Mr. Smitty taught players how to win on field, in life

This Just In ...

November 26, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

They filled Mount Olive Baptist Church on a windy, wintry November night, warming the sanctuary so much that white-gloved ushers had to crack open windows and pass out cardboard fans bearing images of Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King Jr. There were hugs and kisses and handshakes and tears, a feeling of reunion, old friends greeting each other for the first time in years, or just a few days.

Turners Station is a small community -- an unincorporated town, really -- down Sollers Point, just past Dundalk, at the end of Broening Highway. Osceola Smith -- "Mr. Smitty" to all who knew him -- was a town father.

One of the several ministers who attended Mr. Smitty's funeral Monday night called it a "homecoming," which is the common spiritual term for such farewells. But "homecoming" in its prime definition -- a return to home or school by alumni -- would have been an accurate description of the warm feeling in Mount Olive.

Most of the men in the church, after all, were graduates of Turners Station and the special school of Osceola Smith.

"He was a man among men," said Linwood Jackson, who worked with Mr. Smitty at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point. "He worked to break the color barriers [among shift supervisors] at the shipyard. He worked to settle disputes. He got me involved in politics, too. He was a spiritual man as well. Just look at all the different ministers here. Smitty was a very well-rounded man, a three-sixty [360 degrees] man."

And of all the things he did in his well-rounded 85 years, Mr. Smitty was best known for his strong, positive influence on boys.

Over the years he'd coached thousands of them in baseball teams he'd organized. He'd been the unofficial commissioner of Turners Station baseball since 1951. Mr. Smitty considered helping kids his ministry in life.

Calvin Hill, once the great running back of the Dallas Cowboys, benefited from that ministry (though football, and not baseball, became his passion).

Another was Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president and former congressman from West Baltimore. Both he and Hill paid eloquent tribute to their old coach Monday night.

Mfume already had told the world about Mr. Smitty in his 1996 biography "No Free Ride." ("I wanted everyone to know about him," he says.) In the first 30 pages, Mfume tells of growing up in all-black, blue-collar Turners Station with a loving mother and a father who was anything but affectionate.

"Mama couldn't provide me with a terrific father, but she did the next best thing," Mfume writes. "She put me under the influence of the best man she could find in our community -- Mr. Smitty -- my Little League coach and my first real mentor."

Mfume credits Mr. Smitty with reinforcing the values his mother had instilled in him, providing "Pee Wee," as Mfume was known then, with lessons about respect, trust, hard work and working with others. "He lifted us up and told us we could win," he told mourners in the packed church. "He challenged us and he loved us. There was something mystical and magical about Osceola Smith."

In his book, Mfume recalls summer evenings in the 1950s when he and his teammates competed against all-white teams in Dundalk, Essex and Middle River.

"From the dugout," he writes, "I would look over and see the maybe 40 people from Turners Station who had taken the trip to cheer us on. On the home team side, a sea of white faces filled the bleachers. Mr. Smitty may have given me my first lesson on how to overcome injustice. 'Now you can see the umpires are white,' he told our team before one of the games. 'So, they're gonna be biased to the other boys. Don't expect no favors. If there's a close call to be made, it won't go your way. So just play extra hard and beat 'em fair and square.' He tried to make sure we harbored no hatred toward our white rivals. He explained that respecting our competitors was just as important as outplaying them."

Calvin Hill, at 50 still tall and trim and handsome, stood to speak affectionately of his first coach, and made so many easy references to the people and streets of Turners Station you'd think he still lived there instead of Dallas.

"Mr. Smitty was a teacher," Hill said. He recalled a couple of lessons, in particular.

One was Mr. Smitty's admonition that a man must never try to embarrass his opponent, that he should always respect him, right down to the final out.

The other lesson was about character, and how one man judges another.

"In 1956, I think we played in our first All-Star games," Hill recalled. "And this team came down from the city to play us at the new field at Sollers Point."

The city kids had smart-looking uniforms and each player wore spikes.

The Turners Station kids wore T-shirts that Mr. Smitty's wife, Consuella, had dyed and stenciled. They didn't have spikes. They wore high-top sneakers, P. F. Flyers.

Noting the glum faces around him, Mr. Smitty decided his kids needed a dose of wisdom.

"Never mind what they wear!" he said. "It's not what you wear, it's what you have in here."

And Mr. Smitty pointed to his heart.

Calvin Hill smiled at the memory, paused for a moment and said: "I think we beat that team three times."

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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