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Samuel Smith was a first baseman active in professional baseball from 1884 to 1895, give or take a few years later. He wasn't successful enough to rate a story anywhere that might explain his nickname or how extensively it was used. My guess is he may have been called "Skyrocket" because he was tall (six-feet-two) and skinny, which probably made him look even taller than he was.

He played only 58 games in what was considered a major league, the American Association, as a member of the 1888 Louisville Colonels, a seventh place team. In mid-April, there was a blurb that appeared in many newspapers that said. "Louisville thinks it has a phenomenal first baseman in Sam Smith. So far he has made no errors."

However, he was regarded as a poor hitter, and once he began making errors — his fielding average would wind up at .970, which was about sixth best in the league — the team began shopping for another first baseman.

The invaluable (but frustrating) website, baseball-reference.com had this to say about Smith's performance:

"[He] hit well in his one season in the majors, by virtue of his ability to draw walks and hit for some power . . . hitting .238/.349/.335 in 58 games for the team at age 20. The league that year hit .238 but with lower OBP and SLG than Smith had."

Today's statisticians try to overwhelm us with figures. Cutting through the numbers and initials in the previous paragraph, Smith's batting average was three points lower than the Louisville team average. I'm sure the managers — there were three of them — weren't impressed by Smith's OBP (on-base percentage) because he batted seventh, sometimes eighth, and whatever bases on balls he drew seldom led to any runs. Smith scored 27 runs in 58 games, which put him behind the paces set by a shortstop (Bill White) who batted 40 points higher, but had a lower OBP. Even pitcher-first baseman Guy Hecker was more likely to score a run than Smith, and Hecker batted only .227 with an OBP of jut .265.

You can make statistics do anything you want. In 1887, for example, Smith batted .373 with Denver of the Western League, scoring 127 runs. Looks great until you dig a little deeper and find Smith was the fifth best hitter on a team that had three batters with averages over .400. (It was in 1887 that bases on balls counted at hits.)

The only other years for which statistics are available for Smith show him batting .222 for Des Moines of the Western Association in 1889, and .233 for Seattle of the Pacific Northwest League in 1890.

But not only did Smith have an unusual nickname, he played for some minor league teams that also were entertainingly nicknamed. He began his professional career in 1884 at the age of 16 with the New Castle (PA) Neshannocks of the Iron & Oil Association. The Des Moines team was nicknamed the Prohibitionists, and in 1891 Smith played in the state of Washington for the Walla Walla Walla Wallas.

In looking for information about Smith, I found this interesting item from 1888:

New York Herald, April 17, 1888
WILL DRINK NO MORE
Louisville, Ky., April 16 — The entire Louisville Ball Club, headed by Manager [Kick] Kelly, took the pledge today under the persuasion of Francis Murphy, the temperance worker. The latter requested permission to address the club at their practice in the park this morning, and visited the grounds about noon with several ladies and gentlemen and a reformed inebriate or two.

Murphy made a short speech to the boys, and was followed by his son, Edward Murphy. They were very complimentary to the profession, and spoke flatteringly to [Toad] Ramsey, the left-handed pitcher, and Pete Browning, the great center fielder.

After the talk, Mr. Murphy went to each of the players, beginning with [Guy] Hecker, who promptly took the blue ribbon. Browning not only took the ribbon, but signed the pledge on the spot. [John] Kerins, [Chicken] Wolf, [Bill] White and Manager Kelly also tied the ribbons in their button holes and assured Mr. Murphy that they were with him heartily. Several persons seeming to doubt Ramsey’s good faith, he remarked to Mr. Murphy, “Oh, I am all right, and I mean just what I say.”

It was reported elsewhere that Smith also took the pledge that day. It's funny that Toad Ramsey was singled out as a man who might not be trusted to honor the pledge, since Browning was the team's most notorious drinker. After he retired from baseball, Browning owned a bar.

Nowhere did I find an article that referred to the ballplayer as "Skyrocket" Smith, though I did find one about a different Smith with the same nickname. This tale is almost good enough for Ripley's "Believe It or Not":

Schenectady (NY) Gazette, June 23, 1923:
John D. "Skyrocket" Smith, 23, of Chicago, had a narrow escape from death last night when the parachute in which he was supposed to have dropped from an airplane failed to become separated from its plane.

Realizing Smith's plight, Victor Rickard, operator of the plane, dropped from a height of 2,000 feet to within six feet of the Mohawk River opposite the Mohawk swimming school. There he grasped Smith until he broke the rope and left the jumper in the water. Smith, unable to swim, was rescued half-exhausted by J, W, Geweke,

Smith came from Chicago a short time ago, and although he has made a number of successful parachute jumps, he never attempted a jump with a type of parachute such as was used last night.

Smith and Rickard were giving exhibitions over a landing field in Scotia, New York. The pilot, showing amazing initiative, picked a spot along the river where several people were having a swimming lesson.

 
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