What connection does a small tombstone in south Fort Worth have with one of the best-known baseball players of all time?
To connect the dots, we begin in Palestine, Texas, where on January 21, 1902 Smith Ballew is born. By high school he is in Sherman, where he studies art. But by college, at the University of Texas at Austin, he turns to music. Jazz quickly becomes his passion; he plays banjo and guitar.
“S. Bellow” is top row, second from the right, in the 1922 University of Texas yearbook.
By the early 1920s Ballew is tall and lanky, already a smooth southern jazzman when Harry Connick senior is still just a glissando in his father’s eye.
In 1923 Ballew plays banjo with Jimmie’s Joys of the University of Texas Orchestra on WBAP radio. With this orchestra in the early 1920s Smith Ballew begins to also perform vocals.
Later in 1923 Ballew forms his own band, the Texajazzers, and performs around the state (newspaper ad from Breckenridge).
In 1926 Smith Ballew’s orchestra is the house band of the Fort Worth Club, broadcast on WBAP. But Ballew soon moves on, first to California and then to New York, where in 1928 he is discovered by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1929 he forms the Smith Ballew Orchestra, which features the vocals of Ballew and the trombone of Glenn Miller. During the 1930s Ballew is much in demand as a jazz crooner and bandleader.
By 1936 Ballew has gone to Hollywood. He replaces another singer, Al Jolson, as host of the Shell Chateau radio program. Ballew’s agent is Zeppo Marx (right).
In Hollywood Ballew begins to make movies. He will appear in twenty-four movies, usually westerns in which he . . . wait for it . . . sings. His first movie is Palm Springs with Frances Langford (also a singer). The movie also features David Niven, Spring Byington, and Sterling Holloway. Note that the New Liberty Theater is showing Oh, Susanna with Gene Autry and the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth.
Meanwhile back in New York, in 1938, just three years before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) will cut short first the career and then the life of Lou Gehrig, the Yankees first baseman trades his cleats for spurs, his pinstripes for chaps, and the horsehide for the Rawhide. That’s the title of the 20th Century-Fox movie that Gehrig co-stars in with . . .
Smith Ballew. (Bat, meet baton.)
In Rawhide Ballew plays Lou Gehrig’s attorney—a gunslingin’, song-singin’ attorney, of course. Gehrig plays himself: See, in the plot the Iron Horse retires from baseball, says goodbye at Grand Central Station to the boys on the sports beat, and moves out west, where seldom is heard a discouraging word from an umpire. Predictably, the movie features more rootin’ ’n’ tootin’ than batting ’n’ fielding, although in one scene Gehrig bats a baseball through a window pane to get the attention of his sister. And in another scene in a saloon (see still frame), Ballew watches as Gehrig fends off a gang of ornery hombres by beaning them with billiard balls pitched high and inside.
Rawhide is shown at Fort Worth’s New Liberty Theater in April 1938 but has a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar, including roller derby at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Palace, and Mickey Rooney at the Hollywood and the Tivoli.
This photo is from the May 27, 1938 Dallas Morning News.
Rawhide was Lou Gehrig’s only feature film. At Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 Gehrig delivered his “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech. He died in 1941.
By the early 1950s Smith Ballew’s career in music and movies had faded. In 1952 he moved to Fort Worth, where he did public relations work for Convair and then General Dynamics until his retirement in 1967. (His friendship with Howard Hughes in the 1940s had gotten Ballew a job in aviation.) (Dallas Morning News clip from 1974.)
Ballew lived in this house in Tanglewood.
Smith Ballew died May 2, 1984. He is buried in Laurel Land Cemetery in south Fort Worth.
Listen to Smith Ballew and his orchestra in 1935:
Watch a clip of Rawhide: