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Bob Smith

March 17, 2019

Bob Smith


            I was doing some maintenance work on one of the Encyclopedias I use for my research, and in doing this I had to assign separate identities to a couple of players, or several different players, all named Bob Smith, which was complicated by the fact that one of the Bob Smiths started out as a shortstop and then  had a longer career as a pitcher.  As I was doing this I suddenly remembered something that I had not thought of for more than 50 years, and a tumbler clicked in the back of my head. 

            In the small town in which I grew up there was a guy named Bob Smith who moved to Mayetta when I was about 10 years old.  They lived on a farm just at the edge of town, nice farm with a wonderful big barn of a type that we took for granted in the 1950s because there were a lot of them, but which would now be regarded as something you would nominate for historical preservation, if it is still around.  I used to go out there and play with the kids in the family sometimes; I remember in the barn there was a hayloft that was about 12 feet high, and the ground below it was covered with hay, and we used to climb up into the hayloft and jump off again and again.  I’m sure most of you who are my age remember doing stuff like that.  I think they had five kids in the family, including three in my age range.   They had horses, and we would ride the horses, and a couple of small carriages; we’d hook up the horses and drive around the dirt roads, and they had a pretty large herd of Black Angus cattle.  Only Black Angus in the area at that time.   I can’t remember the kids names any more, except that they all started with "J"; there was a Jim and a Jane, and an older girl named Juanita, which is just Spanish "Jane", so they had two Janes, which I was aware even when I was ten years old.

            Anyway, one day the town woke up and the family was gone, lock, stock and carriages.  Bob was kind of a flashy guy, with a big Stetson hat and big cowboy boots and a big red truck.  It turned out he had been living on credit and running up debts all over town, and when it was clear he wasn’t going to get ahead he just split.   Everybody did business on credit at that time; we all knew each other, and people didn’t have cash, unless it was payday; mostly they just lived on credit and paid off when they could.   One Friday Bob went around town paying everybody off with checks; on Monday morning he was gone and the checks all bounced.  Bob Smith was the only guy I ever heard of who ran out on his debts.   It was the talk of the town for a while.   I never realized that you could do that.  He came back one afternoon a couple of years later, walked around with a smile on his face and said hello to everybody, then he was gone again.

            Anyway, I was sorting out the Bob Smiths in baseball history, and I suddenly realized, 50-some years after the fact:  I’ll bet his name wasn’t Bob Smith.   It’s the near-ultimate anonymous name.  You’d have a hard time doing skip-tracing on Bob Smith, because there are Bob Smiths everywhere.  I’ll bet his name was. know, Ernest Culpepper or something, and he had probably skipped out on his debts at least once before, if not a dozen times.  And the kids named Jim and Jerry and Jane and Juanita. . . I’d half-bet those weren’t their names, at all; their names were probably Sally and Timmy and Ernest Jr. or something.  They were probably running from their last set of debts and, in the middle of the night, their Mom (whose name was something like Jacqueline when I knew her) had probably assigned them all names.   They moved on and became Marilyn and Margaret and Maryann and Marty and Mike.  I never realized that until right now. 

            A young person wouldn’t understand that.  In those days your name was just whatever you said your name was.   That was the legal standard.  You didn’t have to show a birth certificate to enroll in school or check into a hospital or play on a kid’s baseball team or anything, or even to get a driver’s license.  When I was working as a security guard, probably 1976, I fell and broke an arm.  I was working for Pinkerton’s, but on the property of Stokely-Van Camp, and both Pinkerton’s and Stokely’s offered to pay my medical bills, which would be quite a bit different than the way it works now.  They sent me to a doctor named Doctor Bray; all I remember is the name and the fact that he had bright red hair, but anyway a year later Dr. Bray also left town in the middle of the night, owing people money all over town.   Hard to believe now, isn’t it, that a doctor would just pull up and jump ship in the middle of the night?   Wasn’t like it is now; no internet and no computers, it wasn’t easy to track people down.  

