In Baseball, Some Seasons Live Forever
"I want you all to get nice and relaxed," Willie Smith said. "You'll play this game of baseball a lot better that way. At least, that's always been my philosophy."
Smith smiled down at the two dozen or so kids surrounding him on the old ballfield in South Phoenix. None of them was more than twelve years old. They stood tensely. Their eyes were wide as they tried to absorb instructions from the middle-aged man wearing the Chicago Cubs uniform.
There was plenty of gray in the bushy hair that sprouted from under his baseball cap. More than twenty years before, Willie Smith had played the game. He was 185 pounds in those days and quick on his feet, with a great throwing arm and big-league batting power. Now, at 51, he weighs 220.
Back in Anniston, Alabama, where he grew up, they called him "Wonderful Willie." He became one of 73 players named Smith to make the major leagues. Many had colorful nicknames like Broadway Aleck . . . Bull . . . Germany . . . Heinie, and, of course, Ozzie.
But in all Chicago Cubs' history, there's been only one Wonderful Willie.
To Wrigley Field fans, he's remembered as the man who hit the game-winning home run in the eleventh inning before a standing-room-only crowd on opening day back in 1969. The blast into Sheffield Avenue started the Cubs off on a tear that kept them in first place for 155 days, when the New York Mets finally passed them.
Smith was in Phoenix for Dream Game '90, an old-timers game sponsored by the Phoenix Memorial Hospital Foundation. It would be the Cubs of 1969 against the Baltimore Orioles of 1969. The Orioles made it to the World Series that year and lost to the Mets in five games.
On the day before the game, all the former players had a choice of either playing golf at the plush Camelback Inn or going down to the ghetto for two hours to instruct the kids. Willie Smith went with the kids.
"I've been playin' this game since I was a kid," he said. "You never really get it out of your mind."
After playing eight big-league seasons and two more in Japan, Smith returned to Anniston, where he works for the Magic Chef Corporation.
"I'm doin' pretty good, I guess. I play a little half-court basketball and softball. I don't mind it that I never made the big money."
He smiled wistfully. "I guess I just come along twenty years too soon. I hate to admit it, but I never made more than $25,000 a season. Nowadays, if you could hit like I did in '69, you could get a multiyear contract for a million dollars.
"But we always had just one-year contracts. You had to fight like hell to stay up. If you had a down year, you were gone. There was lots of good players comin' up ready to take your spot."
In Chicago, Willie Smith's home run on that bright, sunny day has assumed mythic proportions. It was a game watched by federal judges, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago aldermen, as well as several of the Chicago mob's most skilled barristers.
It was a season Cub fans never forgot. There were the Left-Field Bleacher Bums in their yellow construction helmets. They actually were led in cheers before every game by a pitcher named Dick Selma.
Ron Santo got death threats but continued to leap in the air and click his heels for the cameras after each victory. Manager Leo Durocher secretly jumped the club to visit his wife's son at a boys camp in Wisconsin.
And poor Don Young, a rookie, dropped two fly balls in center field against the Mets and to this day nobody has forgiven him. Certainly not Ron Santo, who blamed Young for losing the pennant and who still holds a grudge against Durocher for charging that Santo was a glory hog.
Young still isn't invited to old-timers games.
On the day after he had worked the clinic with the kids, Willie Smith sat at the entrance to Phoenix Municipal Stadium. It was an hour before the game and he was autographing copies of a book called The Cubs of '69: Recollections of the Team That Should Have Been by Rick Talley.
"Is it a good book?" someone asked. "I think so," Smith said, "but I haven't had time to read it yet."
He walked down to the playing field and sat in the far corner of the dugout. He sat there watching as Don Kessinger and Ferguson Jenkins played catch along the third-base line.
"You know," Smith said, "I keep wonderin' what would have happened if they hadn't made me into an outfielder in my rookie year. I was 15 and 2 as a pitcher in my last year in the minors, you know.
"But in those days you had to do what the manager said. Things like that stick in a guy's mind." Smith batted cleanup. In his first time at bat, he ripped a line drive four feet over the first baseman's glove for a clean single to right.
Willie Smith stood there on the first base momentarily. He turned and smiled broadly at the crowd.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Marijuana Legalization Could Improve Arizona Tourism
- Ex-Arizona Lottery Director Tony Bouie Probed by State AG's Office
- This Lady Vows to Herd Felines at Amazing Acro-Cat Circus in Phoenix