Jon Smith and Seven at Twenty-Five: Hooked on Hitting
Life Is a Game of Inches
sticks out in my mind about that is the Cincinnati Reds had just left town. My school had the visitors’ locker room. I actually got Frank Robinson’s locker. Their
names were still above the lockers. Back then, they had lockers, not cubicles like they have now. My school lost the game we played in. I’ll never forget it. The
score was 3-2. My final batting average went up to .610. I broke a lot of records playing baseball in high school.”
Smith’s talent shone and a lot of people took notice including a major league scout.
“I was approached by this Los Angeles Dodgers scout,” Smith said. “His name was Glen Van Proyen. He approached me and we talked. He said, ‘Look, we want to
sign you for $40,000 your very first year. But we can’t sign you until the class you are supposed to graduate with graduates. This was in June 1965. And my class
wasn’t going to graduate until a year later.”
Smith basically had a year to wait until his class graduated and filling the void would take him in a totally different direction.
“One of my real good buddies on my block got with me,” Smith said. “Two of our other friends had joined the Marine Corps and they came on the block with their
uniforms on and everything. My other friend was so impressed that he wanted to join the Martine Corps. He approached me and I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’ve got a
$40,000 contract waiting on me.’ He said, ‘You ought to get the military service out of the way. When you get out, you can play baseball forever. You won’t have to
worry about going into the service.’ I said, ‘You know, you have a point.’ We went to the Marine Corps recruiter. My thinking was to do two years. But the recruiter
told us, ‘Your benefits will be limited if you come in for two years. In order to get the full benefits, you have to sign up for at least three years.’ I thought about it and I
thought about it and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ I enlisted, signed the contracts and everything. I called the Dodgers scout and told him. I remember him dropping the
telephone. I asked if he was still there. He said, ‘I’m still here. Jon, you didn’t have to do that. We have waivers on you. If you had been drafted, it would have come
through us. And you would have only done six months. I said, ‘Oh no! This is what I get for thinking on my own.’”
Smith joined the Marines and did his boot camp at Camp Pendleton. There was still hope.
“The Dodgers scout told me, ‘Look, all isn’t lost,’” Smith said. “’I’m going to pull some strings so that you can possibly play baseball in the Marine Corps. If you make
the team, that’s all that you would be doing for those three years that you are in there.’ I was like, ‘Cool.’ When I was in boot camp at Camp Pendleton, one of the drill
instructors came to the barracks I was living in and had me come to the office. He said, ‘What’s this about you being a jock strapper?’ I said, ‘What do you mean by
that?’ He said, ‘You play sports and baseball?’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ He said, ‘Well, we got a letter from this guy named Glen Van Proyen to have you try out for the team.’ I
was like, ‘Oh, good.’ I had forgotten all about it. The try-out was set up. And I actually made the team. And I actually played in a game for the Marine Corps. We played
against San Diego State. I can’t remember the outcome. I was the catcher. I actually played in that game.”
After boot camp, Smith was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Unfortunately for him, the camp’s baseball team had been disbanded and so Smith became
just another recruit and was shipped off to Vietnam his last year in the service.
“I never made it into the majors,” Smith said. “After I found out there was no team in North Carolina, the Dodgers scout said, ‘Well that’s it. We can’t do anything with
you. We’re not going to take you after your experience in Vietnam, the military and all of that. We wanted you with a much fresher mind.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I had to let that
Smith still pursued his Baseball Jones about a year after he came back from Vietnam.
“It was just amateur teams that I played with,” Smith said. “And I played until I was 42-years-old. I was working. I had jobs. My teams were in Chicago. I did get to
live my dream a little bit.”
Playing professional baseball was always just out of reach for Smith, like a fly ball in center field that changes the projector of a career.
Next issue: More life’s lessons
Above: Jon Smith on E. Wilson Street
Left: The cover of his book Seven at
Twenty-Five: Hooked on Hitting
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
The life of Jon Smith, captured in his autobiography Seven at Twenty-Five: Hooked on
Hitting, is a lesson on how life is a game of inches, how one move in one’s life may
forever alter it and change its projection and life’s outlook. Smith’s early life is almost
cut out of the cloth of a Greek tragedy, almost a reflection of the story of Icarus and his
fall from grace.
Smith grew up on the west side of Chicago, born in the house he grew up in in 1947. It
was a different Chicago than it is now.
“I heard nothing about violence like it is now, absolutely nothing,” Smith said. “I never
even saw a gun. I didn’t hear gun shots. It was a very peaceful environment that I lived
in. Grammar school was kind of normal for me.”
When he was 11-12-years-old, his father was working for the Chicago Parks
Department. And they had a special event.
“Roger Hornsby, the baseball hall of famer, came to the park to reach the Little Leaguers
about hitting,” Smith recalled. “He had his original St. Louis Cardinals’ uniform on. He
was showing us all of the pointers of hitting.”
Smith had a baseball Jones and he was good at it. During the regular season of his senior year, Smith hit .583 to power his high
school team to the playoffs. He was almost too good for his own good.
“I was kicked out of school because I felt I was such a big star that I didn’t have to go to classes,” Smith said. “My teachers got
together with the principal and told the principal, ‘This kid is not coming to any classes. Something ought to be done about that.’
The principal called me and my baseball coach down to his office and he told us that these teachers had come and complained
about me. He told the coach, ‘They want him kicked out of school.’ And so the coach told the principal, ‘Well if you kick him out of
school, we might as well get out of the playoffs now because he’s the reason we’re in the playoffs. And if you kick him out of
school, we’re done.’ So the principal said, ‘Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. If you want to stay in school, when the last out in the
last game is made, you will be kicked out then. You can either do that or get kicked out right now.’ I said that I would stay for the
His team made it to the final four of the playoffs.
“The final four of the playoffs was played at Wrigley Field,” Smith said. “I was actually able to play in Wrigley Field. The thing that