Questions & answers with the author, Billy D. Higgins

Q. Who is the audience for this book?

A. Hal Smith is well known in and around Fort Smith, Arkansas. He is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and has name recognition throughout the state, especially with baseball fans who are age 50 and over. Also, he is known to the large number of Arkansans who compulsively follow the careers of pro athletes who have a connection to the state. Another group would be the Cardinals fans who like to read historical background on their favorite team. Readers in this group would be attracted to the story of a 1950s-1960s–era player, and they would certainly enjoy the photos.

Also, there are many students of the game of baseball. The Society for American Baseball Researchers (SABR) has 7,000 members, including me, who take an active role in the research of baseball subjects. Two years ago, I attended the SABR convention in St. Louis and was amazed by the number of quality baseball books that have been published and the demand for such books.

Q. What sets this book apart from others in the field?

A. It offers equal consideration of Hal Smith as a major league player and also a minor league player. Also, Hal’s time in Mexico and Cuba, as well as the Asian circuit, gives the reader a look at how baseball is played in other countries. The structure and methods of organized baseball in the post–World War II years are revealed.

Q. Why would the average reader be interested in this book?

A. The “Barling Darling” had a certain magic working for him. The reader will discover the source of magic within the book. Smith’s career would probably rebut Leo Durocher’s comment that “nice guys finish last.” Smith was a successful and good-natured competitor on a professional level for a number of years in a demanding sport. The Cardinals were contenders in 1957 and 1959, two of Hal’s best in baseball. Even in the “off” years, Hal never lost his love of people or neglected his family. Readers may enjoy the baseball lore enmeshed with Hal’s story. If this author got it right, the story is slyly humorous.

I think the reader will be intrigued with the book’s presentation of the national pastime and how it went through profound changes at the end of the 1950s when Hal was helping Bob Gibson learn to pitch in the majors and Tim McCarver to catch. As teams began to travel on airplanes in that era, players were still trying to get over their fear of flying. Senator Estes Kefauver was just beginning to look into baseball’s famous “reserve clause.” The reader may be astonished to find that the changes in the way baseball was configured strongly influenced the way American society was configured.

Q. Is there a particular benefit to publishing this book in 2009?

A. Definitely so. The Major League All-Star game is scheduled for July 14 of this year in St. Louis, which is fifty years away from Hal Smith’s participation in the 1959 All-Star game. Hopefully, this means good fortune for our book. Arkansas fans surely will have a heightened interest in the game since it’s in the proximity. Joe Cunningham, who played in that 1959 game and is prominently featured in the book, still works in the Cardinals organization. In 1959, there were two All-Star games. In the book, I go into the reasons for this and the controversy over how the players were selected.

Q. As a historian, why did you want to write a book on a professional baseball player?

A. After the University of Arkansas Press published my book in 2004 on Peter Caulder, a frontiersman and settler, I considered writing another history based on primary sources about Arkansas settlers during the time of the travels of George W. Featherstonhaugh through the territory. Instead, I began to think of a more modern life that I could explore.

In this process, I thought of Hal Smith and the era of the 1940s-1960s. Hal is quite self-deprecating and has a great sense of humor. He tends to downplay his achievements, but he appeared to be a worthy subject for a good baseball book. After my interviews with him began, I became convinced of it. I feel that his career as a baseball man merits a book and that Arkansans deserve to learn about someone whose hard work, dedication, and adaptability brought him to the verge of stardom. Had he actually reached that plateau, Hal told me he would have been the "most surprised man in the ballpark."

Q. What are you going to be writing in the future?

A. I hope to continue writing books, preferably about what I would describe as ordinary people who were tempered in the crucible of change. I am drawn toward grassroots stories that could be made meaningful to a general reading public. Even as I seek a wider audience, I intend to maintain my credibility as a scholar and stay within the bounds of sound scholarship and documentation. I prefer to write life-and-times accounts that can be shown as significant in some way to Arkansas history and culture.