            Anyway, a year or two later, I was married, and my wife worked as a legal secretary for the law firm which was hired to try to chase him down and recover some of the money that he owed people.   They invested hundreds of man hours looking through records, filed all kinds of legal papers, hired a private detective agency, never did find him.   And then one day a young lawyer with the firm was looking through a stack of affidavits in an unrelated case, and—BOOM—there he was; Dr. Whatever-his-name-was Bray; I think I remember his first name but I’d better not say.  He was in Seattle, working as a doctor, and had filed an affidavit about having treated someone for injuries, never guessing that the affidavit would find its way halfway across the continent to the people who were looking for him.   Hard to believe now, isn’t it? 


COMMENTS (25 Comments, most recent shown first)

Many of us will remember a journeyman National League outfielder from the late '50s, early '60s named Bobby Gene Smith. Even as a kid, I thought that was a surprisingly unisex name — although that word wasn't in my vocabulary, or probably anyone else's in 1961. He wasn't even from the South. His baseball card said he was born in Oregon. Bobby Gene spent 1958 and '59 with the Cardinals, during the same two years when the Red Sox, Cubs and Indians employed lefthanded pitcher Bob "Riverboat" Smith; and another lefty named Bob Smith pitched (without a nickname) for the Pirates and Tigers. I remember being confused the first time I came across Bobby Gene's Baseball Reference page because it calls him simply Bobby Smith.

I was previously unaware of Robert Eldridge Smith's strange career. He was 28 when he reached the big leagues with the Boston Braves. He started 198 games as an infielder in 1923 and '24, mostly at shortstop. His OPS+ was 56 as a .240 hitter with neither power nor walks, and the Braves lost 100 games each year. Smith started 29 games as an infielder in 1925, improving his OPS+ to 80 and his batting average to .282. But he also pitched in 13 games that year with a 90 ERA+. His full-time pitching career began in 1926 at age 31, and his ERA+ was 101 for 12 years, with 22.9 pitching WAR and 127 unitemized Win Shares. He pitched at least 201 innings in each of those first six seasons and at least 119 the next five — all without pitching a minor-league inning after 2 games back in in 1921.

Here's another difference between a small-town childhood and one in the suburbs: I don't recall ever being in a hayloft. The few times I went to farms were on school field trips, which would include a nearby farm most years along with the art and natural history museums. That surprises me, looking back, because one of my retired grandfathers had overseen all 88 of Iowa's County Extension Service offices.

"Mysterious stranger" stories of con men still seem feasible to me now, the only difference being a prerequisite identity theft. When the Internet closes a window, it opens a door.

I worked for many years with a talented newspaper artist named John Hancock.

5:40 PM Mar 28th
I think that the strangest impostor story may be that of Bill Henry, in Florida. He pretended to be Bill Henry, the former major league pitcher. He deceived his wife for 19 years (19!!) and became good friends with Sparky Anderson, often playing in Sparky's golf tournament. He was only found out after his death, when someone phoned the pitcher's widow/non-widow to offer condolences. Sparky reputedly found the end of the story hilarious, and the pitcher didn't seem at all concerned. The wife...not so amused.
This was 2007. Could it happen now?
2:57 PM Mar 26th
MWeddell, I mis-read your post. My bad. It sounds like we agree completely.
11:30 AM Mar 22nd
And now that I remember it, there was a 1950s-1960s young adult novelist named Robert Sidney Bowen who wrote many baseball novels, all of them hinging on the protagonist moving to a new town and playing baseball under a different name without being caught -- either he's framed for a fatal DWI crash and gets paroled, or he's a millionaire's son who renounces his family's wealth, or he escapes an abusive father, or he survives a plane crash with amnesia. In each case he's only recognized on the eve of The Big Game, but everything gets resolved in the final chapter with ninth-inning heroics, a tearful family reunion and a big league contract.
8:04 PM Mar 21st
My grandmother used to love to tell stories of the time a con man moved to her small Maryland town and for a while fooled everybody, claiming to be a veteran, a doctor, a government agent, etc. She liked to tell funny stories about how completely she was fooled, but his crimes were pretty gruesome - he'd killed a couple of his wives, and while he was in town, he buried his disabled infant daughter alive.

