HIS OLD SELF IS ON THE SHELF

Reggie Smith once had baseball's least savory reputation, but he has grown into a peacemaker and the best player on his league's best team, the Dodgers
October 01, 1978

The women posed unaffectedly, but the male models at the charity fashion show in the grand ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel were as self-conscious as schoolboys at a dance class. Like so many silent comedians, they grimaced and minced down the runway in their finery, disguising embarrassment with slapstick. These were professional ballplayers—the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers, to be precise—not professional models, and their discomfort shone through their idiotic grins and exaggerated posturing. Don Sutton, a parody of a Mafioso in trench coat and wide-brimmed chapeau, mugged outrageously, exhorting the predominantly female audience to applaud his wife Patti, who preceded him on the runway. Burt Hooton, the poker-faced Cy Young Award candidate, unsuccessfully evinced detachment. Huge dark glasses masked Tommy John's timidity, but a comical strut betrayed him. "Are you always such fun, you Dodgers, you?" chirped Mary Ann Mobley, the actress and 1959 Miss America, who was a mistress of ceremonies.

The large dark figure who next assumed the stage was emphatically not a fun person. With his slender wife Ernestine pirouetting before him, wearing a V-necked cashmere sweater and white flannel slacks, Reggie Smith advanced stolidly toward the runway. His mustachioed countenance was as solemn as a mortician's, and he walked stiffly forward, the picture of a man fulfilling an unwanted obligation. No clown he. Let the others play the fool. Yet he was an arresting presence in an alpaca greatcoat, wool crepe trousers, leather vest and cashmere scarf. Mr. Guy, the Beverly Hills designer who created this ensemble, could not have been better served by a professional clotheshorse. In such regal habiliment, the Dodgers' rightfielder seemed the incarnation of the Moor of Venice himself—"then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well." The audience did not giggle under his baleful gaze; when at last he smiled, there was only nervous laughter.

But Smith is not always what he seems to be. He just looks like Othello. The stiff walk and the austere mien betrayed not so much contempt for the proceedings—he rather enjoyed himself, in fact—as excruciating pain. Five days earlier, in a critical game against the Giants, he had taken a swing at a Jim Barr pitch and reactivated a high school football injury. He had not played all week. He was unable to rise naturally from a chair, let alone swing for the fences or pursue fly balls. Changing from his own expensively cut, gray pinstripe, three-piece suit into Mr. Guy's regalia was in itself an ordeal. When it was suggested that he "disco" down the runway, as some of his less inhibited teammates had done, he merely winced in reply. But the beneficiary of the fashion show—the Florence Crittenton Services for unwed mothers and their children—seemed worthy to him, and he felt obliged to do his part.

Smith's ready participation in such charitable endeavors, his readiness, for that matter, to participate in any Dodger promotion, is representative of what some believe to be his new persona. He appears now as a man of peace and good works, cooperative to a fault, self-sacrificing and, if not self-effacing, at least unassuming. He has struggled manfully to shuck off perhaps the most unsavory reputation in all of baseball. Actually, he was a man of several reputations, all of them unattractive. The old Smith was seen variously as a malcontent, a malingerer, a troublemaker and a racial agitator. Smith protests that his malevolent old self and his benevolent new self are really the same self; the difference, he says, lies only in how he is perceived by others. The reputations he acquired early in his 13-year major league career forever preceded him, influencing the perceptions of employers, teammates and spectators. Only under the loving banner of Dodger blue has he been accepted without prejudice and malice aforethought. In this blue heaven, his true personality has flourished, he stoutly maintains. In fact, though the myth of Dodger camaraderie has been debunked this season, Smith has remained above the battle, a figure of esteem.

"He's been good to me," says Billy North, an outfielder who came to the Dodgers early this season after five years with the quarrelsome A's. "He's been categorized, had a label put on him. The insecurity of other people manifests itself in labels."

"Once you get a reputation, it's hard to get rid of it," says Bill Russell, the Los Angeles shortstop. "People tend to leave their bad reputations when they come to this organization. Reggie Smith is an outstanding man in the Dodger tradition, and he's been the difference between first and second place for us."

"When I look at him I see a lot of me," says Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' short, plump, white manager. "He's the kind of guy who doesn't want to be pushed around. His heart is as big as his body, and he's very sensitive about his family."

