Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pop Boy Smith (Clarence Ossie Smith)

I wrote a long article for the Newport Plain Talk that was published in three parts shortly before the 2007 World Series; this is the first of the three parts to be published. For my latest research and full details, see Clarence Ossie Smith in my family file.

Clarence was born 23 May 1892 in Newport1 to William Bruce Smith and Margaret C. Dennis. Both of his parents were born in and married in Sevier County, but they lived in Cocke County for decades; Margaret’s parents, John Edward Dennis and Miranda Hartsell, were both born in Cocke County as well and descended from early Cocke County families.

Clarence was the third of the eight children who lived and the only boy in the family. He was first cousin to, among many others, the late Newportians Vella Allen and Ed and Royce Dennis. His father, Bruce Smith, was a carpenter in Newport as were Bruce’s brothers-in-law, John Joshua Dennis and Joel Leonard Dennis. When Clarence was about 10, the family relocated permanently to Birmingham, Alabama, where Bruce was a contractor, eventually working for himself.

The family’s new city had a baseball team, the Barons, which was a member of the Southern Association, a now-defunct league that was among the higher-level leagues of the era. The 8-team league included Birmingham, the Atlanta Crackers, the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Little Rock Travelers, the Memphis Chicks, the Nashville Vols, and the New Orleans Pelicans; typically, the eighth team was either the Knoxville Smokies, the Mobile Bears, or the Shreveport Sports.

In 1908, Carlton Molesworth became the player-manager of the Barons, and he would manage the team until 1922. Although he had pitched briefly in the National League for the Washington Senators, he played outfield for the Barons in addition to being the manager. Over the years, he built what is considered one of the strongest organizations in minor league history.

In 1909, A.H. “Rick” Woodward purchased the Barons and quickly built a new stadium, Rickwood Field, which was the first concrete and steel stadium in the minor leagues and is today the oldest professional baseball stadium still standing. The stadium was finished in time for the opening of the 1910 season.

Bruce & Margaret Smith family about 1908; Clarence is the one son, sitting with the dog. His sister Mabel is presumably in the photo, but her appearance at this time is not known.2

Clarence Smith got a job in that brand-new stadium in 1910 – selling drinks in the stands as what was then called a “pop boy”. A huge baseball fan, he took the job to be able to attend all the games. During practices, he would sometimes pitch to the players, and Molesworth, the player-manager, quickly noticed him. Molesworth signed Clarence in the spring of 1911 for $90 per month, farming him out to the Anniston (Alabama) Models of the now-defunct Southeastern League. From then on, Clarence would be known as “Pop Boy” Smith.3

In Clarence’s year with the Models, the team won the pennant, and Molesworth credited that win largely to Clarence’s pitching. They beat out the other teams in the league, which consisted of the Models, the Bessemer Pipemakers, the Gadsden Steel Makers, the Huntsville Mountaineers, the Rome (Georgia) Romans, the Selma Centralites, and the Talladega Highlanders.

After his year with the Models, Clarence in 1912 reported to the Birmingham Barons and began pitching for the team. Molesworth said of Clarence that year, “My opinion is he’s going to develop into a wonder and there’s nothing to keep him from getting into the big league. He’s only nineteen years old.”4 That season, for the first time under Molesworth, the Barons won the pennant. A letter from booster William Millikan to Clark Griffith, the legendary long-time manager of the Washington Senators, gave much of the credit to Clarence and outfielder Jimmy Johnston.5 Griffith expressed an interest in getting both for his team, but expressed little confidence in being able to sign either player.

Clarence Smith as a White Sox player in 1913

Instead, after just two years in the minor leagues and shortly before his twenty-first birthday, Clarence made it to the majors with another team, the Chicago White Sox (also known as the Americans during the era) as a pitcher; he was their youngest pitcher that year.

Nixey Callahan at the time was the manager of the White Sox, then as now an American League team. Charles Comiskey, who built the first Comiskey Park in Chicago, was the notoriously frugal owner who forced the players to, among other things, pay for laundering their own uniforms.

The White Sox had a pitching staff of thirteen that year, lead by the talented Eddie Cicotte who six years later would go down in infamy in the Black Sox scandal. Pitchers at the time threw in far more games than in the modern era and with often far more damage done to their arms. As the youngest, Clarence himself got very little playing time, playing in just fifteen games and pitching a total of thirty-two innings throughout the season.

Clarence’s performance for the White Sox was quite respectable, but Comiskey was apparently not very happy with his entire relief pitching staff. He was looking to create a powerhouse team, which would win the 1917 World Series and then famously throw the 1919 World Series. By midseason, Comiskey apparently was already trying to pare down the number of pitchers, and the White Sox roster by the next season was reduced from thirteen pitchers to nine. In fact, Comiskey ended up keeping just his five starters and one relief pitcher, pulling three new pitchers from the minor leagues.

The Atlanta Constitution reported on July 3rd that year6 and again the next day7 that Comiskey offered Clarence to the Atlanta Crackers, a minor-league team in search of an exceptional pitcher, for $2,000, a high sum at the time. The offer was sent the night of July 2nd and accepted by the Crackers on the 3rd. However, in a game on the 3rd against the Detroit Tigers, Clarence performed exceptionally well, and Comiskey reneged on the deal. While Atlanta probably had legal claim, they were not about to anger Comiskey.

