Red Sox coach Bianca Smith has spent her career proving she belongs
The first Black female coach in professional baseball hopes her story inspires others
Bianca Smith tells a story about when she was a coach on Division III Carroll University’s baseball team last year. After arriving with the team to a doubleheader on the road, she was greeted with a common assumption by the opposing team.
“Someone at the field asked what I did,” said Smith, who was often presumed to be the team’s equipment manager, trainer or a player’s girlfriend. “I said, ‘I’m one of the coaches.’ He immediately said, ‘That team’s going to lose.’ ”
Motivated by the slight, Carroll University won the first game of the doubleheader in support of its hitting coach.
“I try to use [those comments] as fuel,” Smith said. “I try to prove them wrong.”
After a collegiate coaching career spent proving herself, Smith is moving up. She was hired by the Boston Red Sox, which made the announcement last week, making her the first Black female coach in professional baseball.
She is also the third historic hire of a woman in less than a year in the MLB, which includes Michele Meyer-Shipp as MLB’s first chief people and culture officer and Kim Ng as general manager of the Miami Marlins.
“I’m excited that we broke a longtime barrier in having our first Black woman coach,” Meyer-Shipp said. “The trajectory is headed in the right direction. Everyone has recognized that it’s not just good enough to say what we want to do, but it’s important to put actions into words.”
The move comes on the heels of San Francisco Giants’ Alyssa Nakken becoming the first female full-time coach in baseball history and the first to coach during a Major League exhibition game last summer. Nakken coached first base.
Smith, 29, is assigned to the Red Sox minor league affiliate in Fort Myers, Florida, and will join the organization in February for spring training.
The significance of the opportunity is not lost on Smith, who calls Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the MLB in the modern era, one of her heroes.
“He had to face so much just to play, just to exist as a human being, and he still persevered,” said Smith, who wore a headband with Robinson’s No. 42 growing up because she couldn’t afford a Dodgers cap or jersey. “What he did off the field also inspires me to want to do more for the game.
“Now that I’m in this position, I can be the person that looks like [Black girls] and show them they can also do it.”
Smith’s parents, Victor Smith and Dawn Patterson, both attended Dartmouth College. Her stepmom, Tracy Cannon-Smith, went to Brown. And her stepfather, Bob Patterson, is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. Smith has four siblings in her blended family, including brother Reggie Cannon, a right back for the U.S. men’s national soccer team and Boavista F.C. in the Portuguese first division.
Smith is well-traveled. She lived in New York and Pennsylvania, and graduated from high school in Texas, where she was senior captain of the softball team.
Her introduction to the game came in her early years with the help of her mother and baseball movies.
“Rookie of the Year, The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield — I saw those and that continued my love of the game,” Smith said. “And then I studied on my own, learned the strategy. And that was probably one of my favorite parts, was that I could follow the strategy of watching a game without having to actually play.”
Despite her enjoyment, a career in baseball was the furthest thing from Smith’s mind when she decided to attend Dartmouth. It was closer to being Dr. Dolittle.
“I initially wanted to be a veterinarian, but I took that one biology class in college and decided it wasn’t for me,” Smith said. “I started searching. I knew I loved sports and I loved baseball.”
At Dartmouth, she started working for the baseball team. It was there that she ran into the softball coach, who asked Smith to try out. Smith would become a two-year varsity letter winner as an outfielder. She also played for the Dartmouth club baseball team, the only woman on the squad.
“My time [at Dartmouth] was amazing,” said Smith, who finished with a sociology degree. “I helped the coaches on the baseball team with analysis and video. I even tried play-by-play once, but I got too excited.”
Following graduation in 2012, she interned for an Arena Football League team and served as a social media director for a sporting goods store. But that wasn’t baseball.
Enter Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she would pursue her master’s degree in business administration in sports management and a law degree. Her goal then was to become a general manager in baseball.
“I reached out to all the baseball coaches of the schools I got into and Case Western was the only one that I got into that responded immediately that I could help out,” Smith said. “Everybody else told me they would let me know. We might be, OK, you might be able to be a manager. I wanted to do more than that.”
