Raised in a loving, close family, lionized as a high school athlete, a sensitive, intelligent, musically talented youngster, he learned some harsh realities in his first year of pro baseball, when the Twins farmed him out to Wytheville, Va. in the Appalachian League. As a schoolboy in racially mixed Los Angeles neighborhoods, Smith had moved easily among whites, blacks and Chicanos, but in the South of 1963, he found himself an alien. "In my family, the one thing we were taught was respect for self and for others," he says. " 'Hate' was a word we were not allowed to use. It was considered worse than any swearword. Then I went to the South. I was in fights every day. I just couldn't understand the prejudice. They were ready to hang me down there. Finally, one day the woman who was boarding me took me to a back room in her house. She opened a cabinet door, and I could see it was filled with liquor of every description. It turns out she was the town bootlegger. 'Look, son,' she said to me, 'I don't need all the attention you're bringing me.' I calmed down after that. I began to withdraw, to become, for the first time in my life, bitter."
By the time he came to the Red Sox to stay in 1967, Smith's bristling self-confidence was tinged with a certain wariness. Boston won the pennant that year, but life at the top was not what he had hoped it would be. Those dreams would not be fulfilled until he joined the Dodgers nearly 10 years later. In Los Angeles he found something infinitely more satisfying than success—peace of mind.
A couple of weeks ago, Smith was seated alongside the swimming pool of his fine country-style house in Chatsworth, deep in the San Fernando Valley. The living room, site of a recent family concert, was cluttered with musical instruments and phonograph records from a vast collection that exhibits the catholicity of the Smiths' tastes. Their discs and tapes run from Chopin to Sinatra, from My Fair Lady to hard rock and jazz. Ernestine straightened up the mess while her husband entertained at poolside. High school sweethearts, the Smiths were married the year after their graduation. They have a 10-year-old son, Reggie Jr., and a 6-year-old daughter, Nicole.
"This is the happiest I've ever been," Smith said, ignoring the pain in his back. "I've learned how to relax. I've learned that this is nothing more than a game. I'm not going to pay for it with my emotions any longer. I've got a contract that runs through 1981, and I've got all the respect a player could ask for. My shoulder is healed and I've gotten to play in another World Series. People say I've changed. I don't know. I'm 33 now, not 22, but my attitude is the same. I've always played this game aggressively, but now I'm playing better because of experience. I'm bigger and I'm stronger. I can no longer outrun my mistakes, but I don't make as many.
"It's funny how some things become a blessing in disguise. I enjoyed playing in St. Louis, but we had already planned to move home to L.A. before I was traded. And in September of that year, my dad got really sick. Uremia. He nearly died, but Dr. Robert Woods of the Dodgers managed to cut through all the red tape and get him right into the Veterans Hospital in Westwood. He wouldn't be alive today if I hadn't been here, playing with the Dodgers. Now he's up and around, doing all the things he wants to do."
He shifted uneasily in the pool chair. "There are a lot of blessings in disguise. My experiences with the Red Sox, for example, were invaluable. I learned there to deal with any kind of controversy. What I would really like to do is organize some kind of college curriculum on the psychology of the professional athlete. I'd like to analyze the uniqueness of the experience. Here we all are from different ethnic, economic and social backgrounds, and yet we're together as a single unit. We must have something in common. Our attitudes must be pretty much the same. We're all competitive. We all want to win. Take the Dodgers. We're a good blend of strong personalities. If nothing else, the Garvey-Sutton thing proved we're human. That happens in the best of families."
That night the Dodgers shut out the Braves for the second straight time. Smith, still hurting, did not play, but he shared in the pleasures of victory afterward. The win put his team that much closer to the division championship and another chance in the World Series. Smith was happy; this latest injury had cost him some personal goals, but he did not seem to care much about that. The Dodgers were on a late-season tear.
"You see," he said, sweeping his hand around the room, "no matter what anybody says, they don't need me here at all." Not much they don't.