"He's been a leader and a good friend," says Steve Garvey, who nowadays might be expected to feel miffed about the new Smith.

Sutton's exalted opinion of Smith was expressed rather undiplomatically late last month. Complaining that Garvey, "the All-American Boy," got most of the publicity, Sutton argued, "The best player on this team for the last two years—and we all know it—has been Reggie Smith.... Reggie doesn't go out and publicize himself. He doesn't smile at the right people or say the right things.... Reggie's not a facade or a Madison Avenue image. He's a real person."

These well-publicized remarks were, predictably, not well received by Garvey, and after an acrimonious exchange in the Dodger clubhouse at Shea Stadium on Aug. 20, he and Sutton grappled. Among those separating them was the veteran clubhouse brawler, Smith. And after the tussle ended, it was Smith who spoke separately to the combatants, explaining that he was a friend of each, that he wished them to be friends with each other and that, while he appreciated the one's compliments, he regretted that those compliments had embarrassed the other player. He also suggested that airing the smoldering differences between the two men might prove beneficial in the long haul.

He could not have been more right. The Dodgers won 21 of their next 32 games and pulled away from the Giants and Reds to such a commanding lead in the National League West that last week Los Angeles became the first team this season to clinch a division title. During that hot streak, which also served to make the Dodgers solid favorites to repeat as National League champions—whether their opponents in next week's playoffs be the Phillies or the Pirates—Sutton won three games and lost one, and Garvey batted .500 on the days Sutton pitched.

After his stormy apprenticeship with the Boston Red Sox, Smith qualifies as an expert on clubhouse civil war. The Bosox of the late '60s and early '70s were about as unified as Rhodesia, and the old—or rather the young—Smith could be found in the middle of every fray. He got off on the wrong foot, he now realizes, as early as his rookie year, 1967, when he alienated the Boston press. The gaffe was committed early one morning in Detroit.

"George Scott and I were rooming together then, and our wake-up call was late," Smith recalls. "We were in a panic. We threw our clothes together and rushed out to the team bus. Well, it looked as if they were going to take off without us. That made me mad. I said out loud that that was a rotten thing to even think about. 'The bus always waits for the press,' I said. 'How come it can't wait for us?' One of the media guys said something and I got even madder. I said something I shouldn't have and sat down. That was the beginning of it for me. I was a brash rookie and they didn't like that comment at all.

"My relations with the press deteriorated rapidly after that. One of the reporters said to me, 'Son, I made you, now I'll break you.' I didn't help matters by sometimes not wanting to talk. It wasn't that I was mad at anyone. I just didn't feel like talking. I made some errors—mostly throwing errors—in those first years. I thought my arm was strong enough to throw out any runner who tried to go from first to third. So instead of throwing behind the runner, I'd go for the big play. They were mistakes, I admit that. But they were rookie mistakes. I'd make an error, and then I'd talk to myself with my head down. 'You jerk,' I'd say. The crowd and the press got the idea I was the kind who got down on himself after a mistake. That wasn't it at all. I never lost confidence in myself."

The Red Sox of that tempestuous era were a team of cliques. "It was ridiculous," Smith says. "I sometimes wondered whether we were a ball club or a social club. I got along well with Carl Yastrzemski. Consequently, those who disliked him disliked me. There were three or four cliques. There was the Yaz group, the Ken Harrelson group, the Jim Lonborg group and, later, the Conigliaro group, which was not only a clique but a family. People would throw parties just so they could not invite the guys they disliked. Then the other guys would throw their own parties and not invite the ones who didn't invite them."

In Smith's last year with the Red Sox, 1973, he set a major league record for run-ins by a switch-hitting outfielder. He aroused the ire of the team physician, Dr. Thomas Tierney, by refusing to accept his diagnosis that there was nothing seriously wrong with his left knee, which, says Smith, "was killing me." Smith sought a second opinion, and when a doctor at the Tufts New England Medical Center told him he had a ligament tear, he confronted Dr. Tierney and team officials with the new diagnosis. The Sox insisted upon a third examination, which, says Smith, confirmed the Tufts' findings. To be healthy again, he would need several weeks' rest. Still, says Smith, Dr. Tierney prescribed only a cortisone shot and a couple of days on the bench.

