Roy Smalley III was better equipped to play baseball than most Little Leaguers of the early 1960s.
Smalley was the son of a Cubs and Phillies shortstop who also managed in the minor leagues. He spent his early childhood playing pepper with Dodgers farmhands like Jim Lefebvre. His uncle Gene Mauch had just embarked on what would become a 25-year Major League coaching career. But those weren't the reasons Smalley was better equipped for baseball than the typical youngster.
Smalley was better equipped because he had better equipment. Before his first Little League game, the 10-year-old Smalley asked his father for a pair of flip-down sunglasses, like the ones he saw minor leaguers wear. Years at the ballpark made him an old pro with the newfangled shades. "A pop fly goes up, and I flip 'em down and catch it," Smalley said of his first game.
The state-of-the-art sunglass maneuver made Smalley look a little like Jim Fregosi, then a star shortstop for the Los Angeles Angels. "The other guys started teasing me and calling me Little Fregosi," Smalley said.
Other than the flip-downs, Little League equipment of the early 1960s was bare-bones, even for a big leaguer's kid. "We played with old brown crusty baseballs," Smalley said. "Some of the bats, it seemed like the handle was the same diameter as the barrel."
But at least the kids had balls and bats. They were neither poor nor disaster ravaged, so the league could always muster the supplies needed to run itself. Not every community in America is so fortunate, even 50 years later.
Smalley advanced from Little League though the College World Series, became the first overall pick in the 1974 draft and played 13 major league seasons as a switch-hitting middle infielder with pop. He is now a Twins broadcaster and investment advisor, but he's also president of the board of directors at Pitch In for Baseball, a charity that provides baseball equipment to communities in need. Smalley will receive the William Shea Distinguished Little League Graduate Award in Williamsport on Tuesday.
For Smalley, youth baseball provides stability and guidance for children. Putting on a baseball uniform means a lot, even to a kid who spent his childhood shagging flies in minor league ballparks. "I don't think I took that uniform off for a week," Smalley said, remembering the time he first donned high socks and stirrups as a 10-year-old. "I think I slept in it. It was the happiest day in my life when I put on that uniform."
Smalley now makes sure kids across the country have uniforms to wear and bats to swing.
Great Communicators. Smalley hit 24 home runs and made the All Star team for the Twins in 1979. He returned to the Twins in 1985 and played on their '87 World Series team. In between, he spent several tempestuous seasons for the Yankees during George Steinbrenner's meddlesome apex .
But Smalley may be best remembered for the string of legendary managers he played for. Billy Martin managed Smalley as a Rangers rookie, then again with the Yankees in the early 1980s. Smalley spent 47 games with Tony LaRussa in Chicago in 1984. Yogi Berra managed Smalley for the Yankees in between Steinbrenner tantrums. Tom Kelly helmed the World Series champion Twins. And Mauch, Smalley's mother's brother, managed him for several years during his prime with the Twins.
All told, 15 men managed Smalley in 13 seasons. "I always wondered when I went to a different team if the manager worried my being there," he joked.
Few players crossed paths with such a diverse assortment of firebrands, tacticians, dugout philosophers, and luckless legends. Martin was just as challenging a man to work for as his reputation suggests, especially when he came to the Big Apple. "For a player, there's only one or two issues you have to deal with," Smalley said. "Either the media is really tough, or the fans are really tough, or the owner is crazy or tough to deal with. In New York, it was all-three, all the time. And then with Billy there, the intensity swirling around was pretty amazing."
Yogi, meanwhile, was a reassuring constant, a bench coach who survived George Steinbrenner's frenetic skipper swapping. Yogi's malapropisms, now folklore, were still coaching points in the 1980s; Berra instructed Smalley to study George Brett during batting practice using a variation on one of his most famous adages: you can see a lot by lookin'. "Yogi knew exactly what he meant," Smalley said. "It just took you a little while to get to the logical conclusion. Once you did, it always made sense. It got there by a different route."
If Smalley could pick just one manager from his career to helm a team, however, it would be Mauch, whose career was peppered with legendary disappointments, from the 1964 Phillies to the 1986 Angels. "I never saw anyone with the intelligence, preparation, understanding of the game that Gene had," Smalley said.
