Labeled as a malingerer and an agitator, Smith added yet another dimension to his reputation in a contretemps with Pitcher Bill Lee, a player he still regards with misgiving. "They call him the Spaceman," Smith says contemptuously. "Well, don't kid yourself, Bill Lee knows exactly what he's doing all the time. He got the reputation he wanted. He worked at it. That's O.K., but one day we were in an important series in Milwaukee, and our hitters were being thrown at without retaliation. When their Billy Champion hit another one of our guys with a pitch, I yelled at him, 'You better get some control or someone is going to get killed out there.' Lee took that as an insult. He said, 'You want to pitch this game?' I accused him of not protecting our players. I called him gutless. In the eighth inning I was taken out of the game, and as I went upstairs to the clubhouse, I noticed Lee was right behind me. We wrestled and were separated, but he got in a kick at my eye while I was being held. After the game I was told Lee was looking for me."
Their subsequent bout resulted in a one-punch knockout by Smith. It remains a mystery why anyone would challenge a man of Smith's musculature. He appears even larger than his six feet, 196 pounds, and he has dabbled in karate. Perhaps Lee was seeking only to secure his Spaceman image. News of the fight was reported to the press—not by Smith—and more unfavorable publicity was heaped upon the Red Sox outfielder.
When the inevitable trade came, Smith was relieved. But controversy continued to dog him in St. Louis. He batted .309 with 23 homers and 100 RBIs for the Cardinals in 1974, and hit .302 with 19 homers in '75, but he injured his left shoulder on the second day of the 1976 season and his hitting fell off dramatically. He was also engaged in a seemingly minor dispute with the Cardinal management over deferred salary payments. Then, to his considerable surprise, he was sent to the Dodgers on the June 15 trading deadline. A Cardinal official, whom Smith refuses to name, leaked it to the newspapers that Smith was being traded because he had been feigning injury. "Here is the injury I was supposed to have feigned," Smith said recently, rolling up his shirt sleeve to expose an ugly scar on his left shoulder. "It was a loose piece of cartilage. Dr. Frank Jobe of the Dodgers operated on me immediately after the '76 season." Smith played hurt for the Dodgers during the second half of the 1976 schedule, hitting .280 with 10 home runs in 65 games. Last year he hit .307, with 32 homers, 87 runs batted in and 104 runs, and was chosen by the Dodger fans as the team's Most Valuable Player.
Smith was ahead of last year's pace this season—29 homers, 92 RBIs—and hitting .300 when he reinjured his back on Sept. 11. Though the injury did not cost the Dodgers the division championship, as many Angelenos feared it would, it may have cost Smith, who did not get back into the lineup until last Wednesday when the Dodgers' magic-number was down to three. Though Garvey came on strong during Smith's absence, Reggie was still able to win Dodger MVP honors again. But because Dave Parker of the Pirates has been outstanding during his team's late run at the Phillies, he would now seem to have a clear edge on Smith in the voting for the league's MVP trophy. But whether Smith wins that award, it is undeniable that he, more than any other Dodger, kept Los Angeles close enough to the division lead to make its final rush pay off.
A healthy Smith is an imposing specimen. He swings with power from either side of the plate; he can still run, despite his aching knees; and he has one of the strongest throwing arms in baseball. He is also capable of the sort of streak hitting that can carry a team for short periods. In an 11-game stretch this season, from July 17 to 28, Smith hit .395 with 12 runs, 19 RBIs, seven homers, a triple, three doubles, two stolen bases, three game-winning hits and two winning runs scored. The Dodgers were third, three games out of first, when the streak began; they were second, one game out, when it ended. Then, in six games—four of them against the then-division-leading Giants—from Aug. 10 to 16, he batted an even .500 (13 for 26), hit six homers, drove in 14 runs, scored eight and had two game-winning hits. The Dodgers were in third place, a game out, at the start of this splurge; they were first, a game ahead, when it ended.
Bat held high, feet well spread, Smith oozes power at the plate. He was challenging George Foster and Greg Luzinski for the league championship in home runs when he hurt his back. Four Dodgers—Smith, Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker—hit 30 or more homers a year ago. Smith is the only one likely to do so this year. His reflexes have slowed somewhat, he concedes, but he is still a devastating fastball hitter. "There was a time when I could pull any fastball," he says. "Now I have to look for one I can handle. As a result, I'm waiting longer and getting more walks. I'm much more selective."
Of all the notoriety heaped upon him, what has hurt Smith most is his reputation for feigning injury. In truth, he plays hurt most of the time. In his 13 seasons, he has had a strained Achilles tendon, the sore shoulder, ligament and cartilage damage to his knees, bone chips in his right elbow, the recurring bad back and high blood pressure. And if all this were not enough, earlier this year he was attacked in the Dodger Stadium parking lot by two toughs, one of whom crowned him with a beer bottle. It was a grievous miscalculation on their part, because Smith gave them both a sound thrashing, and a criminal complaint was filed against the two assailants. One admitted guilt and the other pleaded no contest; they each were fined $180 and put on 18 months' probation.
For all of Smith's physical ailments, it is his psyche that most intrigues the game's legion of amateur doctors. Smith has a sometimes volcanic reaction to injustice, real or imagined, despite a childhood astonishingly free of strife. Reggie was the seventh of eight children born to Lonnie and Nellie Smith. The parents were both tailors and kept their family completely outfitted until a serious automobile accident forced Lonnie to fall back on a less physically demanding occupation, the family's egg business. "He would buy his eggs in Orange County and sell them in L.A.," says Reggie. "When I was only 11, 12 years old, I was a door-to-door salesman. We were never poor. At least we never thought of ourselves as poor. There was always food on the table—eggs anyway—but I never had a store-bought suit of clothes until after elementary school. I was very close to my parents. I spent a lot of time with them."
Music was an interest shared by all the Smiths. Lonnie sang, one sister played the clarinet, another the piano. Nellie was a pianist, and Reggie played almost everything. He started with the cello and then proceeded to the saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano, trombone, guitar, violin, bass and, finally, drums, which he plays well enough to appear in clubs in Los Angeles and on the road. He considers Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra's drummer, Irv Cottler, his mentors.
Reggie was the only successful athlete in the family, but he was a bona fide whiz—an all-state performer in both baseball and football at Centennial High in Compton and the recipient of numerous college football-scholarship and baseball-bonus offers. He eventually signed with the Minnesota Twins after graduation in 1963, but was obtained a year later by the Red Sox when the Twins failed to protect him in the minor league draft.