Facilitating the Integration of Baseball

Wendell Smith grew up in Detroit as the son of Henry Ford’s personal chef. He was a very talented baseball player and played college ball at West Virginia State College. He had hoped to have a professional career, He took a job with the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest newspaper for African Americans. The Courier encouraged civil rights advocacy among all of its writers. Wendell did a story on the willingness of baseball players and managers to accept African Americans. He found that over 75% of those interviewed were accepting of the integration of teams.

Wendell helped set up tryouts for African American players with several major league teams. But none of the teams were ready to sign African Americans. Then Wendell met with Branche Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers to encourage him to sign Jackie Robinson to a contract. After scouting and face-to-face meetings, Jackie Robinson was signed to a contract and assigned to a triple-A farm team. Rickey hired Smith to travel with Jackie Robinson as a supporter. Jackie Robinson went on to become one of the greatest players in baseball history.

Wendell went on to bust other barriers for African Americans in baseball including the integration of spring training facilities. Wendell became the first African American to write about sports for a white newspaper. He was the first African American in the Baseball Writers Association of America. When the Baseball Hall of Fame created a committee to induct players from Negro Leagues, Wendell was one of only two members selected who were not affiliated directly as players or managers.

Hidden heroes are often facilitators of greatness in others. Jackie Robinson’s story is well known, but the facilitator role of Wendell Smith is rarely mentioned. Hidden heroes as facilitators focus on outcomes, not who gets the credit.

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“A life isn’t significant except for its impact on others’ lives.” – Jackie Robinson

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