Mauch could make ordinary MLB teams overachieve -- the question surrounding the '64 Phillies is not how they collapsed, but how they managed to build lead in the first place. But if Smalley were assembling a Little League team, he would choose a different manager: His father, who sometimes coached his youth teams but more often ceded the duties to other neighborhood dads.
"My dad was not the baseball mind my uncle was. But he had the personality to teach, communicate, and relate to young kids, and to provide emotional stability for them."
Emotional stability is a big deal for parents dealing with poverty and national disasters. Providing youngsters with a chance to play has been a priority for three generations of men named Roy Smalley.
Restoring Normalcy. Roy Smalley Junior grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout the tough times, his father made sure he had the opportunity to play baseball. "My dad wanted to play ball, and my grandfather made sure that he always had the equipment to play," Smalley III said.
David Rhode read about Smalley Junior's childhood and reached out to the long-retired ballplayer and coach when founding Pitch In for Baseball. Smalley put Rhode in touch with his son, and Smalley III began using his Major League connections to advance the cause of providing baseball equipment for needy communities.
"We're the conduit between two realities," Smalley explained. "On one side are communities in desperate need of decent bats, helmets, and other supplies. On the other side is a surplus of unused equipment collecting dust in the garages of families with grown children. Pitch In for Baseball collects the surplus and distributes it to the needy.
The organization came into its own after Hurricane Katrina. According to Smalley, Rhode contacted flood-devastated communities fully aware that clean water, shelter, and food were the immediate priorities. But he offered to supply fresh baseball gear as soon as the town could worry about "trivial" matters like getting kids back on the diamond.
"The answer he got then, that we got in every instance since, was 'how about tomorrow?'" Smalley said.
Pitch in for Baseball resupplied New York and New Jersey leagues in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When Joplin, Mo., was hammered by a tornado ten days before Little League Opening Day, Pitch in for Baseball made sure the season opened on schedule.
For parents in disaster areas, the opportunity to get kids back on the field is not a frivolous matter. "Parents want kids' mind off the fact that the world's been turned upside down," Smalley said. "Baseball seems to be a great way to get some normalcy back in their lives."
Smalley, who also served as Executive Director of the Special Olympics in the past, coordinates Pitch In for Baseball's strategic plan while using his association with the Minnesota Twins and Fox Sports North to publicize the organization's efforts throughout the Midwest. "It's gratifying. It's what I envisioned when I got involved, and it's how it has been playing out."
Pride of Williamsport. Little League has not changed that much since Roy Smalley flipped his sunglasses down to field a popup 50 years ago. Kids are more likely to arrive in a minivan with an equipment bag full of name-brand gear than on a bicycle with their big brother's old glove. There are now tee-ball leagues, travel leagues and academies now; Smalley's teammates (who did not enjoy the advantages of pepper games with the Reno Silver Sox) just had the sandlot.
But everything else is familiar: The games, the parent-managers, the triumphs and dramas of adolescent competition, and the goal -- not always achieved -- of placing fun and the values of dedication and teamwork first, competition second.
Smalley's neighborhood coaches, like his father, were less tacticians and technicians than role models. Even though the managers at Williamsport are more sophisticated and play for higher stakes, Smalley believes they strike the same balance.
"As intense as it is, as much as they want to win, the conversations that I hear them have with kids is: 'you're doing fine, you can do this, just be who you are.' At the top of the heap in Williamsport, you see these guys, it makes you proud that they have the personality and attitude that they do."
It's high praise from a man who uses youth baseball as a tool to rebuild shattered communities and who spent his life surrounded by great managers. Even the power-hitting shortstop Smalley imitated as a Little Leaguer became a pretty good skipper. Jim Fregosi took the Phillies to the World Series in 1993, the highlight of a 15-year managerial career. Before that, the aging Fergosi and rookie Smalley rode Billy Martin's bench together for the 1975 Rangers. Smalley told the story of the 10-year-old with flip-down shades and slept-in uniform who was nicknamed Little Fregosi to the Real Fregosi.
"He had some choice words for me about what I could do with that story," Smalley joked.