Baseball was on Dick Smith’s mind right to the end. So was kindness.
One of the last acts Smitty made before he died in late February was to request that instead of flowers or memorials, donations be made in his memory to the Greater Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame and be used to purchase baseballs for the PAL summer league, the Parochial School
fall baseball league and an adult disabled league in Lancaster.
Smith, 84, passed away doing another thing he loved best. He was stricken in Tampa, Fla., on his way to watching his beloved Yankees play a Grapefruit league game at Steinbrenner Field.
For years, Smith ran a profitable photography business in Sloan. His specialty was wedding pictures. He also was involved in politics in the village, both on the Democratic and Republican side of things. He also was active raising money in Sloan for the annual Variety Club Telethon.
What he most famous for, perhaps, was as the colorful manager of the famed Sloan Bruins, the team that became the first from Buffalo to win a National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF) title in 1970 in Louisville, Ky.
That team, which included pitcher Jon Roth and Cornell University slugger Ed Mahoney, defeated Cincinnati, 7-3, in the championship game. The Cincy team included future major leaguer Bernie Carbo. Buffalo’s tournament roster included shortstop Bill Bradshaw and the late Joe Serafin.
What was remarkable about that Bruins team’s national tournament triumph was that it lost its opening game in the double-elimination tournament and had to win the next six to capture the championship.
Although Smith was among the best-known citizens of Sloan, he actually was a native of Barker. He graduated from Barker High in 1947 and, after a stint in the military, soon got involved organizing teams in amateur sports, both basketball and baseball.
When teenage ballplayers Bill Rogowski, Dale Del Bello and Dennis Piekarski came to him and asked that he organize a team to enter the Muny League and the Cheektowaga Classic League in the early 1960s, Smith became fully involved. His teams won championships in both and were so successful the entire team was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Smith, himself, was inducted in 1999.
A passionate, sometimes ornery leader, Smitty liked to claim that he had been tossed from more games than any other manager on the local sandlot baseball circuits. Just as important, he also boasted that none of his players ever got ejected.
"I can be replaced; my players can’t," he said in an interview with the Cheektowaga Times.
"My God, he was just a genuine character," recalled former Bruin Bradshaw, a Lewiston native who is now athletic director at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "He had a pretty good eye for talent. He would have been a terrific GM or scout. He just knew how to find people. We won three Muny AAA titles in 1970-71-72 with some of the best young talent in the area. We had the Cott brothers – Ed and Orv, Mahoney. Jon Roth pitched the championship game and Dale Tepas pitched won a big game in the tournament and we had John McLeod and Ray Bellet."
Bradshaw told of how Smith decided he needed a left-hand power hitter in his lineup for a tournament and brought in a slugger from Syracuse he had spotted. Once he had two of Bradshaw’s teammates at La Salle flown in to pitch for the Bruins in a regional tournament.
As a manager, "he was more like Earl Weaver," Bradshaw said. "He liked the home runs and guys who swung the big bats. He was tough on some younger players but he would leave the older more experienced guys alone.
"He loved to steal games. If we were ahead like 8-0 and the weather was threatening, he wanted guys to strike out and hurry the game up to get it in. If we were losing, he would tell the umpires ‘look at the lightning over there. You got to call this game or somebody will get killed.’ He used to work the umps pretty good.
"One time he got thrown out of a game at Delaware Park, but he wouldn’t leave. He stood behind the backstop and let the umpire have it pretty good. Finally, they called the police and arrested him. After the game, we had to go downtown to get him out."
Smitty literally wore more than one baseball cap at times. Orv Cott remembers when an opposing manager protested a regional tournament game against the Bruins here and demanded to know where the commissioner was.
"Wait a minute. I’ll get him," Smith said. He went to the dugout, took off his Bruins cap and came back wearing his commissioner’s cap and listened then promptly pronounced: "Protest denied."
"He was a little banty rooster like Billy Martin or Earl Weaver," Bradshaw said. "He once told me that he didn’t want to win the sportsmanship award, just championships.
"I couldn’t get enough of him. I enjoyed playing for him because he took the pressure off the players."