Tony Smeraglia is Anniston’s Thurman Munson.
Granted, he didn’t hit like Munson, a career .292 hitter in the Major Leagues with the New York Yankees. He didn’t play the field like Munson, who won three Gold Gloves. He never made the big leagues, where Munson was a seven-time all-star. He didn’t become a household name, doesn’t have his jersey number retired, doesn’t have a plaque of remembrance in a big-league park.
Their connection? Death.
Munson died in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979. He was just 32.
Smeraglia died in a car crash on July 3, 1950. He was just 21.
Munson’s story is known. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen “Captain: The Thurman Munson Story.”) Smeraglia’s, not so much. And his story isn’t just about the death of a minor-league player. It’s the story about an absolutely awful month for baseball in Anniston, a month in which its manager was injured and one of its better players killed and, three weeks later, its revenue-starved team was taken away by the Southeastern League — marking the end of pro ball in the city.
It would make for one of those low-budget made-for-TV movies, if they still make those things.
Born Jan. 20, 1928, in the Birmingham, Alabama, suburb of East Lake, Smeraglia made his professional debut in 1947 when he was just 17 with the Duncan (Oklahoma) Cementers of the Sooner State League. That began his nomadic quest to become a major-leaguer from Alabama — a state, you surely know, that would become famous for Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, among others.
In 1947, he hit .241 in 115 games at Duncan and .214 in 15 games for the Bartlesville (Oklahoma) Oilers of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League.
In 1948, he hit .231 with 24 doubles in 36 games for the Leesburg (Florida) Pirates of the Florida State League.
In 1949, Pittsburgh, who owned his rights, assigned him to Tallahassee, but he instead played that year for the Fort Jackson team after joining the military.
In 1950, the Pirates assigned him to Waco, who sent him to the Hutchinson (Kansas) Elks of the Western Association, where he hit just .154 in 11 games. (He was no Thurman Munson, indeed.) And that May, as the Anniston Rams of the Class B Southeastern League were suffering through a pitiful season, Smeraglia ended up as the team’s starting second baseman and leadoff hitter in the middle of May.
Here are Smeraglia’s teams:
And here are Smeraglia’s hitting statistics:
He went 0 for 5 with one run scored in his Anniston debut, a 6-5 loss to Jackson, Mississippi. He went hitless in five at-bats in his second game. In his third game, he went 1 for 4 with two runs scored — and two errors. Smeraglia “had trouble in the field on several plays, but two of the balls were extremely hard to handle,” The Anniston Star newspaper reported the next day.
And so went Smeraglia’s brief time as a Ram. He hit a little — just .231 in 48 games — which made him a perfect fit for the terrible Rams of 1950. Manager Lou Bevil hit him leadoff sometimes, second a few times, it made no difference. On July 2, the last-place Rams fell to 18-57 with a 1-0 loss to Gadsden. Smeraglia, hitting second and playing third, went 1 for 4.
It was the last game he’d play.
Smeraglia died the following afternoon, July 3, a Monday, in a car crash near Alabama’s Coosa River on U.S. 78. Smeraglia, several of his family members and Bevil were returning from the Smeraglia home in Birmingham. Two others died, Louise Montalto and C.A. Cook (the driver of the truck who hit the Montaltos’ car), also died in the crash. Bevil was among the severely injured. The Rams’ game that night was canceled.
The Rams resumed play a day later, kept losing — games and money — and the city’s attempts to save its team failed. The awful month of July wouldn’t stop. The league took over the Rams three weeks after Smeraglia’s death and forced them to play their remaining games on the road the rest of the season. Anniston never again enjoyed pro ball, even pro ball as bad as the 1950 Rams played it.
Smeraglia is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Birmingham.