The other day, I was watching a baseball game from 1969 on the MLB channel. Phillies vs. the Cubs … three future Hall-of-Famers were in the lineup for Chicago (Williams, Banks and Jenkins) along with a fourth who belongs there (Santo). That was a famous season for the Cubs … they led their division from Opening Day through September 9. But in early September, they lost 8 in a row and fell out of first. They finished second, 8 games behind the Miracle Mets.
The leftfielder for the Cubs that afternoon was a guy named Willie Smith. Smith had gotten the Cubs season off to a roaring start on Opening Day when he hit an 11th-inning pinch-hit walk-off homer to win the game for Chicago. Other than that, he was mostly famous for starting his career as a pitcher (the announcers, Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek, talked about this during the game). Smith ended up pitching 61 innings in the majors, but his bat was deemed too good to keep on the bench, so he became an outfielder. He hit .301 in his first full season, but never hit .300 again. He ended up playing for five major league teams before ending his career in Japan. His career batting average was .248, and he reached double digits in HR only twice, the highest total being 14. He played mostly during a time when pitching reigned supreme, so he wasn’t as bad a hitter as this sounds … his career OPS+ was 94, a bit below average, although since he played left field his bat was comparatively worse than it would have been if he’d been a pitcher.
The point is that Willie Smith was a journeyman. Managed to spend parts of 9 seasons in the major leagues, which makes him a better baseball player than the vast majority of human beings, but he never won any awards or led the league in any categories … “journeyman” describes his career pretty well.
It has been said … by everyone or by no one, I have no idea who said it first, but it seems to be commonly assumed … that while Jackie Robinson represented a great advance for minority ballplayers, it was only when journeymen African-Americans like Willie Smith filled major-league rosters that real progress was made. Once the regretful color barrier had been broken by Robinson and the Dodgers, you saw players like Mays and Aaron and Doby and Campanella … but it’s not like the floodgates opened. You didn’t see many black benchwarmers. So players like Willie Smith were important because they reflected a different possibility than did the Robinsons and the Mayses. You could be a mediocre black ballplayer and still make the majors.
When Barack Obama was elected President, many of us recognized him as a Jackie Robinson of politics. A barrier that should never have existed in the first place had been torn down. Now, Jackie Robinson wasn’t just an historic figure in American sports, he was also a great, Hall-of-Fame baseball player. Well, he was a great athlete, period … at UCLA, he also played football, basketball, and track, and in high school he was a fine tennis player as well. And, especially after 8 years of the Worst President of All Time (tm), hopes were high that Barack Obama would indeed be as great a figure in American politics as Jackie Robinson was in American sport.
Which is one reason why some of us are so disappointed now. We thought we had elected Jackie Robinson, only to find Willie Smith sitting in the Oval Office. President Obama is capable of dramatic, game-winning homers on Opening Day, but then, so was Willie Smith.
Still, it’s a truism of baseball and of life … you can’t judge someone by their first months at a new job. Obama is president for at least four years … in baseball terms, his season is somewhere around mid-May. Willie Mays famously went hitless in the first twelve at-bats of his major-league career, and Barack Obama has plenty of time to become Willie Mays instead of Willie Smith. I just wish it had already happened, because I’m losing faith.