Those of you who were hanging around Wade Hampton High School in the late 70s or early 80s might recognize that nickname. It belonged to John Dwight Smith of Varnville, SC, but that is not the only nickname he endured during his rise from high school baseball phenom to an accomplished major league star. He had several nicknames that grew out of his personality and his ego. There was always a smile and a sense of happiness on Dwight’s face which often disguised the hard life he actually led growing up.
I’ve been dreading writing this tribute to Dwight after his death. Not because I didn’t want to write about my friend, but because I knew the memories and associated feelings would come rushing back. His life was a wonderful story that could be categorized as “The American Dream” if all things were not considered. His life and his dreams should be captured one day in print or video because it truly is Americana at its best. The irony in writing about Dwight is that the important stuff is not about baseball, it is about relationships. The important facets making up Dwight were discipline learned, loyalty to family and friends, a million-dollar smile that embraced anyone he met, love of his music, and enthusiasm for life. If you want to watch a special tribute to Dwight, go to YouTube© and search for the short film titled “The Boys of Zimmer.” The truth is Dwight overcame very much to reach the pinnacle of success as a major league baseball player.
Disco Dwight was an affectionate name for the future world champion Atlanta Brave. Dwight was always walking or riding a bicycle around Varnville and around Wade Hampton. He was doing something else as he traveled the roads. He was always singing with a great voice entertaining anyone along the way. I can still see him as a 10th grader walking across the Wade Hampton baseball field at the first baseball practice in a white tee shirt and red sweat pants singing to the top of his lungs. While he was still walking across the outfield, I asked some of my other players who is singing in center field. Disco Dwight was their response. That was my introduction to John Dwight Smith, future runner-up as National League Rookie-of-the-Year.
That first practice was different than any of the many “first practices” I held as a baseball coach. It was different because I saw something on that field that day that I had never seen before in any of my other practices. After the players had warmed up, I asked them to go to the position they wanted to try out for. Dwight decided he wanted to be a shortstop so that’s where he lined up. I was hitting fungo grounders to all the positions. As I zeroed in on hitting balls to the players at shortstop, the thing I had never seen suddenly appeared. I hit Dwight a grounder deep in the hole and his throw to first was absolutely a thing of beauty. I had never had a player with an arm like that. It was truly a major league arm on a 10th-grade kid with nothing but raw talent. God doesn’t hand those arms out to but a few individuals. Recognizing that arm was the easy part, developing that talent into a college athlete would prove a challenge.
Dwight was smart and talented but lacked the proper discipline to be successful. During our growing pains together with Dwight as the athlete and me as his coach, we developed a relationship closer to a father/son model. In that arrangement, trust, and understanding some days were hard to come by. I realized what he had the potential to do but I felt a lot of days that Dwight did not realize the potential he possessed. I had witnessed that in several gifted athletes. It seems sometimes those with the most talent and ability are the last to recognize God’s gifts. I can remember when he would stray, telling him, “You have a million-dollar arm and sawdust for a brain”. You may think that is a cruel statement but it was based on the relationship we had. He knew I had his best interest at heart. I actually served as Dwight’s guidance counselor so I was very concerned about his future after high school.
Dwight had responsibilities thrust upon him that other kids did not have to worry about. His father had died and left his mother with four boys to raise. His mother was ill and Dwight as the youngest was left to take care of her. He was also responsible for paying the bills and taking care of the family business. It was a lot of responsibility for a sixteen-year-old kid to shoulder. He by far did not have a normal or easy life like many of his classmates.
As Dwight matriculated at Wade Hampton, it became more and more apparent that he needed discipline in his life. Participating in sports was the best place for that to happen. He was an accomplished football player as well as an outstanding baseball player. In football, he learned to be tough and develop discipline because that is the nature of the sport. In baseball, achievement came easy for him and I was always on guard for his expansive ego and what I will call showboating. He was a performer and it often manifested itself in his play on the field. As a coach, you want confidence in a player but keeping Dwight from going over that edge sometimes proved difficult. If he hits a home run, it might take him three minutes to round the bases, talk to the umpires, ask the opposing coach if he liked that swing, speak to everyone, and blow kisses to the crowd. That was Dwight. Acceptance drove him.
The discipline that was lacking came to a head with me in Dwight’s junior year. I had a standing rule to be dressed and on the field by 5:30 for a 7:30 game. Dwight had broken some minor team rules earlier and you could say he was in my “dog house” for a period of time. It was little things but they were beginning to add up. I had warned him several times to shape up. I knew that if Dwight did not become more disciplined, college baseball would never become a reality for him. As we gathered for a game early in the season at 5:30, there was no Dwight. He finally came strolling in around 6:00. I had already learned he had stopped by the pool room in Varnville to shoot a few games instead of being at the field on time. It was one of those times when the rubber meets the road and I knew if limits were not imposed on him, he would never develop into the individual he had the potential to be. I said, “Dwight, your baseball career at Wade Hampton is over.” I took his uniform and bid him farewell. The interesting thing was watching his teammates endorse my decision. They knew that discipline had to come and be enforced.
