Robert E. Smith, 74, shared his love of baseball with Presstman Cardinals

January 27, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Robert E. Smith was a second baseman with a sticky glove and a fearsome bat who sent baseballs rocketing toward the heavens when he played in the local Negro League.

He was also a father of six children, and it pained him to see a kid with nothing to do, especially during the summer months. And in Mr. Smith's West Baltimore neighborhood, June produced plenty of idle children because they had no organized baseball team to join.

So in 1966, he created his own team, the Presstman Cardinals, the first name from the street he lived on near Lincoln Park and the second for the birds that perched on his car to rest. In the process, he created an institution.

Mr. Smith died Thursday at age 74 of heart failure at Augsburg Lutheran Home in Lochearn.

His Cardinals, though, are still soaring -- and expanding.

Five clubs now don the red and white of the Presstman Cardinals, and Mr. Smith's children promise that as long as there is such a thing as summer, area diamonds will shine with their father's legacy, children with something to do.

"So much good has come out of what he started," said one of his five sons, Reggie Smith. "He brought people together."

His father, one of 11 children, graduated from Dunbar High School in 1945 and served with the Army's 838th Battalion in Italy. Not long after he returned to Baltimore, when he was president of Barron's Social Club in East Baltimore, he met Adelaide Randolph, who was caring for newborns at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In 1951, they were married, and soon their lives were revolving around baseball and babies.

Mr. Smith played baseball in the local Negro League, from which black players took the leap to the national teams.

But jumping meant too much travel, so Mr. Smith stayed put, working for the U.S. Postal Service, first as a truck driver out of the Oliver Street branch and later as a supervisor downtown.

"He loved baseball, but he also loved children, and the team was his way to put those two together," said his daughter, Andrea Vann. "He'd work the midnight shift so he could spend time with us and the baseball team during the day."

Mr. Smith was not a man of great wealth, but he possessed superior discipline and he budgeted, from deep within his pockets, enough money to buy uniforms and equipment and to take the players on road trips.

When he was playing baseball, the leagues, like the country, were deeply segregated. Mr. Smith's games were played in the black section of Clifton Park.

And when his first Cardinals players climbed into their scratchy uniforms with the embroidered red stripe, every player was black.

But eventually, to Mr. Smith's joy, sports did what it does best, bringing different people together and integrating the Cardinals.

"It went from an all-black organization, and then we got white and Spanish and what have you," Reggie Smith said. "It brought people together in ways they weren't together before."

The teams were not just successful social experiments. After a couple of shaky seasons, the first collection of Cardinals began to win, and the victories generated even more interest among the children, which in turn attracted more talent and led to the expansion to five teams.

The teams won city championships and in 1981 the Cardinals age 16-to-18 team won the American Legion state title. In 1987, the college-level team was one victory from a trip to the American Amateur Baseball Congress World Series.

Mr. Smith stopped coaching in 1976 and turned the teams over to his children, but he was never separated from the action.

He'd come out to watch his sons coach another generation of children, with daughter Andrea helping out, too.

When more than one Cardinals team was playing at the same time, Mr. Smith would sit on a chair in his bedroom, watching television or reading history books, patiently waiting for scores to be phoned in.

Mrs. Smith died in 1988.

Services will be held at noon Friday at Nutter Funeral Home, 2501 Gwynn Falls Parkway.

In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by sons Robert Smith II, Roland Smith, Rodney Smith and Raymond Smith, all from Baltimore; sisters Irene Canady and Sarah Tiller of Baltimore, and Phyllis Smith of Virginia Beach, Va.; a dozen grandchildren, some of whom play on Presstman Cardinals teams; and a great-grandson.

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