Monday, February 6, 2012

How Smith became "Phenomenal"

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

One of the great nicknames from the Old Judge era of baseball card issue was that of John F. “Phenomenal” Smith. (Today's baseball players are too cool or too professional to have nicknames.)

Smith earned the sobriquet in 1885 when he pitched a no-hit game for Newark (American Association) in which not a single Baltimore player got the ball out of the infield. In that Oct. 3 game he not only held the Orioles hitless, but struck out 16. Only two runners reached base, one on a walk and one on a dropped third strike – and Smith picked both of them off first base.

A few months later, pitching winter ball in California in the days before there was official league ball on the Coast, Smith hurled another no-hitter, winning a 5-0 game for the San Francisco Chronicles against the S.F. Knickerbokers.

Smith had been born, with the name John Francis Gammon, in Manayunk, Pa. (now a part of Philadelphia) on Dec. 12, 1864. At the age of 19 he joined Baltimore, then a National Association team, in 1883. He was a little lefthander, only 5'6" tall and 161 lbs. The following year, in the American Association, he pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics and Pittsburgh Alleghenies.

In 1885, besides pitching for Newark, he had been with an independent team at Allentown, Pa., and the American Association’s Brooklyn club. It has been reported that the not-yet-20 Smith's brash demeanor and braggadocio -- despite having to that point a 0-2 major league record -- so irritated his Brooklyn Grays teammates that on June 17, 1885, they intentionally misplayed behind him, committing 14 errors, allowing the visiting St. Louis Browns to win 18-5. Despite the fact that Brooklyn was already in 7th place in the league, 15 games behind, management slapped several of the offending players with large fines. For the sake of team unity, Smith was released.

He spent the 1886 season with Detroit in the National League, for whom he notched his first major league victory, matching it with a loss.

In 1887, Smith pitched in 58 games for the Orioles. He won 25 -- but lost 30. The following season he worked for the Athletics and the Orioles. He remained with the Athletics for most of 1889, also playing briefly with Hartford of the Atlantic Association. He stayed in Philadelphia with the National League Phillies, for most of 1890-91, pitching three games for Pittsburgh in 1890. 

He left the majors for good when he joined Milwaukee in the Western Association in 1891. He played in Green Bay (Wisconsin-Michigan League in 1892) and Reading (Pennsylvania State League) in 1893.

He moved to the outfield (except for an occasional ceremonial start in later years) and began managing in the minors in 1894. He won the Pennsylvania State League second half pennant with Pottsville in 1894. He spent 1895 with Pottsville and, briefly, Millville (South New Jersey League). He managed in the New England League with Pawtucket (the team was nicknamed the Phenoms in his honor) in 1896-97 (he hit .405 in 89 games in 1896), Fall River, Newark and Hartford in 1898 and Portland in 1899, where he won the NEL pennant.

In 1900 he captured the Virginia League flag with Norfolk, also called the Phenoms. He was back in the NEL from 1901-04, piloting Manchester to the pennant in 1902, the same year he led the league in batting with a .369 average at the age of 37.

While with Portland in 1899, Smith faced a young Taunton pitcher named Christy Mathewson. Though Mathewson's record was 2-13 for Taunton, Smith recognized the 18-year-old's potential. That fall, when Matty traveled with his Bucknell football team to play a game at Penn, Smith lured him away from Taunton with a $10 per month raise (to $90) to join his team at Norfolk.

With Norfolk, Mathewson won 18 games while losing only two, and in July that season, began his major league career with the New York Giants. 

Smith ended his professional baseball career after the 1904 season, and joined the Manchester, N.H., police department, from which he retired in 1932. In that period he coached the St. Anselm’s basketball team off and on.

Smith died in Manchester on April 3, 1952 at the age of 87. He was survived by five sons and seven daughters.

Phenomenal, indeed.

Smith appeared on a number of cards in the Old Judge series between 1887-1890.

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