Smith reluctantly agreed to this treatment, but when the trainer told him the doctor had said nothing about an injection, he was both confused and enraged. "Then the manager, Eddie Kasko, came up to me and asked if I could pinch-hit that day," Smith recalls.

It was the final straw. "I went out and got all my bats and dumped them at his feet. 'If that's all I mean to you—a bat—then pick one,' I said. Kasko called me into his office and asked me what was wrong. I told him my knee was killing me and that I wasn't about to jeopardize my future, my family's future, by playing when I was hurting that badly. He went along with me, even though it may have cost him his job."

The incident served to advance the notion that Smith was a malingerer. The Boston fans, already disenchanted because he had not yet achieved the superstardom for which he seemed destined when he arrived in the majors at age 21, turned on him with a vengeance. Amid the familiar choruses of boos, Smith began to hear the strains of "Goodby, Reggie; goodby, Reggie; goodby, Reggie; we're glad to see you go."

Smith further annoyed the fans when, responding to a reporter's question, he said he agreed with former Celtics star Bill Russell that Boston was among the more racially segregated cities in the nation. "Instead of leaving it right there," Smith says, "I started to defend the statement. I didn't need to defend it, but I did. I pointed to specific areas of racism. I had worked with kids in Roxbury, and I told the reporters that the place was about to explode. I said you could actually feel the hostility. I was right, but that turned the people against me. Bottles were thrown at my house. My son heard nasty things said about me in school. Someone scratched my car with a key. I was called all kinds of names. Well, Boston is a racist city. I should have suspected something when one of the top guys in the Red Sox front office told me I had the kind of body that could last a long time in baseball. I was complimented at first. Then he said, 'Blacks have that kind of body.' "

Labeled as a malingerer and an agitator, Smith added yet another dimension to his reputation in a contretemps with Pitcher Bill Lee, a player he still regards with misgiving. "They call him the Spaceman," Smith says contemptuously. "Well, don't kid yourself, Bill Lee knows exactly what he's doing all the time. He got the reputation he wanted. He worked at it. That's O.K., but one day we were in an important series in Milwaukee, and our hitters were being thrown at without retaliation. When their Billy Champion hit another one of our guys with a pitch, I yelled at him, 'You better get some control or someone is going to get killed out there.' Lee took that as an insult. He said, 'You want to pitch this game?' I accused him of not protecting our players. I called him gutless. In the eighth inning I was taken out of the game, and as I went upstairs to the clubhouse, I noticed Lee was right behind me. We wrestled and were separated, but he got in a kick at my eye while I was being held. After the game I was told Lee was looking for me."

Their subsequent bout resulted in a one-punch knockout by Smith. It remains a mystery why anyone would challenge a man of Smith's musculature. He appears even larger than his six feet, 196 pounds, and he has dabbled in karate. Perhaps Lee was seeking only to secure his Spaceman image. News of the fight was reported to the press—not by Smith—and more unfavorable publicity was heaped upon the Red Sox outfielder.

When the inevitable trade came, Smith was relieved. But controversy continued to dog him in St. Louis. He batted .309 with 23 homers and 100 RBIs for the Cardinals in 1974, and hit .302 with 19 homers in '75, but he injured his left shoulder on the second day of the 1976 season and his hitting fell off dramatically. He was also engaged in a seemingly minor dispute with the Cardinal management over deferred salary payments. Then, to his considerable surprise, he was sent to the Dodgers on the June 15 trading deadline. A Cardinal official, whom Smith refuses to name, leaked it to the newspapers that Smith was being traded because he had been feigning injury. "Here is the injury I was supposed to have feigned," Smith said recently, rolling up his shirt sleeve to expose an ugly scar on his left shoulder. "It was a loose piece of cartilage. Dr. Frank Jobe of the Dodgers operated on me immediately after the '76 season." Smith played hurt for the Dodgers during the second half of the 1976 schedule, hitting .280 with 10 home runs in 65 games. Last year he hit .307, with 32 homers, 87 runs batted in and 104 runs, and was chosen by the Dodger fans as the team's Most Valuable Player.

