Pillars of the FWAA: Wilfrid Smith (1899-1976), Chicago Tribune

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the history of the organization, we will, over the next few months, publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders—all Bert McGrane Award winners.  

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974. 

For a list of all the winners go to:   http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the fourth installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series.  Wilfrid Smith was the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA member Gene Duffey for writing and researching this sketch.

By Gene Duffey

Wilfrid Smith was a giant among sports writers at 6-foot-4 and one time weighing 300 pounds.

Probably the best athlete of all the Bert McGrane Award winners, Smith played six years in the National Football League and on the Chicago Cardinals’ 1925 championship team.

He worked for the Chicago Tribune while still playing for the Cardinals. He retired as a player after the 1925 season, but continued to work as an official in the NFL. Some days he would referee a pro football game and then write about it for the next day’s paper.

Wilfrid Smith, first president of the FWAA and the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Wilfrid Smith, first president of the FWAA and the 1975 winner of the Bert McGrane Award.

Smith’s father was a minister, so the family moved around in Wilfrid’s younger days. He went to high school in Huntington, Indiana and then attended college at DePauw in Greencastle, Indiana. He served as sports editor of the student newspaper at DePauw and lettered in four sports, including baseball and football.

One summer he worked for the Chattanooga Times for $10 a week. He also worked for the Jacksonville Metropolis News and the Albany (New York) Knickerbocker Press.

Smith signed a baseball contract as a pitcher with a Class D team in Orlando. When he arrived, Orlando played him at first base instead of using him as a pitcher. Smith couldn’t hit as well as he pitched and the team released him.

 He began his pro football career with the Muncie (Indiana) Flyers. The Flyers played only one game, and lost, in 1920, the first official season of the NFL. Smith, who played center, guard, tackle and end, spent one more season with the Flyers and then joined the Louisville Brecks the following year. In 1923 he played for both the Hammond (Indiana) Pros and the Chicago Cardinals.

The NFL was loosely organized in those days.  It was composed of teams mostly from the Midwest and had neither divisions nor a championship game. The league wasn’t divided into Eastern and Western divisions until 1933, when the Bears beat the New York Giants in the first NFL title game.

The Cardinals finished 8-4 in 1923 and 5-4-1 in 1924. The Chicago Bears were the better team in town. But in 1925 the Cardinals went 11-2-1, finishing atop the 20-team league. They were declared champions based on their .846 winning percentage, ahead of the Pottsville (Pennsylvania) Maroons, who went 10-2 (.833).

Smith was listed at 6-4 and 204 pounds during his playing days. The NFL incorrectly spelled his first name “Wilfred.”

Smith began with the Tribune as a night copy editor, hired by sports editor W.D. Maxwell, who had been his editor with the DePauw student newspaper. The job at the paper didn’t end his athletic career. In addition to refereeing in the NFL, he starred for Chicago’s Knights of Columbus basketball league.

While working nights at the newspaper, Smith taught and helped coach football at Harrison Technical High School. He also coached at Greencastle High in East Chicago (Indiana) and at Washington High in Chicago.

He had gone on to earn a master’s degree from DePauw while playing football.

Colleges and boxing were his favorite sports to cover.

The Big Ten Conference attempted to hire Smith as its commissioner in 1940, but he decided to stay with the newspaper.

By 1955 Maxwell had worked his way up to editor of the Tribune. When Arch Ward, the man credited with starting baseball’s All-Star Game and the now defunct College Football All-Star Game, passed away, Smith was promoted to sports editor.

Smith helped organize the FWAA with Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register and served as the organization’s first president from 1941-44.