Smith spent four full seasons as director of baseball operations at Case Western Reserve. Her duties included travel, game-day operations, social media and work with the players on the field.
“Bianca would scoop ground balls, do analytics, raise money, come to every practice and to every game – all while getting a dual degree,” Matt Englander, the head coach, said. “She lived about a mile away from campus. She didn’t have a car. She’d walk to our practices, even in bad weather. Bianca never had any excuses.”
Case Western Reserve’s athletic director, Amy Backus, the first female AD at the school, said Smith raised the level of the baseball program, including using video to assist players.
“She’s a woman in baseball, and guys respect her because she knows the game,” Backus said.
Tony Damiano, a former outfielder for Case Western Reserve, earned Smith’s respect early. And not just from the times when she’d throw at batting practice or make throws from the outfield.
“I remember once we were watching a Major League game and the pitcher threw a curveball into the dirt and the batter took an awful swing,” Damiano said. “She pointed that out and talked about how she hates when I do that.”
After graduation, Smith interned with the Texas Rangers (2017), Major League Baseball (2018) and the Cincinnati Reds (2019) in baseball operations roles, including scouting. She also was an assistant coach with the University of Dallas (2018).
It was Reds manager David Bell who helped Smith with some valuable on-field experience in 2019 when he noticed her at pregame batting practices taking notes.
“She was clearly trying to learn and be close to the game,” said Bell, whose father Buddy is a former Major League player and manager. “So I got into a conversation with her, and it became apparent how passionate she was about the game. You could see her being really humble, but confident in her ability to help a team.”
Bell got Smith a jersey, and she routinely participated in the early work by catching throws returned to the infield and engaging with coaches about the game.
“Getting to listen to the coaches and interaction with the players influenced me a lot,” Smith said. “It just wasn’t going over the sabermetrics, it was how are you feeling. There’s more to coaching than ‘this is what your delivery looks like.’ … That was a huge part of my development.”
Once her internship expired with the Reds that summer, Smith was hired by Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as assistant athletic director for compliance and administration and assistant coach and hitting coordinator for the baseball team.
Players accepted her immediately, especially because of her background.
“We saw these videos of her with [Reds first baseman] Joey Votto and other players,” said Carroll University catcher T.J. Pfaffle. “We were starstruck. Coming from the majors, we figured she had to know something good.”
Smith provided Carroll University with the type of pedigree that Pfaffle said is usually reserved for the more popular sports on campus – basketball and football.
“Those other sports usually get the top of the leaderboard when it comes to coaches and staff,” Pfaffle said. “Hiring Bianca was the first real step outside of that.”
Then, about a year into her job with Carroll University, Smith received an email from the Red Sox.
“I was pretty shocked to get that email,” Smith said. “They just saw my resume, thought I’d be a good candidate to just talk to. So from there I spoke to several different departments, scouting, analytics and player development.”
She spoke with the Red Sox for about three weeks. She accepted their offer in December.
The hire is historic and ironic. The Red Sox were the last Major League team to integrate when they signed Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green in 1959, 12 years after the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the league’s color barrier by signing Robinson.
It’s a footnote the Red Sox can never erase.
“We have to be mindful of all parts of our legacy, the wonderful parts and the shameful,” said Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox chief baseball officer. “The fact that we do have that legacy makes this more important. We’re taking significant steps so something like this will become more common.
“It takes a pioneer like Bianca to help move us forward.”
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, one of only two current Black MLB managers, is proud of the Smith hire.
“I’m pulling for her,” Baker said. “I hope the players give her proper respect, regardless of her gender, because of her knowledge of the game. I’m proud of the Red Sox for hiring her.”
For Smith, whose long-term goal is to become a Major League manager, she is still taking in the moment.
“Honestly, it’s still surreal,” said Smith. “I just wanted to coach. I didn’t really think about how big this really was. Seeing the impact it has had on other people is really cool. I like the idea that my story can inspire other people.”