When I hear the name Sydney Smith, my thoughts fly to the English wit and cleric (1771- 1845) whose letters are among the most delightful ever written. However, there is another Sydney Smith who, while not so quotable, is still interesting. Born in 1883 in Smithville, South Carolina, a small town just south of Camden, Sydney Smith grew up to become the only polo player in America to play major league baseball.
Smith’s athletic career began at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he played baseball and football. He moved on to the University of South Carolina and in 1903 played right tackle on the football team. By 1904, he was playing baseball for the Charleston Sea Gulls in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. He was best known as a catcher, but served as a utility infielder as well.
Sydney Smith, second from the left, in 1906 when Camden played Orlando, Florida
Also in 1904, his name first appeared on the roster of the legendary Camden Polo Club, the only polo team he would ever play for. He was later to note that polo in the early spring was excellent conditioning for the baseball season.
In baseball, Smith was all over the place. In 1906 and ‘07, he played with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. The Charleston News and Courier noted, “His advent into professional balldom came as a result of such good playing on college teams that managers made him flattering offers. Before he realized it he found himself wanted as a player by half a dozen men at the same time… he has a college education and can spout Greek as well as he can play ball.”
He was also a force off the diamond. The Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide tells us that when Smith was accosted by a “highwayman” in November of 1907, he “beat him into submission, and handed him over to the police.”
In 1908, the Atlanta Crackers sold Smith to the Philadelphia Athletics for $2,000. He was 24 and playing in the big leagues. His manager was Connie Mack and his mentor was the famed pitcher, Charles Albert “Chief” Bender. He later recalled, “By the time Chief had completed teaching me the inside stuff, I think I was a mighty wise catcher, for there is nothing about the game the Chief does not know.” Smith played in 46 games for the Athletics before being traded to the St. Louis Browns, where he played 27 more games.
In 1909, the Browns returned him to the Crackers. The Atlanta Constitution praised Smith’s play as a catcher, noting that in a 14-game stretch there were 54 attempts to steal second base, and only four runners made it safely. The Crackers’ manager, Billy Smith, called Smith the “best all-round player that ever pastimed in the Southern league… Without Sid, we would never have won the pennant of 1909. It was his willingness and his ability to star in utility roles and his pinch hitting that saved the day.”
On September 1, 1910, Smith was drafted by the Cleveland Naps (named by the fans for the team’s star player, Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie). Smith played nine games for the Naps that season, and 58 the following year, primarily as catcher.
In 1911, the New York Times wrote about Smith’s two-sports career and his polo prowess:
“Usually as No. 2 on the team, he is very good at carrying the ball, and is said to be accurate in his drives, making many long shots from seemingly impossible angles. He has several fine ponies, among them being Billy and Sewing Machine, which he trained himself.”
In 1912, Smith went back to the minors, playing for the Columbus (Ohio) Senators; in the next few years he played briefly for the Pittsburgh Pirates, coached the University of South Carolina baseball team, and played for the Atlanta Crackers (again) and the Shreveport Gassers.
He always maintained his connections with South Carolina, however, and was a member of Camden’s polo team during the 1920s. Also an avid tennis player and golfer, Smith died on June 5, 1961, and was buried in the Old Quaker Cemetery in Camden.
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My thanks to Nancy Snell Griffith, Horace Laffaye, and the New York Times for “Catcher Smith Plays Polo,” March 18, 1911.