, and I know Wendell would have been shocked to know that.”
After being passed over by a baseball scout because of his race, Smith enrolled at West Virginia State College and studied journalism.
In 1937, Smith was hired by The Courier to cover the Negro Leagues. Eight years later, he and Robinson, then the shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, crossed paths.
Wendell Smith died Nov. 26, 1972, at the age of 58 from pancreatic cancer. Robinson died on Oct. 24 of that year. Although Smith was unable to attend the funeral, he did write his final column for The Sun-Times about baseball.
“Certainly (Wendell Smith) would have been pleased about this award, the Red Smith award,” Wyonella Smith said. “They were good friends.”