Ed's Note: This is a response to last Friday's Fanpost Friday prompt.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not naming my player right away, because I want his mystery to underscore my assertion that he’s underrated. How underrated? He’s justifiably one the Red Sox 25 all-time best players...but a number of you will struggle to name him. Yes, I’m sure of that. So, let’s get to it…
The position of my mystery player is centerfield. Tris Speaker was the best Red Sox centerfielder ever, whether you go by conventional stats or analytics. Even Speaker may be a bit underrated (he played a century ago—a lot of folks just don’t think that far back), but he’s usually still listed as one of the 10 best centerfielders of all-time. So, not really underrated. My mystery player is definitely more underrated…but also right behind Speaker when talking about great Red Sox centerfielders.
In seven peak years with the Red Sox, this player accumulated just shy of 5 WAR* per season—basically a perennial All-Star (imagine six more consecutive years from JBJ similar to the one he just had). He played several decades ago, was known for his on-field intelligence, strong all-around game, good fielding, and plus throwing arm. He twice led the league in doubles as a Red Sox. Despite an exceptional career, he fell shamefully short of entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame; however, he is rightfully enshrined in the Red Sox Hall of Fame (66 players overall).
Some readers are, no doubt, scoffing at the "mystery" of my player: clearly, I’m talking about Dominic DiMaggio, the beloved Little Professor! Dom was smart, capable, and a key contributor on those excellent 40’s teams; his stature as a player in Boston only seemed to grow in the decades since his retirement. His absence during Game 7 of the ’46 WS is the whole reason we keep babbling about Enos Slaughter, right? Understandably, Dom’s solid play, but also overrated underratedness (probably--if we’re honest), got him on oodles of Red Sox All-Timer lists for decades now. And good for Dom! Except that, I’m not talking about The Little Professor here. My mystery player was clearly better than Dom DiMaggio...
Some other fans probably determined I’m instead writing about that other Sox centerfielder of note: smooth-fielding, Gold Dust Twin Fred Lynn! Fred Lynn was Mr. Everything (when healthy) too. One of only two players to ever win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, his unfairly-forgotten 1979 season should have won him another MVP as well (that year, he was definitely underrated). Freddie was the fully-realized Andrew Benintendi; 40 years earlier, and just as cool. Lynn’s career was a tad underrated: he didn’t sniff the Hall of Fame, despite more career WAR than Jim Ed. However, Lynn is still highly-regarded in Boston, and rightfully on many of those All-Time Red Sox lists as well--right there with Tris and Dom. So, sorry folks--it’s not Fred Lynn I’m talking about either.
Before you rummage through Damons and Burkses past, or wonder if I accidentally multiplied Armas’ ‘84 or Ellsbury’s ‘11 seasons times seven to generate my mystery player, I’ll cut to the chase: there was another exceptional centerfielder for the Red Sox. His name? Carl Reginald (Reggie) Smith.
Oh, that guy! Certainly, anyone who experienced the Impossible Dream of 1967 knows about Reggie Smith. Alas, that was half-a-century ago now; most of us weren’t around for that. A lot of us Gen-Xers remember, "Reggie Smith," still muttered wistfully any time Sullivan and Leroux fumbled away a Fisk or Lynn for one of Dan Shaughnessy’s proverbial sack of doorknobs (although in fairness, it was the usually-competent Dick O’Connell who traded Smith). I personally remember The Quiet Reggie later in his career, on those Dodger teams I prayed would beat the Yankees (’77,’78, & ’81). Yet, I suspect few of us sub-quinquagenarians have taken the time to discover how good this guy was while he was in Boston.
