The world has changed enough in the last 70 or so years that Bianca Smith’s achievement as the first Black woman to be a coach in professional baseball hasn’t drawn quite the same level of attention as Jackie Robinson breaking the sport’s color barrier.
But it is by no means an insignificant thing.
At 29, Smith is wrapping up her time as an assistant athletic director and hitting coordinator with Division III Carroll University in Wisconsin and was recently hired by the Boston Red Sox as a minor-league coach. She’ll work as a hitting instructor with the organization’s minor leaguers at its Fort Myers, Florida, facility.
Robinson was one of the two sporting idols Smith named during a Zoom meeting with media on Thursday, but she chuckled at the idea that her triumph is in the same ballpark as his.
“I don’t see it as that big. I’ve heard it a couple of times but I feel like Jackie Robinson did so much more,” Smith said. “Maybe I’m seeing it from a different lens, but I certainly never imagined that I’d be even close to other people saying that.
“That’s actually been crazy. The first time I heard that I was shocked. I was like ‘there’s no way.’ I don’t think it’s that big. But I guess to some people it is.”
History-makers usually don’t acknowledge their impact as it’s happening. But in the same way that Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins general manager not only resonated deeply with women but also with Asian Americans, Smith’s hiring should resonate as well.
She didn’t think about making headlines when the Red Sox reached out to her a few months ago; she just wanted an opportunity to coach full time. But as she’s seen the reaction to her new gig, Smith has embraced that her role is more than just an agate line in local papers and that she can be an inspiration for young Black girls and women.
“Now that I'm in this position I'm hoping to be that person that ... they can see that looks like them, and give them the idea that ‘hey, I can do this,’” she said. “Because sometimes it’s not the idea that I can’t do it, it’s that you never thought of it because you don't see anybody who looks like you.
“Even if they don’t get to that position, just giving them the drive and the willingness to try because they see somebody that looks like them — when I was younger, I never thought of working in sports. I actually thought of other careers because I hadn't seen anybody that looked like me working in sports, at least publicly. So that does make a difference; at least give them the idea that this is something else you can do, give them the opportunity to at least try to get into the game and knowing that somebody else did it, I can do that too.”
Not unlike men who are trying to get into coaching, Smith’s resume includes a lot of internships and gigs, with a lot of slashes and hyphens. Some of them came with myriad responsibilities, and others Smith accepted one role and added more.
At Dartmouth, she played on the softball team, where she was not only the only Black player on the team, she may have been the first in the program’s history. She also played club baseball before an injury ended her playing days. But she asked longtime baseball coach Bob Whalen if she could be the team’s manager, and it became her first real experience working around the game.
I am so incredibly grateful for all of the support I’ve been getting! Of course none of this would be possible without the help of my family, friends, and the trailblazers who came before me. I can’t wait to get started. Thank you so much and go Red Sox!! https://t.co/17W4Ah92tl
— Bianca Smith ⚾️ (@biancaesmith12) January 5, 2021
Her lengthy resume also includes stops at Case Western Reserve (MBA/law degree/grad assistant to the baseball team) and the Texas Rangers (front office intern/MLB scouting school).
She’s also interned with MLB’s league office and returned to the Rangers to coach in their Urban Youth Academy. Her internship with the Cincinnati Reds was again in the scouting department to start, but she got noticed by Donnie Ecker — then a Reds assistant who has since taken the Giants’ hitting coach job — for her diligence and scouting the Reds from the stands during batting practice. Ecker invited her down to field level the next day to get a sense of what she was seeing and what she knew.
At Carroll, she was officially the head of NCAA compliance but of course she found her way to the baseball team. It wasn’t long before she was put in charge of the hitting program.
The Red Sox reached out to Smith a couple of months ago to see if she’d be interested in joining the franchise, and after interviewing with multiple departments, she was hired for the job she loves: coach.
“It’s honestly still surreal. When I accepted the offer, I really just wanted to coach,” she said. “I didn’t think about how big this was; for me it was just that I get a coaching job where I get to focus on just coaching and that was awesome. Seeing the impact it’s had on other people, it’s still really cool.”
Smith’s advice for girls and women who may want to follow her path is useful for anyone trying to break into a competitive business.
“Take the opportunities as they come to you, but don’t be afraid to make opportunities: Several of my positions were positions that did not exist until I got there,” she said. “And not only did I help create them, I expanded them based on how I thought I brought value. Create your own opportunities as well.
“If you hear a no, that’s fine, but ask ‘why not? How can I get better?’”
In a couple of weeks, Smith will say goodbye to her 60 “sons” — the members of Carroll’s baseball team — and she and her cat Apollo will start their new adventure in the Sox system.
Now that she has a foot in the door, Smith says she “absolutely” has becoming an MLB manager as her long-term goal.
“I never want to limit myself. I just want to go as high as I can, as far as I can. I definitely want to be on a major-league staff and get that far.”
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