When 17-year-old Tim McCarver made his big-league debut with the Cardinals in September 1959, the everyday catcher he hoped to replace someday was an all-star with a powerful arm and a reputation for handling a pitching staff well.
Though his Cardinals career wasn’t the caliber of successors such as McCarver, Ted Simmons and Yadier Molina, Hal Smith was regarded as one of the best catchers in the National League when he played for St. Louis.
“Hal Smith was a fair hitter and great defensive catcher,” McCarver said in the book “We Played The Game” (1994, Hyperion).
Smith, 82, died April 12, 2014, in his native Arkansas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were two players named Hal Smith in the major leagues and both were catchers.
Harold Wayne Smith, known as Hal, played for the Orioles, Athletics, Pirates, Colt .45s and Reds from 1955-64 and hit a three-run home run for Pittsburgh against the Yankees in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.
Harold Raymond Smith, also known as Hal, played for the Cardinals from 1956-61 and briefly for the Pirates in 1965.
“I liked when Hal Smith caught me,” said Tom Cheney, who pitched for the Cardinals in 1957 and 1959. “He was one of the best catchers in baseball. We were in synch … Vets like Smith really knew the hitters and you could depend on them.”
Taught by the best
After six seasons (1949-55) in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, including two at Omaha under manager George Kissell, Smith debuted with St. Louis in 1956. He established himself as an all-star in his second season, 1957, by hitting .279, ranking fourth in assists among National League catchers and committing just five errors in 795 innings. (Smith did lead the league in passed balls, primarily because the Cardinals had knuckleball specialist Hoyt Wilhelm.)
On May 8, 1957, Smith was 3-for-5 with 6 RBI, including a two-run home run, in the Cardinals’ 13-4 victory over the Giants at New York. Boxscore
According to The Sporting News, Smith fell into disfavor with Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson early in 1958 for being overweight and having a sore arm.
When Solly Hemus replaced Huchinson for the 1959 season, he had Smith and Gene Green compete in spring training for the starting job. Smith won the role and earned the respect of his manager.
“You just can’t give enough credit to Hal Smith for the pitching improvement (of the Cardinals),” Hemus told The Sporting News in April 1959. “He takes charge out there and quickly gains the confidence of his pitchers.
“Defensively, I’ll rate Smitty right up with Del Crandall of Milwaukee. With that strong, accurate arm of his, Smitty isn’t going to let many runners steal on him this season. He can hit .220 or .230 and be my regular catcher.”
Smith hit .270 with 13 home runs and 50 RBI for the 1959 Cardinals and earned all-star status for his all-around play.
Slugging for Sharon
On May 9, 1959, Smith hit two home runs _ a three-run shot off Glen Hobbie and a two-run shot off Joe Schaffernoth _ in the Cardinals’ 11-1 victory over the Cubs at St. Louis. Boxscore
According to The Sporting News, Smith “wasn’t even ticketed to start the game because he and his wife earlier were forced to rush daughter Sharon to DePaul Hospital.”
It was feared Sharon had a kidney ailment that would require surgery. When it was discovered the girl had a minor kidney infection and no surgery was required, Smith told Hemus he was ready to play and Hemus inserted Smith into the lineup. Relieved to learn of his daughter’s improved health, Smith responded with the only two-homer game of his big-league career.
Smith led National League catchers in highest percentage of runners caught attempting to steal in both 1959 and 1960. He threw out 32 of 76 attempted base stealers (42 percent) in 1959 and 34 of 66 (52 percent) in 1960.
In 1962, Smith became a coach on the staff of Cardinals manager Johnny Keane. The next year, McCarver, 21, replaced Gene Oliver as the Cardinals’ everyday catcher and helped them to three pennants and two World Series championships.
Cardinals connections helped Smith continue his coaching career. He coached for the 1965-67 Pirates staff of manager Harry Walker, who was a Cardinals coach from 1959-62.
After coaching for the 1968-69 Reds under manager Dave Bristol (the Reds then were run by former Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam), Smith was a coach for the 1976-77 Brewers staff of manager Alex Grammas, his teammate with the 1956 and 1959-61 Cardinals. Smith then returned to the Cardinals and was a scout for them for several years.