Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Member Paul Smith started playing baseball when he was four or five years old, while he was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“There was always a bunch of neighborhood kids that loved to play ball who were a lot older than us. They used to make us catch hard pitches, throw hard to us, case baseballs around,” said Smith as he remembered how he grew up playing ball. “My mom, dad and uncles were all ballplayers. My uncle, who is my last living uncle on my father’s side, used to play for the University of New Mexico.
“When my father came back from World War II, he worked for the Veterans Administration, and they used to have their softball team in Albuquerque. A lot of times when they were short a player, I would play. I was about nine or 10 years old. I used to play fast-pitch. They put me in the outfield and I could always catch the ball; the batters would knock it to me and I would run, chase it and catch it because I was used to it. When they pitched to me, they would give me the lob pitches like how they do for slow pitches nowadays. I would yell at them to throw it harder; I guess they were afraid to hit me, but I wanted the fast pitch. They eventually started throwing the fast pitches to me and I was able to hit those.”
When the Southwest Tournament started, Smith had been living in Oregon for five years with his wife. They moved back in 1952. Smith said while they were living in Oregon he played semi-pro baseball, and he acknowledged they had some pretty tough pitchers and players and pretty good competition.
Local Ball Teams
“When I moved back to Lehi in 1962, I began playing with the Lehi team,” said Smith. “We started out playing at the old Lehi Ballfield. It was all dirt, and we had to mark our own lines with string and do a lot of things that the old ballplayers used to have to do to take care of the field ourselves.”
There was an irrigation ditch in the left-field area. “The players used to knock the ball in there for home runs. Then they would have to go find the ball, because they didn’t have that many balls,” said Smith. “They tried to use a ball for the entire game if they could, but if it got muddy or dirty, then they lost that ball for the game and would have to dry it out and use it for the next one.
“It wasn’t like how it is today in the professionals, where when every ball hits the ground they throw a new one out. We grew up very poor, but we had a lot of fun.”
Smith remembers one of the first games he played with Lehi against Bapchule. He was playing third base and saw that Bapchule didn’t have too much talent. He did say it was fun playing. “It was like today, hot on a Sunday playing by the church and chili stew waiting for us after the game.
“During the game against Bapchule, a play occurred where one of the Bapchule runners was coming to third base. I was used to people sliding coming in at me, so I was waiting for him to slide, but he didn’t,” said Smith. “Meanwhile, I knew the ball would come to me; when it did, he beat the ball, but because he was standing up. I caught the ball low to the ground and when I rose up, it knocked him off the base, and so I tagged him. The umpire called him safe at first, but then when I tagged him, the umpire called him out, and the Bapchule team started hollering at the umpire. Anyways they fired [umpire] and we always got in a big ole’ brawl over that.”
Later on that year in 1962, Lehi played in the Southwest Tournament. The first team they played against on the first night was Sacaton; Lehi was expecting to lose because Sacaton was the returning champion. Prior to the game, the Sacaton fans were calling Lehi players names and saying how they had no right playing against their team because it was so good. According to Smith, Lehi actually beat Sacaton, and they became so angry that they were kicking the dirt, throwing their gloves around, cussing at each other, and really upset that they got beat by little Lehi.
We didn’t have a formal name at the time, but my sister-in-law used to call us the Lehi Lizards,” Smith said. “So that was kind of our little name, but there was nothing really official.”
On the second night, Lehi played another former champion of the Southwest Tournament, the Phoenix Chiefs.
“We ended up beating them. I remember we were able to hit the pitches really well, able to get bases, and we beat them. So right off the bat Lehi, which was an unknown and untalented team by some people’s standards, beat the top two teams in the tournament,” Smith said. “We got beat our third gameI don’t recall who beat us, but we were out of the tournament and another team won that year.”
Smith played a couple of games with Lehi for the following year, and when the Salt River Braves team started, he played with the Braves for a couple of years.
Billman Hayes Sr. was the manager, coach and organizer for the Braves.
The managers for the Lehi team were Roger Evens and Cederic Couch. “Old man Charlie Cough” used to take the team around when they traveled; they would ride in the back of his pickup truck when they traveled to San Carlos, Ak-Chin and Bapchule. Smith remembered, “Wherever we went, we always rode in the back of his pickup truck. It was fun; the heat didn’t bother us, and we all had a good time playing together.”
Smith said that the Salt River Braves had a bit better transportation. Some of the players were regulars and others would play for a game or two. Some of the core players are in the photograph at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Those still alive today are Joseph James, Terry Enos from Ak-Chin and Paul Smith. Other players who have passed away were Emmett King, Darice Enos, Edwin Paul, Bert Wateuma, Alvino Paul, Raeburn Lewis, Dwayne Chiago and most recently Wayne Santos.
After playing a couple of years with the Braves, Smith was asked to play with the Mesa Indians in 1965. “I continued to play with them up until 1982,” he said. They won the Southwest Tournament in 1970. Over the years, the Mesa Indians won it several times.
“Many of the ballplayers I played with at Lehi, Salt River and Mesa are all slowly passing on. It’s sad when I think about how much fun I had with those guys,” said Smith. “I have a lot of good memories and we had a lot of fun. My wife and I talk about some of the old ballplayers and things that we did, and we laugh about the stories together.”
History of Community Involvement in sports
The Community has a lot of history with baseball and basketball. “Now it’s fun to see the senior events, where the seniors go against the other reservations in competitions,” Smith said.
“The best ballfields were the old Salt River field and the one at Parker, because they both had grass. Here in Lehi and everywhere else we went, it was pretty much rocks and dirt. If anyone hit a ball over your head, you were in for a run, ’cause when the ball hit the ground it would just bounce. Salt River had lights, so we got to play night games; it had a good outfield; the old Salt River Baseball Field diamonds was where the water tower is [today] and the fences were toward the east and south,” Smith recalled.
During the early 1970s, the Community was pursuing ideas for economic development. Surprisingly, it looked into building a baseball stadium for the Chicago Cubs, because they needed spring-training fields. The Community met with the Cubs baseball executives, and they agreed that if the Community built a stadium that met their specifications, they would consider having a contract here and playing on the field. As it turns out, the money the Community had from the Department of Economic Development and the amount of money the federal government was able to give only allowed the Community to build the field that presently exists.
Smith remembered, “The [orientation] of home plate [and the bases was] changed to [match] the [orientation of] major-league baseball diamonds. We envisioned at the time what Salt River Fields at Talking Stick looks like; that was the vision, but we never got that far. The architects weren’t very good on baseball fields because they placed the lights right on the playing area. The lights are major-league lighting. The stadium bleachers was the start of what was to be a full circle of a clubhouse and place for ballplayers to shower and all.”
Smith noted that there were not only baseball teams on the Community, but also women’s fast-pitch softball. It was a tough league for women.
“These ladies were fast. They played fast-pitch and they were good. Women’s softball was strong and very competitive as well,” said Smith. “There are a lot of good players who came out of that era. My wife Beverly used to catch for the Lehi team, and my sister in-law Elizabeth Makil and Merna Lewis played on the Salt River Roadrunners.”