During the fourth game after Dwight was dismissed from the team, I saw him sitting on a little bench outside the fence. When the game was over, he asked me if he could get back on the team. I told him that I would need to discuss that with his former teammates. We had a ritual that we met at the mound after a game to discuss the performance. As we met, I asked the team what they thought of letting Dwight back on the team. One player said, “Coach, he can come back if he runs a lap around the track for every run we’ve scored since he left.” The team affirmed the plan and I told Dwight that I would meet him on the track the next day for his discipline. We had scored 27 runs since he left. As we met the next afternoon, I said “Dwight, your teammates said you can return to the team if you run a lap for each of the 27 runs, they have scored since you left.” I added, “I will count each lap and there is only one rule – you can’t stop because if you do stop, it’s over.”
I stood and watched a young man be transformed that day as he completed 6 ¾ miles around the Wade Hampton track without quitting. Discipline does not have to be swift, just sure. From that day forward Dwight Smith was an exemplary teammate and excelled in baseball. I often kidded him that baseball was not his best sport, running track was. Dwight went on to sign with Coach Lon Joyce at Spartanburg Methodist where he participated in the Junior College World Series. Dwight never had a car or transportation until after he signed his contract with the Cubs. He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays after his freshman year but did not sign. The Chicago Cubs drafted Dwight in the third round after his sophomore year and he signed. He had to depend on others for rides back and forth to Spartanburg. After he signed with the Cubs, he bought a little red Toyota sports car. Nobody had ever been prouder of their car. He kept that car spit-shined and looking like new always. It symbolized a goal and accomplishment for Dwight. Another goal he realized quite early in his career was buying a home in Fairburn, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. He was very smart to invest his money in real estate.
Our relationship along the way in college, the minor leagues, and in the major leagues continued as we talked often and he would always come by to see my family whenever he came to town. After several stops in the minor leagues, Dwight made it to AAA at Des Moines, Iowa. He phoned me on April 30, 1989. He pulled my chain by telling me he would not be playing in Iowa at AAA any longer with a long pause making me think he was being sent back to AA. After that long pause and only as Dwight could do, he laughed and said “I’m leaving Iowa tonight for San Francisco as I’ll be starting against the Giants tomorrow night in Candlestick Park.” The kid from Varnville had arrived. The telecast the next night was built around Dwight with famed announcer Harry Caray praising Dwight and his addition to the 1989 Cubs. It was a surreal moment watching from my TV in Varnville as Disco Dwight roamed the outfield in famed Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Shortly after that, several supporters purchased three nice metal signs that greeted travelers entering Varnville that read “Home of Chicago Cub Dwight Smith.” Occasionally, you could see visitors stop to snap a picture of the signs as the locals smiled with pride in their hometown hero. On November 23, 2020, Hampton County, under the leadership of Representative Shedron Williams, dedicated a marker to honor Dwight near his childhood home in Varnville.
One of the best trips of my life took place in the spring of 1992. Dwight flew me to Mesa Arizona to spend a week in the Cub’s spring training facility. I had free reign of the clubhouse and met so many wonderful players and coaches during that week. Meeting players like Ryne Sandburg, Mark Grace, and Andre Dawson was quite an experience. I was able to talk about hitting with Billy Williams who has always been a hero of mine. It was a magical week of nothing but baseball.
There is so much more to this story and I do hope one day someone will invest the time and energy to tell all of it. It is a story of redemption and second chances that all of us can relate to. His musical ability was special as he demonstrated it many times by singing the National Anthem before major league ball games. Thanks to special teachers like Annette Tuten, Betty Ruth Crews, and Arlo Hill for seeing the potential in Dwight and supporting him. As several of us fight for a recreation complex for future Dwight Smiths to nurture and grow, we are reminded that they might not develop into major league ball players. As they learn discipline in those fields, they might become a teacher, a doctor, a CEO, a judge, a school principal, or a mayor. Or, one never knows, there just might be a kid from Varnville with a special gift from God in the form of a major league arm. Dwight is gone but his legacy will live forever. Godspeed John Dwight Smith.
Vaughn is a former teacher, coach, guidance counselor, principal, and deputy superintendent in Hampton School District One for 17 years and former assistant superintendent in Greenwood School District 50 for 26 years. He is a contributing columnist for The Hampton County Guardian. He can be reached at [email protected]