Born: May 15, 1936
Coached at: Greenville College
Organizations: President, US Baseball Federation, President, International Baseball Federation
When it comes to be an amateur baseball icon, Bob Smith fits the bill like a treasured souvenir ball tucked tightly into a glove. Robert E. “Ish” Smith, better known as Bob, has seen and done it all in the baseball world. A lifelong baseball fan, he grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals and idolized Stan Musial, the greatest Cardinal of them all.
Smith has been a part of Greenville University since he first attended the college in 1955. He followed the trail from Texas to the Midwest and settled in Greenville, where the Methodist-affiliated college, now 127 years ago, appealed to him. The Panthers, who were NAIA at that time, now compete at the NCAA Division III level and Smith, a 1957 graduate, became the school’s head baseball coach in 1961. It was the start of a career that would take Smith a round the globe, specifically as a baseball ambassador.
While at Greenville, he also served as a key development officer for the school before being hired as Vice President for Institutional Advancement. While working in that capacity, Smith was chosen by the Board of Trustees as the ninth President of Greenville University (1993-98). Bob also served as President of World Baseball (1980-89) and is best known for serving as the President of the International Baseball Association (1981-1993) and nurturing baseball into sprouting as an Olympic sport. He began his work with the Olympics on the U.S. Committee in 1977.
“I guess I’m the proudest of getting baseball as a demonstration sport in the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles,” Smith said. “We had a full eight-team tournament and that was great to see because it hadn’t been in the Olympics for a long time. That was the beginning of it and a high point for me.” After baseball re-emerged under Smith’s guidance at the 1984 Olympics, he also coordinated the sport in the 1988 and 1992 Games.
“I’ve been so blessed all my life, at Greenville and getting to travel around the world,” Smith said. He estimates he started baseball in more than 40 countries. Some of his most memorable moments include meeting with Fidel Castro, Cuba’s president and an ardent baseball fan.
“I talked with him about seven times and he supported me as President of World Baseball (in 1984). He said to me: ‘Our baseball people told me we can trust you.’ ’’ Smith added: “I once asked Fidel Castro about his baseball career. He told me he was a reasonably good pitcher with a good curve ball and the New York Giants showed some interest in him.”
With Smith’s pedigree, it’s no wonder he earned the Olympic Order, the highest honor given by the International Olympic Committee. Now, he is a member of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. “I’m honored because I didn’t expect anything like this,” said Smith, still involved in the game. He’s a board member of the American Baseball Foundation that funds a program for reading and math skills to underprivileged youths. And as a lasting reminder of his contributions to the school, Greenville University plays its baseball games on Robert E. Smith Field, south of the campus.
He and his wife, Joanna, celebrated their 60th anniversary on August 30, 2017. The two had met as students at Greenville College in 1955 and married in San Diego in 1957. Joanna passed away on June5, 2018 at the age of 81.
Smith retired in 1998 and has since worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Southern Illinois. He was elected to the NAIA Hall of Fame as a baseball coach. Then the NAIA Baseball Coaches Executive Committee created an award for baseball coaches and administrators, the “Robert E. Smith Achievement Award,” with Smith as the first winner in 1999.