My first realization that I knew little about Reggie Smith as a Red Sox was discovering (only a few years ago) that he played seven years in Boston. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually the standard for many Sox heroes. Think I’m kidding? Take away the lifers and long-timers (Rice, Yaz, Ted, Ortiz, Doerr, etc.) and seven years becomes a long time for the rest. Amazingly, it’s an ideal yardstick when comparing most good Sox players. Fred Lynn? Seven years as a Red Sox (31.9 WAR). Speaker, Vaughn, Pedro, Valentin, Eck, Hurst, D-Lowe, and Manny (33.2 WAR)? Seven full (plus parts of others thrown out). Nomar, Barrett, Papelbon, Lester, Fisk, Foxx (34.6), and Cronin (26.9)? Well, about seven full (accepting significant missed games for injuries, trades, late call-ups and throwing out Cronin’s innumerable partial seasons). Even players such as Dom (26.7), Young, Pedroia, Grove and Parnell--who gave us eight or nine full seasons—we can take their best seven, and the comparisons remain relevant and easy. Regardless of the era, seven years is the logical benchmark. So, Reggie Smith’s seven years in Boston allows direct, fair comparison with most of his fellow Red Sox, past and present. And he stacks up well…
So yeah, I’m thinking this guy’s pretty underrated—especially here in Boston.
Back to 1967: while Carl Yastrzemski was ungodly-great that year (look it up, I’m serious); he had a capable, new accomplice next to him in Smith—a rookie good enough for 3.4 wins above replacement, and nearly an extra win in the field alone. In 1969, Reggie began a five-year run in Boston posting an OPS of .840 or higher and averaging an OPS+ of 138. He added over 26 wins above replacement to his team in that time and 34.2 in his seven years as a Red Sox—again, roughly numbers of a perennial all-star and better than the seven-year totals of Red Sox greats such as Lynn, Foxx, Ramirez, DiMaggio, and others.
Surprisingly good numbers for a guy who is rarely talked about or listed on those All-Time Sox teams (I’ve read zillions, and usually only see Smith listed as Honorable Mention omission or on teams that list 40+ players). The uncomfortable part of the answer as to "why," has already been documented, in great detail, by Howard Bryant in his excellent Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston (2003). Bryant’s well-researched book chronicles racism in Boston and its sports teams, as we learn that Reggie Smith was the first really good African-American player the Red Sox had—seven years after Pumpsie Green, and nearly two decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Truth is, fifty years later, he might still be the best African-American player they’ve ever had.
More simply, Reggie Smith was a quiet, intensely competitive, baseball-intelligent perfectionist (and still is--at the baseball academy he runs in Encino, CA) who neither sought nor generated attention. His personality was not unlike that of current-day Mickey Mantle-clone Mike Trout; although Smith toiled in the far-different, often-hostile atmosphere that was 1960’s Boston. Think about this: if Mike Trout, already on course to be one of the five-to-ten best players ever, struggles with notoriety in an era of constant media/social media coverage that spotlights his statistical dominance; one starts to understand how an excellent-but-understated player such as Reggie Smith can remain so anonymous coming from an era that far more easily overlooked, unfairly scrutinized or outright discriminated against so many athletes.
One of the beauties of this analytics age in baseball is better understanding of the game itself. More broadly, analytics aid us in seeing through all of our biases---cognitive, yes; but also social, racial, geographic—and better appreciating the excellence of those who play the game at its highest level. We saw affirming evidence of it in November, when the greatest player of our era was rightfully chosen for his second MVP award—because he was judged almost entirely for how well he played and not much else. Better scrutiny can’t undo the choices of history, but it can give us better appreciation for what actually happened. Fifty years ago (as of September 18), a young, talented, and dedicated baseball player quietly embarked on becoming the first great African-American MLB player in the city of Boston. He played seventeen seasons in the majors (two more in Japan) at a level that should have merited serious consideration for the Hall of Fame (64.5 WAR), and he played more games with the Red Sox than he did for any other team. Some sports stories—even good ones--are about tragedy or unrealized potential, but Reggie Smith’s is subtler. While it’s undoubtedly a shame he didn’t play longer at Fenway, the real shame is that we haven’t fully appreciated what he did while he was here. Reggie Smith realized his full potential in Boston (and after), and did it far better than most who’ve ever worn the crimson hose. The only unrealized part of his legacy is that which resides in our minds.
*All WAR cited use Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement. For comparison, using Fangraphs’ model, Reggie Smith’s total from 1967-73 is 32.2 WAR.