#Shortstops: California League star’s history told through Museum donation
Nicholas Smith, a career minor leaguer who spent over a decade toiling in the bushes, was only 19 when he was plucked off the roster of a local amateur nine by manager Mike Finn and placed on his San Francisco-based California League squad, the Pioneers. The youngster, born in 1868 in the Northern California town of Sutter Creek – famous for its Gold Rush in the 1840s – stood only 5-foot-7 and weighed approximately 170 pounds, but made an immediate impression.
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Morrison was an acclaimed stage actor at the time who announced prior to the start of the 1887 campaign that he would be offering a very handsome gold medal for the best batting average made by any member of the California League that season. The original version of the 18-carat medal had a cross-bar in enameled blue letters the words “The Lewis Morrison Medal,” and suspended from the bar by chains were two miniature crossed baseball bats with a small gold ball in the center, the medal hanging from the bats.
Morrison presented Davis with the medal at San Francisco’s California Theater on Nov. 25, 1887. Appearing in the melodrama “The Main Line,” called in its advertisement “the greatest railroad effects even seen on any stage,” Morrison, at the close of the second act, appeared on stage with the youthful third sacker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a short time ago I made up my mind to have medal made to be presented to the best baseball player. I did not so this to advertise myself, but out of pure fellowship for the California boys,” is how Morrison addressed the appreciative audience that night. “I don’t play ball myself, but he has faced many a pitcher and knocked many a ball over the fence. I hope he will keep up his hard work and his modesty. I bid him good night, goodbye and good fellowship, as I pin this on his breast in order that he may remember me in after years. You will now agree with me when I say he has again made a three-base strike.”
It was reported that Smith appeared quite embarrassed while Morrison was speaking. Then the pair walked offstage together to great applause.
“Nick, however, had to appear once again, when someone called our ‘Speech!’” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “but he simply bowed his acknowledgement and disappeared.”
Davis’ circular home run gold medal, 1¼ inches in diameter, on the front has engraved “To N. Smith for making the first clean home run on the Cal. League B.B. Grounds Sept. 25th 1887. Presented by one of his admirers J.W. S.F. Cal.” The reverse has a baseball diamond in white with four bases, a pitcher’s box, and six black dots on it at the approximate positions of first, second, third and short, and two around home plate.
The home run in question took place at San Francisco’s Haight-street Park in an 8-5 win for Davis’ Pioneers over the G. & M.’s. In the seventh inning, Davis clubbed a two-run homer to the clubhouse for a “clean” home run.
“Family ‘lore’ knows a little about him.” Nick Smith wrote in his email regarding his great-grandfather. “My older cousins and younger brother concur hearing from our parents he was highly skilled (hit for average, hit with power and fielded well), fast and quite handsome.
“His career and life were cut short by an accident. He evidently lost a popup in the sun and was struck in the head by the ball, causing severe, untreatable (at the time) brain damage. He was taken to a ‘sanatorium’ in the Southern California desert.”
Unfortunately for Smith, his life unraveled to a great extent after baseball. In 1901, West Coast newspapers began reporting his strange behavior led him to being committed to a hospital.
He passed away in 1905 at the age of 37. But his legacy will be preserved forever in Cooperstown.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum