USC's first home run king dies

Accidental fall claims Two-time All-American Hank Small

nwhite@thestate.com, rmorris@thestate.comMarch 5, 2010 

Hank Small

The Babe Ruth of South Carolina baseball died Wednesday in Atlanta.

Hank Small, whose 48 career home runs from 1972-75 stood as the USC record for more than three decades, was 56. David Small said his brother fell Tuesday night while moving into his new home in Griffin, Ga.

Hank Small lost his balance on the steps in front of the house, fell backward and struck the back of his head on the pavement, according to his brother. He lost consciousness and never regained it due to massive trauma, David said.

Funeral services will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Second Ponce de Leon Church in downtown Atlanta. Family will receive friends one hour before the service.

"He was the home run king," said Jeff Grantz, a pitcher and teammate of Small's, who lives in Columbia.

"It's a sad, sad situation," said Earl Bass, another pitcher and teammate of Small's, who sobbed as he talked by telephone from his home in Boynton Beach, Fla.

Small was the first true home run hitter at USC. In the nine-year period leading to Small's first season, USC hit 42 home runs. Small hit six more than that the next four years himself.

Teammates called Small "Hams," which was short for "Hammer," because the 6-foot-3, 205-pound first baseman/outfielder was every bit the power hitter that Hank "The Hammer" Aaron was for the Atlanta Braves at the time.

"It was just an amazing feeling when you could look around the infield and you've got Hams at first," Bass said. "We just knew nobody could ever beat us."

Although Small was known for his prodigious home runs, he was the consummate hitter, possessing the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field.

"He attacked everybody. He was such an intimidating force at the plate," Bass said. "He had such an aggressive style of hitting. You may get him on one pitch, but the next one he would hit the ball so hard."

Small batted .379 as a freshman in 1972 with four home runs, then slumped to .282 as a sophomore with eight homers. Aluminum bats were used for the first time in 1974, Small's junior season.

"People were scared of him," Bass said. "He was strong. He was big. With aluminum bats, he didn't have to pull everything. He could drive the ball anywhere."

Small batted .360 his junior year with a school-record 17 home runs and was a second-team All-American. Then, as a senior, he batted .390 and broke his record with 19 home runs and earned first-team All-America honors.

His home run total as a senior stood as the USC single-season record until Joe Datin hit 23 in 1985. His 48 career home runs stood as the school record until Justin Smoak hit 62 from 2006-08.

"I don't want to take anything away from what (Smoak's) done," Small said two years ago as Smoak approached his career record. "I just think college baseball is so much more hitting than it is pitching today. College now is a hitting game."

Small's career coincided with the rise to big-time baseball for USC under coach Bobby Richardson, who arrived for the 1970 season.

"Not only was he a tremendous ball player, but he was a tremendous individual as well," Richardson said. "I just thought the world of him, and I'm saddened and shocked to hear not that he's no longer with us."

The '74 club made USC's first appearance in the NCAA tournament, and the following year USC advanced to the College World Series. USC lost the championship game to Texas, 5-1, with Small's homer accounting for USC's run.

"I feel like that team I was lucky enough to be on was, in my mind, probably the greatest team I ever saw in college," said David Small, who was a teammate of his brother's on the '75 team and now works in building supply sales in the Atlanta area.

George Henry Small was born in Atlanta on July 31, 1953. June Raines recruited Small out of Atlanta to play for Richardson. Raines, who left for professional baseball, returned after Small had finished his USC career.

"They made Carolina baseball," Raines said of Small and Bass. "They sure did put the program on the map."

Small was selected in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves. He advanced quickly through the minor-league system and batted .289 with 25 home runs and 101 RBIs for Richmond of the Class AAA International League in 1978.

He earned a late-season call-up to the major leagues and played in one game for Atlanta on Sept. 27. Small went hitless in four at-bats in his only big-league game.

Small spent many years after his professional baseball career working in the insurance business in the Charleston area before moving to Atlanta approximately five years ago. He had most recently been working for a groundskeeping company maintaining baseball fields.

Small is survived by his mother, three brothers and two grown daughters.

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