`Wonderful Willie' Smith, former major leaguer, dies at 66
The Associated Press
Willie Smith, first a pitcher and then a hitter in nine years in the major leagues, has died of an apparent heart attack. He was 66.
Smith, who died Monday, began in the Negro Leagues and played for five clubs in the majors, beginning as a left-handed pitcher in 1963 with the Detroit Tigers. Nicknamed "Wonderful Willie," he also pitched in 1964 for the California Angels, where he went 1-4 with a 2.84 ERA; that same year the Angels put him in the field and he batted .301 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs.
An outfielder and first baseman, Smith also played for the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.
"I really thought the world of Willie Smith," former Chicago Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger told The Anniston Star, which reported Smith's death Wednesday. "Willie was an exceptional hitter. But he also was an exceptional teammate."
For his career, which ended with Cincinnati in 1971, Smith batted .248, with 46 homers and 211 RBIs. As a pitcher, including relief, he was 2-4 with two saves and a 3.10 ERA. He made 29 appearances as a pitcher, including 15 in the 1964 season with Gene Autry's California Angels.
The Star said he is the only black Major Leaguer to pitch in more than 20 games and play the field in more than 20 games.
"Willie played for this organization right after we came into being," said Tim Mead, vice president of communications for the Angels. "That was a great time in baseball history and it was a great time in Southern California.
"We have a saying in this organization: 'Once an Angel, always an Angel.' I know Willie was very highly regarded by Mr. Autry and the players he played with."
Former Jacksonville State University baseball coach Rudy Abbott, who grew up playing baseball with Smith, said Smith often helped struggling hitters on the JSU team and pitched in with youth baseball camps.
"I always thought he missed his calling," Abbott said. "He would have been a tremendous big-league or college hitting coach. He had the ability to communicate, to put people at ease, the knowledge to teach them and help them understand and unlock the secret of what they needed to do.
"I'm telling you, today I lost a great friend."
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Ervin Funeral Chapel.