He went the other way on the fake name, though, calling himself Larry Lord Motherwell instead of something anonymous.
10:34 AM Mar 21st
Steven Goldleaf
The whole concept of "the mysterious stranger" flies out the window in the internet age. How many books, movies, plays before 1990 depend on the identity of some character being disguised from the entire planet? For that matter, how plots have become archaic with the ubiquity of cell phones? I was just thinking of "Dial M for Murder", an overcomplicated thriller of the 1950s, and wondering if any of the tricky stuff in it --the phone-calling, the unreachable characters, the ones who change their minds but claim "there wasn't a telephone free so I simply couldn't call you, darling" etc.--would stand up nowadays.

We complain about the intrusiveness of modern life, how you can't just pull up stakes and start a new life in a fresh town, but of course, criminals and con-men would take advantage of the pre-intrusive society to do just that, so we have invented and embraced technology that makes that a poor business plan.
5:25 PM Mar 20th
from leslein: "I watch a lot of old westerns on TV. It seems like someone could get a job as a ranch hand by just showing up and asking. There were no resumes. The ranchers never asked many questions. They usually didn't even discuss pay. I've wondered if this portrayed the time realistically. It seems plausible, except for the part about pay"

So I do watch many of those westerns and I also read Louis L'Lamour, who while a fiction writer, did base his stories on those he heard working on ranches as a young man and talking to the older ranch hands, who at that point were from the era you are talking about. Anyway, it is a regular theme in his stories that people in the Old West generally considered it quite rude to ask about someone's past. It seemed almost assumed that you had a past, that you were out West to get away from that past and it was noone's business what that past was, you were a "new man" once you left that past behind you and should only be judged on your present. Also, standard ranch hand pay was $30/month (plus room and board) and I don't think there was much negotiation about that amount usually.
10:08 AM Mar 20th
I reckon the Bob Smith you all are referring to Howdy-Doody's partner, "Buffalo" Bob Smith.

Last night I was reading Bill Bryson's "Made in America." He wrote that Howdy was the first true TV Star. I was about five when Clarabell learned to talk so he could say "goodbye" to the Peanut Gallery. Tears me up just to think of it.

Today I went on an eight-hour joy-ride with my friend up to Napa Co. Wine Country.
We stopped to have lunch were our friend was bar tending in Petaluma. They have all sorts of memorabilia on the walls, including twenty-years worth of San Francisco Seals photos. While scanning the room from the bar, my friend pointed out "The Dude riding a Shark" hanging over the bar.

It was Howdy Doody.
7:42 PM Mar 19th
Just in case it wasn't clear, I'm happily paying $3 per month too to read whatever Bill writes.
3:55 PM Mar 19th
Contrary to one of the comments below, I'd pay $3 a month to read anything by Bill James.

For example, I have zero interest in true crime, especially gruesome serial ax murders. But I read The Man on the Train last summer, and it kept my interest the whole way through. Regarding that book, I sort of disagree with Bill's conclusion, because I think the ax murder would have started much younger than his suspect. But that's part of Bill's genius: great use of a wide-range of evidence, great writing style, and not afraid of making bold (though sometimes debatable) conclusions.

Of course, Bill James on baseball is the best.

P.S. Bill should jump into basketball analysis, too. I'd pay another $3 for that!
11:18 AM Mar 19th
Two of the classics of fictional baseball -- THE NATURAL and DAMN YANKEES -- involve a total stranger with otherworldly talent joining a big league ballclub, and suspicious sportswriters and teammates spending much plot time asking, "Where'd this guy COME from?" Ditto Jay Gatsby moving to West Egg, Professor Harold Hill arriving in River City. In BEING THERE, Chance the gardener emerges from a millionaire's mansion and within a matter of days becomes a nationally-known pundit.

None of these plots could work in the age of Google.
7:18 PM Mar 18th
We had a guy in high school whose real name was John Smith.

