It was just an at-bat, but it changed the direction of Reggie Smith’s career.
Long before he became a World Series champion, a seven-time All-Star, or a 17-year major league outfielder, Smith was a young player growing up in south Los Angeles trying to be a switch hitter during his high school years.
One day early in the process he came to the plate with men on the base. Despite a right-handed pitcher standing on the mound, Smith initially stayed on his familiar right side of the plate, the spot he felt most comfortable for levering off the bat.
But then Smith’s coach called for time. Like so many players over so many years, Chet Brewer took a moment to impart some wisdom.
In an era of change for baseball, just a few decades after Jackie Robinson broke the sport’s color barrier, Smith was one of many young black players to emerge from south Los Angeles in the 1960s and break into the big leagues.
Most of them were coached by Brewer, a former Negro Leagues star who became an influential – if often overlooked – part of baseball history. He helped dozens of players (most of them black) reach the majors and cultivated a generation of baseball excellence that resonates to this day.
“In my estimation,” said baseball researcher and Negro Leagues historian Phil Dixon, “Chet influenced the blacks who got into the major leagues more than any other individual African American.”
Smith, now 77, quoted a moment during a recent phone call to embody Brewer’s influence and recalled his conversation with Brewer after he called off his Switch experiment.
“What you are doing?” asked Brewer.
“Well, there’s a chance for me to race,” Smith replied.
Brewer’s response: “No. If you want to be a switch hitter, you have to learn in those situations.”
So Smith stepped to the other side of the plate… and on his next shot, hit a home run that sent the ball up Century Boulevard behind the right fence.
“I thought if we hit with the right hand we had the best chance of winning,” said Smith, who went on to become one of the best switch hitters of his generation. “But my development was more important than the game at that point. And I’ve never forgotten that.
“That’s the kind of man and coach he was to make sure we’re prepared if we decide to play professional baseball.”
Brewer came from humble beginnings.
Although Brewer lost a couple of toes as a child when his foot was run over by a streetcar, he became a promising young pitcher growing up in Des Moines.
He gained his first professional experience with a barnstorming team traveling with a carnival and minstrel show. He reached the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs by 1925, beginning a three-decade career that earned him consideration (but not induction) in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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At the height of the Negro Leagues’ popularity, Brewer was one of their best pitchers. Despite earning just $150 a month for most of his career, he had an earned running average of 3.46 according to Baseball Reference and won an ERA title in 1929 with a mark of 1.93. Despite riding buses from city to city and facing racial segregation at every stop along the way, he amassed a .597 win rate that ranked 10th all-time among Negro League pitchers according to the Hall of Fame.
Sportswriter Jim Murray called Brewer’s curveballs “one of the best in history” writing for the Independent Journal in 1967, adding, “A pitcher who should have been at Yankee Stadium was in a canebrake in the Philippines, a sandbar.” in Santo Domingo.”
Towards the end of his playing days, Brewer served as a player-coach for a 1945 California Winter League team. His shortstop this season: Robinson, who was less than two years away from his Dodgers debut.
Though Robinson and other younger Negro League star players of the era made major league careers, Brewer was part of a much larger group that never got an MLB opportunity.
“He felt like [his playing career] was grossly underestimated,” said Dixon.
However, it didn’t drive Brewer away from the sport.
Instead, he hopped around the mound in his final years, playing for teams in Puerto Rico, Panama, and the last remnants of the Negro Leagues in the United States. Then, in the late 1950s, he took a job as a scouter for the Pittsburgh Pirates and settled in Los Angeles.
There he found his second calling coaching young players in the heart of the city.
When a friend of the Smith family first introduced Brewer in 1960, the future All-Star was an undersized shortstop, his physique making few first impressions.
But Brewer, who was then coaching a semi-pro team of minor league players and former Negro League pros, gave Smith the chance to coach anyway. Even among a group made up mostly of adult males, Smith’s strong arm and surprising pop stood out. Brewer gave him a spot on the bench.
Smith’s first game with the team came two weeks later at a South Park field against another semipro team. When Smith got to the plate, the opposing third baseman moved in. At first, Smith was unsure. Then he heard Brewer’s voice come from the dugout.
“You better go back,” he shouted.
In fact, Smith shot a line drive past the third baseman’s head for a double. From then on, Smith was a regular on Brewer’s teams. And over the next few years, the coach began bringing in more players Smith’s age, focusing on developing a new generation of players from South LA’s predominantly black neighborhoods
“The young players who had a desire to play baseball more professionally wanted to make sure we were prepared,” Smith said. “Because back then you had the feeling that you had to be twice as good as the white player.”
In fact, Brewer quickly developed a pipeline of talent that went straight to the majors. At one point his team consisted of Smith, who played in MLB for 17 years, primarily with the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox; Bob Watson, a two-time All-Star with the Houston Astros who also became the first black general manager to win a World Series; Davey Nelson and Dock Ellis, each of whom have earned All-Star selections in their long careers; and several other future MLB players including Willie Crawford, Enos Cabell, Bobby Tolan and Leon McFadden.
Another future big league star in this roster: Eddie Murray, who was the bat boy while his big brother Charles played for the team.
“I remember losing only one game in about three years,” said Dennis Gilbert, who was one of the few white players on the team and had a long career as an MLB agent and front office manager. “And there we were facing a pitcher named Rollie Fingers.”
Brewer demanded respect from his players – they called him “Mr. Brewer,” a title Smith and Gilbert still use to this day — but also showed them compassion.
Smith said Brewer became so close to him and his family that his parents trusted the coach to pick Smith up from their home on Sundays to take him to practice while they went to church.
Gilbert recalled Brewer steering the team through the Watts riots when smoke billowed in the distance during one of their games.
“He might be the most respected person I’ve ever met in my life,” Gilbert said. “Everyone loved him.”
By the end of his life, Dixon said, Brewer didn’t often mention his lineage from players. The track record spoke for itself. But after struggling so mightily as a player, the sight of his students’ success brought deep satisfaction, a reminder of how far the sport had come – and how much it had contributed to its progression.
“[The Negro Leagues players] had a good time back then, they enjoyed what they were doing,” Dixon said. “But [he was] To develop ball players and send them to the big leagues and now they can take care of their families and do things Negro League players could never do.
Dixon added, “Chet used to say, ‘Those were the good old days, but I’d rather have these.’ ”