If you want to know how fickle fame can be, just ask Hal Smith. For fifteen minutes on the afternoon of October 13, 1960, typesetters at Pittsburgh newspapers had headlines set in big bold letters: “Smith Home Run Wins World Series for Bucs.”
In the Forbes Field press box, writers were tearing up and rewriting their Game 7 leads. The second-string catcher’s three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth had turned the Yankees’ 7-6 lead into a Pirates’ 9-7 win – with three outs to go.
Had Pirates ace Bob Friend been able to get those three outs, or if first baseman Rocky Nelson hadn’t held the ball instead of making a tag or throwing it home, there would have been no 9-9 tie for Bill Mazeroski to break in the last of the ninth. Smith, not Maz, would be immortalized as the hero of the ‘60 World Series.
Approaching the fiftieth anniversary of that highlight of his fifteen-year baseball career, the 78-year-ld Smith recalled that historic day at his home in Columbus, Texas. He had entered the game in the eighth inning replacing Smoky Burgess, who had left for a pinch-runner. The Yankees scored 2 in the top of the eighth and led 7-4. In the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates had 2 runs in, Dick Groat on third, and Roberto Clemente on first when Smith came up to bat. Jim Coates was the pitcher.
“I was probably a little tense until I stepped into the batters box,” Smith said. “I was talking to myself: ‘Okay, Hal, all you want to do is get good wood on the ball, drive it hard and get at least one run in to tie this game.’ I just concentrated on getting a base hit.”
He hit it into the left field seats.
“As soon as I hit it I knew I’d hit it out of the park. It always felt good to hit a home run in a game, but that’s all I felt. When I got to second base and looked up, there were people on top of the dugouts going crazy, screaming and yelling. I thought they were going to come out of the stands onto the field. Then it hit me what I’d done and I said, ‘Wow’ and got really excited.
“When I got to home plate Clemente and Groat grabbed me. Other teammates came out of the dugout but they were calm. There was no big celebration, no high-fives and hugging and all that stuff. The game wasn’t over.
“Friend started the top of the ninth. Richardson singled. Long singled. Haddix came in to pitch to Maris, who fouled out. Mantle singled. Now it’s 9-8. McDougald, running for Long, was on third. Berra hit a ground ball to Nelson at first. Nelson stepped on the bag, then fell asleep. Mantle ducked back to first untagged. McDougald was heading for home. I’m standing at home plate ready to make an easy play on McDougald for the third out and there’s no throw. He scores and it’s tied 9-9.”
That set the stage for Maz’s historic walk-off home run.
Pittsburgh radio announced Bob Prince had gone into the clubhouse after Smith’s homer, unaware of what had followed it. “When we came in he was looking for me to interview as the hero of the game,” Smith said, “until somebody told him Maz had hit the game-winner. But I was still the hero to general manager Joe Brown. He told me my home run was the most exciting hit he’d ever seen.
“We were all happy to have won, but I couldn’t resist asking Rocky Nelson why he hadn’t thrown the ball to me for the play at the plate. He said, ‘I couldn’t find you.’
“I said, ‘Well, I was standing right there at that home plate.’”
Ironically, Smith was originally signed by the Yankees in 1949. Born in West Frankfort, IL in 1930, he grew up listening to Cardinals games on the radio. When he was 12, the family moved to Detroit. There he played high school football – “I had 36 football scholarship offers” – and baseball. “In those days the scouts told kids they’d be losing four years if they went to college, and would never make it to the majors.” Two days after graduation, Yankees scout Ray Meyers put him and his father on a train to New York for a tryout. He signed for a $5,000 bonus and a $225 a month contract.
Smith spent six years in the minor leagues, consistently batting over .300. He credits the late Bill Dickey with teaching him the most about the mechanics of catching. But the Yankees’ pipeline was full of catchers behind Yogi Berra. On November 17, 1954, Smith was part of a blockbuster trade involving 17 players. Ten of them went from New York to Baltimore for Bob Turley, Don Larsen, and five others.
In 1956 he was traded to Kansas City and spent the next three years with the seventh-place A’s. “They were always trading away their good players,” Smith said. “There was a losing mentality. In spring training the manager would say, ‘Let’s look good losing this year. Let’s do things right.’’
In 1957 Smith was the only American League catcher to hit .300. He held out for a $2,500 raise and finally got it. After that he played third and first in addition to catching.
The only good thing he got out of his stay in Kansas City was catching veteran pitcher Ned Garver, who “taught me more about pitching than anybody.”
Rescued by a trade to Pittsburgh in 1960,he split the catching load with Burgess, batting .295 with 11 home runs and 45 RBI.
“Danny Murtaugh was a good manager. He knew people, and made you want to play. But he let us alone. He knew he had a veteran team who knew how to play the game.”
The Pirates fell to sixth in 1961. Smith was drafted by the expansion Houston Colt .45s and endured two more years with losing clubs. Released by Houston, he played half the 1964 season with Cincinnati and finished the year with San Diego before hanging up the spikes.
Smith worked as a sales manager for Jessup Steel for more than 20 years after leaving baseball. He took 15 years’ worth of foul tips and was hit in the head by swung bats twice, but never had a sore arm “until I was 50 playing softball with my sons.” But he has put in plenty of hospital time in the past few years with several operations including a quadruple bypass. He doesn’t play softball anymore, but gets in a few golf rounds every week.
Although his temporary game-winning home run was eclipsed by Maz’s heroics almost 50 years ago, Pittsburgh fans haven’t forgotten him. He’s still invited to old-timers’ reunions and fields half a dozen autograph requests a week. Another man who hasn’t forgotten him is the other Hal Smith – Hal R. – a catcher for the Cardinals at that time.
“We were often taken for each other by fans,” Hal W. said. “He got a lot of compliments for hitting that home run.”