As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.

Wendell Smith left his mark on sports, society, and Chicago. 

In 1973, the Chicago Board of Education named an elementary school in his honor. In 1975, the Chicago Park District named a nearby park after Smith.

Those are two lasting monuments to the trailblazing WGN sports anchor, and pioneering baseball writer who is as responsible for the integration of baseball as Jackie Robinson himself.

“Everyone remembers the name Jackie Robinson,” Fred Mitchell, a longtime writer for the Chicago Tribune, said. “But there’s always a story behind it, right? Wendell Smith is a tremendous story that people need to know much, much more about.”

From 1964 until his death in 1972, Smith was WGN’s utility player covering news and sports.

“He was a solid gatherer of facts,” Michael Marsh, the author of the introduction to the forthcoming book, The Wendell Smith Reader, said. “He could write well and he was a real expert interviewer. In baseball terms he was the equivalent of a five-tool guy.”

He occasionally handled breaking news, but his career was all about breaking barriers.

“He wrote article after article urging Major League Baseball to integrate its game,” Mitchell said. “Had he not persisted, who knows how long it might have taken for the game to catch up.”

While working for the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942, Smith wrote, “Major League Baseball is perpetuating the very things thousands of Americans are overseas fighting to end, namely, racial discrimination and segregation.”

Mitchell, now a DePaul University professor, was the Chicago Tribune’s first black reporter. He said Smith’s work at Pittsburgh Courier helped spur baseball’s integration.

“If not for Wendell Smith, then there’s probably not going to be a Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball,” he said.

In one sense, the story of baseball’s integration can be traced to a diamond in Detroit in 1932.  Smith was an 18-year-old pitcher in a playoff game. He threw a shutout masterpiece. His team won 1-0, in extra innings. Afterward, Wish Egan, a scout for the Detroit Tigers signed the losing pitcher, who was white, saying he couldn’t sign Smith because he was black.

“Wendell Smith went home and cried,” Marsh said. “That helped spur his activism.”

From that moment, Smith devoted himself to challenging baseball’s racial barriers. He found the pen would be mightier than the bat.

Smith’s father was Henry Ford’s personal chef, and saw firsthand, the hope that comes with opportunity. At the Courier, he pushed to have major league baseball accept black players, even arranging a tryout at Fenway Park for three negro league stars.

“Smith took three black baseball players to Boston for a tryout with the Boston Red Sox Jackie Robinson was one of those players,” Marsh said.  

Marsh said that tryout led to a meeting with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.

“Branch Rickey asked Wendell Smith if any of those ball players could play in the major leagues and Smith recommended Jackie Robinson,” Marsh said.

Smith’s critical role was memorialized in the film “42.”

“I think Branch Rickey must have trusted Wendell Smith’s judgement,” Mitchell said.

Smith’s recommendation carried such weight that the team not only signed Robinson but also, asked Smith to be Robinson’s roommate on the road during his rookie year of 1947.

Smith served as the ghostwriter of Robinson’s 1948 autobiography: “Jackie Robinson — My Own Story as told to Wendell Smith.”

Later, Robinson wrote in the book “I never had it made. … I will forever be indebted to Wendell because, without his even knowing it, his recommendation was in the end partly responsible for my career.”

Smith arrived in Chicago in 1948, the same year WGN-TV was founded.

He lived in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood near 72nd Street and Eberhart Avenue. At first, he wrote for the Chicago Herald American, where he was one of the first black reporters at a major city newspaper. There he led a successful crusade to end segregation at Major League Baseball spring training facilities in “Jim Crow” Florida. 

He eventually became a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and worked for WBBM-TV for one year.

In 1964, he started at WGN-TV, with the full support of Jack Brickhouse, becoming the first black person ever on air at the station. “It takes somebody believing in you,” Mitchell said. “Jack Brickhouse was somebody that everybody respected and knew about and for him to put his stamp of approval on Wendell Smith was the final chapter in what would turn out to be a great career.”

Smith became the sports anchor for the WGN’s 10 p.m. news broadcast.  In 1965, WGN produced a special examining the first ten years of the Mayor Richard J. Daley administration. Smith was the reporter who interviewed Daley.

That same year, Smith produced a documentary called ‘Let Freedom Ring,’ exploring the advancements made by blacks in Chicago. 

Smith also frequently appeared on Channel 9’s venerable public affairs program “People to People.”  

“The ‘People to People’ program was, as you know, was a public affairs program produced by WGN,” Marsh said. “I think it started, maybe in 1969, and Bill Berry was the host of the program and Wendell Smith was one of the journalists assigned to ask questions of the participants.”

He reported extensively on the intersection of sports and society. On WGN, he once questioned Jerry Lucas  of the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals about tension with his black teammate Oscar Robertson.

 Smith: “It has been said that you and Oscar Robertson are not the friendliest people in the world, is that true?

Lucas: “No, it is not true. This has been said for six years, Oscar and I have played together for six years we get along very well.”

Smith was called ‘the best of his generation’ in the anthology “Black Writers/Black Baseball.” and featured in Jerome Holtzman’s classic, “No Cheering in the Press Box.

In October of 1972, he wrote Jackie Robinson’s obituary. One month later, he died of cancer. He was just 58-years-old. He was posthumously inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor his wife Wyonella Smith accepted on his behalf.

“It took guts,” Mitchell said. “People need to be educated. Young people. Older people need to be educated, and people must know that it takes more than one person for something like that, so monumental to happen.”

WGN Photojournalist Kevin Doellman contributed to this report