Smith was ahead of last year's pace this season—29 homers, 92 RBIs—and hitting .300 when he reinjured his back on Sept. 11. Though the injury did not cost the Dodgers the division championship, as many Angelenos feared it would, it may have cost Smith, who did not get back into the lineup until last Wednesday when the Dodgers' magic-number was down to three. Though Garvey came on strong during Smith's absence, Reggie was still able to win Dodger MVP honors again. But because Dave Parker of the Pirates has been outstanding during his team's late run at the Phillies, he would now seem to have a clear edge on Smith in the voting for the league's MVP trophy. But whether Smith wins that award, it is undeniable that he, more than any other Dodger, kept Los Angeles close enough to the division lead to make its final rush pay off.

A healthy Smith is an imposing specimen. He swings with power from either side of the plate; he can still run, despite his aching knees; and he has one of the strongest throwing arms in baseball. He is also capable of the sort of streak hitting that can carry a team for short periods. In an 11-game stretch this season, from July 17 to 28, Smith hit .395 with 12 runs, 19 RBIs, seven homers, a triple, three doubles, two stolen bases, three game-winning hits and two winning runs scored. The Dodgers were third, three games out of first, when the streak began; they were second, one game out, when it ended. Then, in six games—four of them against the then-division-leading Giants—from Aug. 10 to 16, he batted an even .500 (13 for 26), hit six homers, drove in 14 runs, scored eight and had two game-winning hits. The Dodgers were in third place, a game out, at the start of this splurge; they were first, a game ahead, when it ended.

Bat held high, feet well spread, Smith oozes power at the plate. He was challenging George Foster and Greg Luzinski for the league championship in home runs when he hurt his back. Four Dodgers—Smith, Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker—hit 30 or more homers a year ago. Smith is the only one likely to do so this year. His reflexes have slowed somewhat, he concedes, but he is still a devastating fastball hitter. "There was a time when I could pull any fastball," he says. "Now I have to look for one I can handle. As a result, I'm waiting longer and getting more walks. I'm much more selective."

Of all the notoriety heaped upon him, what has hurt Smith most is his reputation for feigning injury. In truth, he plays hurt most of the time. In his 13 seasons, he has had a strained Achilles tendon, the sore shoulder, ligament and cartilage damage to his knees, bone chips in his right elbow, the recurring bad back and high blood pressure. And if all this were not enough, earlier this year he was attacked in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by two toughs, one of whom crowned him with a beer bottle. It was a grievous miscalculation on their part, because Smith gave them both a sound thrashing, and a criminal complaint was filed against the two assailants. One admitted guilt and the other pleaded no contest; they each were fined $180 and put on 18 months' probation.

For all of Smith's physical ailments, it is his psyche that most intrigues the game's legion of amateur doctors. Smith has a sometimes volcanic reaction to injustice, real or imagined, despite a childhood astonishingly free of strife. Reggie was the seventh of eight children born to Lonnie and Nellie Smith. The parents were both tailors and kept their family completely outfitted until a serious automobile accident forced Lonnie to fall back on a less physically demanding occupation, the family's egg business. "He would buy his eggs in Orange County and sell them in L.A.," says Reggie. "When I was only 11, 12 years old, I was a door-to-door salesman. We were never poor. At least we never thought of ourselves as poor. There was always food on the table—eggs anyway—but I never had a store-bought suit of clothes until after elementary school. I was very close to my parents. I spent a lot of time with them."

Music was an interest shared by all the Smiths. Lonnie sang, one sister played the clarinet, another the piano. Nellie was a pianist, and Reggie played almost everything. He started with the cello and then proceeded to the saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano, trombone, guitar, violin, bass and, finally, drums, which he plays well enough to appear in clubs in Los Angeles and on the road. He considers Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra's drummer, Irv Cottler, his mentors.

Reggie was the only successful athlete in the family, but he was a bona fide whiz—an all-state performer in both baseball and football at Centennial High in Compton and the recipient of numerous college football-scholarship and baseball-bonus offers. He eventually signed with the Minnesota Twins after graduation in 1963, but was obtained a year later by the Red Sox when the Twins failed to protect him in the minor league draft.

