The headline on John Lawrence Smith’s New York Times obituary called him a “noted chemist,” a label the unassuming executive would have appreciated. It wasn’t until later that the story mentioned he was a part-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. To the non-baseball world, Smith had made his name as an executive of Charles Pfizer & Company, and especially for his role in leading the Brooklyn company’s successful effort in pioneering the mass production of penicillin. His leadership was critical in moving Pfizer from a chemical supplier into an international pharmaceuticals giant. But to the baseball world of the late 1940s, he was the pivot on which the ownership of the Dodgers balanced.
Smith was born in Krefeld, Germany, on February 10, 1889, as Johann Schmitz, the son of Gottfried and Johanna (Dollbaum) Schmitz. Krefeld was the center of the German velvet industry, and Gottfried moved his family to Stonington, Connecticut, in 1892 to pursue opportunities in Stonington’s velvet mills. While they spoke German at home, the family formally changed its name to Smith in 1918, presumably as the result of antiGerman agitation during World War I. John, who was naturalized in 1908, used the Anglicized version from the time he entered the working world at age seventeen.
Gottfried and his four other children remained in Stonington, mostly working in the mills, but John had larger ambitions. In 1906 he moved to New York City, looking for work as a chemist. He found a job as a laboratory assistant with Pfizer in Brooklyn and began to take classes at Cooper Union. While working and studying, Smith found time for baseball (which he said he played poorly) and track (where he did better). It was the beginning of a lifelong interest in sports.
In 1914 Smith got his degree in chemistry, married Mary Louise Becker, and moved to E. R. Squibb, where he oversaw the development of a large-scale ether-making facility at their plant in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1919 he returned to Pfizer, becoming plant superintendent. He would remain at Pfizer the rest of his life.
The Pfizer company Smith rejoined specialized in producing chemicals used by food and beverage manufacturers as well as druggists, as it had since its founding in 1849. Smith would push Pfizer to a much stronger emphasis on research into both chemistry and production methods. In the 1920s, John McKeen, who would succeed Smith as Pfizer’s president, described the man who had recently hired him:
[Smith was] neat, orderly, and impeccably dressed.
Seated at his desk, his daily attire was an immac-
ulate high-starched collar and a four-in-hand
necktie in the fashion of the day. In his daily vis-
its through the plant, Mr. Smith appeared with
sleeves rolled up, no collar or tie, and delved into
the operations, moving into all areas, including
those that were hot and humid as well. He was
personally on hand for the start-up of any opera-
tion and kept an eye on any new construction in
progress. He worked long hours, nights and Satur-
days, was acquainted with all details of the oper-
ations, and was a thoroughly competent scientist.
By 1929 Smith was a vice president of the firm and living the upper-middle-class life. As his responsibilities grew, Smith showed an eye for peo