Chicago Americans/White Sox, 1913, team photo; Clarence Smith is sitting third from left.8

Later that month, Clarence created a minor stir by playing with the Coulon Athletics, a semi-pro team, violating American League rules. But the president of the American League, Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson decided that, although several players had been fined the previous year for the same offense, Clarence was “just a youngster” and did not know he was violating the rules, so he was forgiven without consequence.9

That December, a rumor was floated again that Clarence would be sold, this time to the Chattanooga Lookouts,10 with the Crackers still being quite interested in him. However, Comiskey kept Clarence on the White Sox through spring training in California in 1914. Allegedly, during a game in California, the San Francisco fans taunted Clarence to the point that he retorted, “I should worry; we'll be back in the United States next week.”11 Unbeknownst to Clarence, Comiskey decided on March 30th to leave him in California after spring training.12

Clarence was sold at that time to the Venice Tigers, owned by Edward Maier and managed at the time by Hap Hogan. The team more commonly was known as the Vernon Tigers but played in Venice in 1913 and 1914 in the Pacific League. The Pacific League apparently was the closest to becoming another major league without becoming one, and it could often offer salaries high enough to keep players from going to the majors.

Clarence was not happy in California. Billy Fritz, the baseball writer for the Oakland Tribune, called him “fractious”13 and taunted him in the press over his “United States” remark,14 and Clarence would also chafe from his lack of playing time.15 While Hap Hogan made it clear that he was not trying to sell or trade Clarence, he also indicated that he would not object if Clarence found a better deal. Apparently, Clarence did, and sometime around late 1914, he ended up with the pennant-winning Portland Beavers in the same league under Walter Henry McCredie. Rather soon, Portland sold Clarence to the New Orleans Pelicans, with the sale completed in March 1915.16

Clarence apparently welcomed the move to New Orleans, where his brother-in-law, Jim Bagby, had gone after his year with the Reds. Jim had been a sensation in New Orleans, winning twenty and losing nine in 1914 for the Pelicans, and Clarence then followed up with the incredible feat of winning more than twenty games in two consecutive seasons; he won twenty and lost twelve in 1915 and won twenty-three and lost thirteen in 1916.

In the midst of his hot streak in 1916, Clarence found himself late in the season being called to the majors again, when he was sold on August 19th to the Cleveland Indians.17 His brother-in-law, Jim Bagby, had also gone to the Indians earlier that season. Being called up so late in the season, Clarence had little opportunity to pitch, especially since the Indians had seventeen pitchers on the roster. He pitched only five games, with one win, two losses, and one save; he started three games and finished two, pitching a total of 25.7 innings.

In Cleveland both years, Clarence played under manager Lee Fohl and owner Jim Dunn. Early in the 1917 season, despite his incredible record in the minors, Clarence apparently began to lose his arm. Fohl placed him on probation in late March because of his inability to “hold the mound”18 that year. Clarence played a few more games, but played his last major league game on May 2, 1917, oddly enough against his first team, the White Sox, and was sent back to the New Orleans Pelicans.

How long he played for the Pelicans the second time is not currently known. In 1921 and 1922, he was a manager in the West Texas League, a short-lived Class D league that functioned from 1920-1922 and 1928-1929. He and Roy Brashear were managers of the Ballinger Bearcats in 1921 with the team moving from Mineral Wells to Balinger on May 19th that year. The team won 57 and lost 72, finishing fourth of six teams at 15.5 games behind. In 1921, Clarence was manager for the Sweetwater Swatters, who had led the league the prior year; they won 62 and lost 73, finishing fifth out of eight teams at 24 games behind.19

On February 16, 1924, Clarence died suddenly at his home in Sweetwater, Texas. His body was brought back to Birmingham for burial at Elmwood Cemetery. Details about his personal life, including whether he married or had children, are not currently known.

Footnotes (omitted when this article was published):
1 World War 1 Draft Registration Card, Clarence Ossie Smith, New Orleans, Louisiana.
2 Photo courtesy Janice (Dennis) Hance who inherited it from her father, Ed Dennis.
3 The Atlanta Constitution, “Clarence Smith, Baron Hurler, Got Starts While Selling Drinks at the Birmingham Ball Park”, 27 June 1912, page 13.
4 The Atlanta Constitution, “Clarence Smith, Baron Hurler, Got Starts While Selling Drinks at the Birmingham Ball Park”, 27 June 1912, page 13.
5 The Washington Post, “Johnson is to Twirl Against Virginia Nine”, 15 March 1913, page 8.
6 The Atlanta Constitution, “’Pop Boy’ Smith Bought by Locals”, 3 July 1913, page 10.
7 The Atlanta Constitution, “Comiskey Backs Down on Locals”, 4 July 1913.
8 Library of Congress.
9 The Atlanta Constitution, “’Pop Boy’ Smith Will Not Feel Iron Hand”, 7 July 1913.
10 The Atlanta Constitution, “’Pop Boy’ Smith May Go To The Lookouts”, 17 December 1913, page 10.
11 The Daily Review [Decatur, Illinois], “Late Stories of the White Sox”, 1 April 1914, page 5.
12 The Atlanta Constitution, “Clarence Smith Sold”, 31 March 1914, page 9.
13 The Oakland [California] Tribune, “Billy Fitz Says, Says He”, 31 March 1914.
14 The Oakland [California] Tribune, “Diamond Flashes”, 10 September 1914, page 12.
15 The Oakland [California] Tribune, “Baseball by Billy Fritz”, 31 July 1914, page 18.
16 The Atlanta Constitution, “Farrell’s Decisions”, 14 March 1915, page 5b.
17 The Washington Post, “Indians Buy Players”, 21 August 1916, page 6.
18 The Fort Wayne Daily News, “Rookies and Regulars”, 28 March 1917, page 14.

1 comment:

  1. Clarence had a daughter - She was my grandmother. Her name is Mary Margaret. She was raised in Cleburn Texas and Detroit Michigan.She passed away a couple of years ago.
    My Great Grand Mothers name was Lena. She remarried a man named Holmes Sullivan and lived in Cleburn Texas.