Raised in a loving, close family, lionized as a high school athlete, a sensitive, intelligent, musically talented youngster, he learned some harsh realities in his first year of pro baseball, when the Twins farmed him out to Wytheville, Va. in the Appalachian League. As a schoolboy in racially mixed Los Angeles neighborhoods, Smith had moved easily among whites, blacks and Chicanos, but in the South of 1963, he found himself an alien. "In my family, the one thing we were taught was respect for self and for others," he says. " 'Hate' was a word we were not allowed to use. It was considered worse than any swearword. Then I went to the South. I was in fights every day. I just couldn't understand the prejudice. They were ready to hang me down there. Finally, one day the woman who was boarding me took me to a back room in her house. She opened a cabinet door, and I could see it was filled with liquor of every description. It turns out she was the town bootlegger. 'Look, son,' she said to me, 'I don't need all the attention you're bringing me.' I calmed down after that. I began to withdraw, to become, for the first time in my life, bitter."

By the time he came to the Red Sox to stay in 1967, Smith's bristling self-confidence was tinged with a certain wariness. Boston won the pennant that year, but life at the top was not what he had hoped it would be. Those dreams would not be fulfilled until he joined the Dodgers nearly 10 years later. In Los Angeles he found something infinitely more satisfying than success—peace of mind.

A couple of weeks ago, Smith was seated alongside the swimming pool of his fine country-style house in Chatsworth, deep in the San Fernando Valley. The living room, site of a recent family concert, was cluttered with musical instruments and phonograph records from a vast collection that exhibits the catholicity of the Smiths' tastes. Their discs and tapes run from Chopin to Sinatra, from My Fair Lady to hard rock and jazz. Ernestine straightened up the mess while her husband entertained at poolside. High school sweethearts, the Smiths were married the year after their graduation. They have a 10-year-old son, Reggie Jr., and a 6-year-old daughter, Nicole.

"This is the happiest I've ever been," Smith said, ignoring the pain in his back. "I've learned how to relax. I've learned that this is nothing more than a game. I'm not going to pay for it with my emotions any longer. I've got a contract that runs through 1981, and I've got all the respect a player could ask for. My shoulder is healed and I've gotten to play in another World Series. People say I've changed. I don't know. I'm 33 now, not 22, but my attitude is the same. I've always played this game aggressively, but now I'm playing better because of experience. I'm bigger and I'm stronger. I can no longer outrun my mistakes, but I don't make as many.

"It's funny how some things become a blessing in disguise. I enjoyed playing in St. Louis, but we had already planned to move home to L.A. before I was traded. And in September of that year, my dad got really sick. Uremia. He nearly died, but Dr. Robert Woods of the Dodgers managed to cut through all the red tape and get him right into the Veterans Hospital in Westwood. He wouldn't be alive today if I hadn't been here, playing with the Dodgers. Now he's up and around, doing all the things he wants to do."

He shifted uneasily in the pool chair. "There are a lot of blessings in disguise. My experiences with the Red Sox, for example, were invaluable. I learned there to deal with any kind of controversy. What I would really like to do is organize some kind of college curriculum on the psychology of the professional athlete. I'd like to analyze the uniqueness of the experience. Here we all are from different ethnic, economic and social backgrounds, and yet we're together as a single unit. We must have something in common. Our attitudes must be pretty much the same. We're all competitive. We all want to win. Take the Dodgers. We're a good blend of strong personalities. If nothing else, the Garvey-Sutton thing proved we're human. That happens in the best of families."

That night the Dodgers shut out the Braves for the second straight time. Smith, still hurting, did not play, but he shared in the pleasures of victory afterward. The win put his team that much closer to the division championship and another chance in the World Series. Smith was happy; this latest injury had cost him some personal goals, but he did not seem to care much about that. The Dodgers were on a late-season tear.

"You see," he said, sweeping his hand around the room, "no matter what anybody says, they don't need me here at all." Not much they don't.

PHOTOSmith still looks menacing, especially to pitchers, whom he has ripped for 61 homers in 1977-78. PHOTOSmith took up nine other instruments before settling on the drums, which he plays with such virtuosity that he sits in with combos in L.A. and on the road. PHOTOIn St. Louis, Smith was called a malingerer. PHOTOThe move to L.A., which let Smith be near his ailing dad, has left Reggie and Ernestine smiling.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)