I watch a lot of old westerns on TV. It seems like someone could get a job as a ranch hand by just showing up and asking. There were no resumes. The ranchers never asked many questions. They usually didn't even discuss pay. I've wondered if this portrayed the time realistically. It seems plausible, except for the part about pay.
12:45 PM Mar 18th
Steven Goldleaf
My day in the Peanut Gallery is one of my earliest memories, one too early for me to write about very much. Best as I can recall, Howdy Doody was filmed (or kinoscoped, I guess) outside of Philadelphia, somewhere in New Jersey. I remember travelling a good distance (we lived in Brooklyn) and my parents knew someone who worked as a cameraman on the show. It makes more sense for them to have made the show in Manhattan, but I remember New Jersey. Maybe my only memory is messed-up, but that's what sticks in my head, that it was filmed deep into New Jersey. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I do remember participating in the call-and-response from the youthful audience that was the show's trademark. "What time is it?" and I knew my line perfectly.
12:39 PM Mar 18th
Howdy Doody debuted just after my 4th birthday, and I watched it faithfully on the first TV set in our neighborhood, owned by a UCLA nurse and her husband who lived next door from us. But just over a year later, Time for Beany came along and took over first place in my loyalties.
8:00 AM Mar 18th
There you go.
7:41 AM Mar 18th
Steven Goldleaf
I'm younger than Bill and I was a member of the Peanut Gallery when I was about 4.
7:07 AM Mar 18th
This is an interesting story.

Bill is just a little too young, I think, to remember the much more famous Bob Smith from the early 1950s. Does anyone else?

6:45 AM Mar 18th
Not just small towns...

I grew up in Indianapolis, and the family living across the street in a rental property (which was called a "double" in Indy; they're 2-flats in Chicago, but I digress) vanished one night (in t1958 or 1959). The only debts I ever heard about were to the small grocery store that ran (monthly) bills for people.
7:34 PM Mar 17th
I come from a bigger town than you. Almost 3000. But I think one of the Smith kids lived across the road from us when I was a kid. Especially if the bright red hair was from inbreeding.

3:53 PM Mar 17th
"When a place gets crowded enough to require ID's, social collapse is not for way. It is time to go elsewhere." Robert Heinlein

We need space travel.
3:53 PM Mar 17th
Is this a good or a bad thing?

On the one hand, I'm forced to admit to myself that Bill writing about whatever random thing crosses his mind after not having slept in roughly 24 hours consists of higher quality writing that anything I've ever written.

From the opposite perspective, I can pay $3 a month and read articles from my favorite author mostly on my favorite topic but even when he detours on to other topics, I always enjoy it immensely. Sure, we complain about fewer Hey Bills and uneven quantity of output sometimes, but it's still a bargain.
1:53 PM Mar 17th
Fireball Wenz
I work for a small municipality in Massachusetts. A few years ago, a major investment firm called Town Hall and asked for help finding a man name Christopher Ford, for whom they had some money. They said he seemed to have just disappeared and their only lead was that he once lived in the town I work for. They asked if I had any idea what came of this Christopher Ford, and where he might have moved to. I said yeah, probably somewhere in Wisconsin. I explained that this mysterious guy who vanished into the ether was the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
1:32 PM Mar 17th
The internet ruined everything.


Bob Smith
10:21 AM Mar 17th
HA that was great. I grew up on a farm in Northern Maine and we had a big old barn with the hayloft and cows etc save they were holsteins mostly, and it was transitioned into a sheep farm later on. Kinda sad to watch these old barns cave in and then get demolished from dis-use etc, they are monuments to a way of life and time that even up there is going away.

I don't remember any 'Bob Smith' types up and vanishing like that, I do remember hearing about a local DJ who everyone liked, listened to, who was also a local play by play guy for the high school sports etc on the air. Years later, it turned out he was our resident Jerry Sandusky, there were all kinds of hushed up stories of him abusing certain student athletes and blackmailing their families and all of that. How he managed to get away with that in a town of 11,000 for as long as he did...I donno. He died of cancer at 55 in the mid-80's, I didn't know about his sordid past til many years later.

Ahh small town life. Anyways.
10:04 AM Mar 17th
I always enjoy the stories you write about your childhood and your home town, Bill. I guess because I grew up in the same town. Mine was in east Georgia, and yours was in Kansas...but it was the same town.

Our Bob Smith was named Old Man Pavilsak, and he had a pack of old wild dogs and two sons who might (on a good day) be as smart as the dogs. When he ran out on his debts, nobody bothered to even look for him...not even his creditors. They figured: (1.) It was their own fault for extending him any credit in the first place, and (2.) It was worth the money he owed to have the family out of town.

Your town's Bob Smith sounds like a much more likeable bunch than my town's.
9:49 AM Mar 17th
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