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Wonderful Willie Smith

by Rob Neyer

When, in the spring of 2003, Brooks Kieschnick nearly made the Brewers’ Opening Day roster as a relief pitcher — after spending nearly a decade of trying to establish himself as a major-league hitter — a question was raised:

“Who was the last major leaguer to go the other way? To switch from pitching to hitting?”

After all, going from hitter to pitcher isn’t completely unknown, even these days. Troy Percival and Tim Wakefield were both “hitters” in the minors, and Ron Mahay first reached the majors as an outfielder before eventually enjoying something of a career in the majors as a lefty reliever.

But going from pitcher to hitter, while not unknown in the early part of the 20th century — you’ve probably heard of a fellow named Babe Ruth, but he wasn’t alone — isn’t something that I can remember seeing.

And one of the reasons I don’t remember it is because it hasn’t happened in my lifetime. I was born in 1966, and in the 37 years since, nobody’s gone from making a living as a major-league pitcher to making a living as a major-league hitter.

So getting back to the question, who was the last major leaguer to make the switch?

Answer: Wonderful Willie Smith, pride of the Los Angeles Angels.

Willie became “Wonderful” Willie in 1963, when he went 14-2 with Syracuse and batted .380 (30 for 79). Eight of the wins and both losses came before July 17, when the Tigers summoned Smith to the majors for the first time (he would go back down later that summer, and record six more wins for Syracuse). He finished with a 2.11 ERA that would have ranked No. 1 in the International League by a wide margin, except with 145 innings Smith fell seven frames short of qualifying for the ERA title.

When the Tigers summoned Smith, they summoned him as a pitcher. He didn’t have a great fastball — “sneaky fast,” they called him — and instead threw a lot of curveballs; roughly seventy-five percent of the time, mixing in the fastball and an occasional change-up.

Smith didn’t pitch particularly well in his 11-game stint with the Tigers in 1963, and he was back with Syracuse when the ’64 season opened. And after one game — six innings, four runs — the Tigers traded him to the Angels for pitcher Julio Navarro. That was on April 28.

Willie Smith’s career as a professional baseball pitcher had slightly more than six weeks to go.

Upon acquiring Smith, the Angels brought him back to the majors, and gave him plenty of work out of the bullpen. Also, Angels manager Bill Rigney wasn’t shy about using Smith as a pinch-hitter. Then on June 8, Rigney sent Smith to right field in the middle of a game. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Angels leading the Indians 3-2, Rigney waved Smith in from right field to the mound. Three pitches later, Smith had given up a two-run homer to Leon Wagner and a solo shot to Bob Chance–and Smith’s pitching days were numbered.

On June 14, Smith started in right field, and hit his first home run as a major leaguer. On the 23rd, he hit a two-run homer to account for all the scoring in a 2-0 victory over the Senators. On the 24th, he hit a three-run homer and a two-run triple–and Smith’s pitching days were really numbered.

His last mound appearance in 1964 was on June 15; from the 23rd forward, he was in the lineup — either in right field or left — for just about every game.

Smith finished 1964 with a .301 batting average. He managed to draw only eight walks in 118 games, but compensated with 31 extra-base hits in 359 at-bats, and so in 1965 Smith was the Angels’ left fielder, at least when a right-hander started for the other team. And he didn’t pitch even once. Not in 1965 or 1966 with the Angels, nor in 1967 after he’d been traded to the Indians.

In 1968, Willie Smith finally got another chance to pitch. On June 1, with the Indians losing 5-2 to the Senators, Cleveland manager Alvin Dark sent Smith to the mound. He responded with two shutout innings, giving up one hit and no walks. Three weeks later, on June 24, with the Tribe getting blown out by the Tigers, Smith pitched the last three innings, and again he didn’t allow a run, giving up just one hit and one walk.

Three days later, the Indians traded Smith to the Cubs. He pitched once for the Cubs, and again didn’t give up anything: two and two-thirds inning, no runs (or hits or walks).

In 1969, Smith opened the season with the Cubs. In the Cubs’ first game, on April 8 at Wrigley Field, they trailed the Phillies 6-5 with a man on in the bottom of the 11th when manager Leo Durocher called on Smith to pinch-hit. He homered into the right-field bleachers for the win. That put the Cubs in first place, where they would remain for 155 days.

Smith played for the Cubs again in 1970, and spent 1971, his final major-league season, with the Reds. He batted .216 in 1970 and .164 in 1971, mostly as a pinch-hitter, so he really couldn’t lay claim to a job in 1972.

He finished his career with a .295 on-base percentage and a .395 slugging percentage; even in the 1960s, those numbers weren’t good for a corner outfielder, and Smith’s career OPS+ was six percent worse than league average. He was a real good hitter in 1964 (the year of the switch), decent in 1965, and pretty poor thereafter — so poor that he spent most of 1967 in the Pacific Coast League — excepting three good months as a part-timer for the Cubs in 1968.

And considering Smith’s success as a pitcher in the minor leagues and his 3.10 career ERA in the major leagues, it seems possible — and perhaps likely — that he should have remained a pitcher. Or that he should have been allowed to pitch occasionally while hitting. Or that he should have been converted back to pitching after a terrible 1966 season as a hitter.

The bottom line, though, is probably that Willie Smith wasn’t a good major-league hitter, nor was he a good major-league pitcher. He was adequate at both jobs, to the point where he spent parts or all of nine seasons in the major leagues. If it were my decision, though, I’d have given him a chance, as a hitter, to learn the strike zone in the majors, because he was strong and he was fast. But once he didn’t do that, I’d have sent him back to the bullpen . . . and occasionally asked him to pinch-hit.