On April 28, 1964, the Los Angeles Angels traded right-handed relief pitcher Julio Navarro to the Detroit Tigers. Navarro, 28, was coming off a fine first full season in the majors in which he compiled a 2.89 ERA over 57 appearances, with 12 saves. Maybe the Angels knew something about Navarro that influenced the trade, as Navarro never again come close to those numbers, retiring in 1970 having appeared in only 64 more major league games, with five additional saves. In exchange for him, the Angels acquired 25-year old left-handed pitcher Willie Smith, who in Triple-A in 1963 had compiled a 14-2 record with a 2.11 ERA. Manager Bil Rigney immediately found a spot for Smith in the Angels’ bullpen
(with one start), and over his first few weeks with the Angels Smith appeared on the mound in 15 games, with a 2.84 ERA. But, Smith also came to the plate occasionally, a rarity in today’s game for a relief pitcher, and the results were overwhelming.
Gradually, Rigney began using Smith as a pinch-hitter, even putting him up to bat and then having him remain in the game to pitch. But more and more, Smith was being used in the outfield, in order to get his bat in the lineup. Over the rest of the season, Smith played left, right, and even center field, in 87 games, in addition to his 15 pitching appearances. Unfortunately for Willie and the Angels, this was 1964 and the designed hitter did not make its appearance until the 1973 season, or Willie might well have gotten to bat in far more games. Conversely, had there been a DH in 1964, Willie’s hitting prowess may have gone undiscovered and he might well have remained only a pitcher. But in the games that he did appear in during the 1964 season, the rookie lefty pitcher was amazing at the plate, batting .301 with 11 home runs and 51 RBI in 373 at bats, while striking out only 39 times.
Coming off that remarkable 1964 season, in 1965 Smith no longer pitched, but instead was the Angels’ regular left fielder, appearing in 123 games in the outfield and zero on the mound. But, alas, the magic of 1964 could not be repeated, Continue reading