News - God Had Bigger Plans: Ish Smith and the Journey to Olympic Baseball

God Had Bigger Plans: Ish Smith and the Journey to Olympic Baseball

By Rachel Heston-Davis God Had Bigger Plans: Ish Smith and the Journey to Olympic Baseball

On July 31, 1984, Robert “Ish” Smith ’57 stepped out of his office in Dodger Stadium and walked up the ramp to a thrilling sight: 44 thousand spectators filled the stadium, eagerly awaiting the first pitch of the Summer Olympics baseball tournament.

 Forty-four thousand!

 Ish, who still went by his college-era nickname, felt the thrill of victory. This was the fruit of years-long labor by everyone in the International Baseball Association, which he currently served as president. The association had worked hard to get baseball into the Olympics. Baseball had been played as a single-demonstration sport before but lacked the official status of “gold medal” sport.

 Ish and his colleagues had persuaded the Olympics committee to allow tournament-style baseball games in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, meaning multiple games over several days.

Teams might not receive medals, but the tournament format legitimized the sport in the eyes of a watching world. This could push baseball closer to inclusion as a gold medal event.

 As Ish exited his office that day to the sight of a swelling crowd, he knew the public had spoken. They wanted to watch baseball.

 “At that point in time, I knew we were going to succeed,” Ish says.

 He was right. Six years later at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, Spain, Ish directed the first medaled baseball tournament in Olympic history.


Thirty-five years later, Ish points to that day in Dodger Stadium as a favorite memory of his career. And it’s been a long career spanning half a decade; teaching and coaching baseball at the collegiate level, serving national and international baseball organizations, working on the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and serving as Greenville University president.

 The St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame is interested in Ish’s career, too, and chose to induct him this February. The organization recognizes St. Louis area residents in Missouri and Illinois who have achieved notable success in athletics as players, coaches, administrators or broadcasters.

 Ish and 12 other inductees from the Metro East were chosen from an initial nomination pool of hundreds.

 “To be remembered is a very special thing,” Ish says of the honor. “I’ve gone back and looked at people who are in the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, and I’m overwhelmed to think that my name is going to be somewhere on that list.”


 Ish’s journey to the world stage had humble beginnings. He transferred to Greenville University (then College) as a junior in 1955, expecting to play baseball and basketball. Coach John Strahl instead offered him the job of student manager to the athletic teams, plus the role of junior varsity coach.

 “I have thought many times, what if I had chosen to try and be an athlete rather than be Coach’s helper back in 1955?” Ish mused in an essay on his friendship with Strahl. “God certainly had better ideas than having me ‘sit the bench’ as a GC athlete.”

 This role as coach’s helper, along with the writing skills he gained from working for the Papyrus student newspaper, laid the foundation Ish would need to complete every job he’d come to hold in the world of athletics. It was a leadership opportunity he couldn’t have gotten at a larger school.

 “Never feel that just because you’re from a small background . . . that you’re not as well prepared as somebody who was prepared at a bigger university,” Ish says.

 Ish originally planned to settle in Kansas and coach basketball after college. Again, God surprised him, this time with the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree tuition free at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Ish earned his degree in 1958, took a job as baseball coach and director of physical education at Taylor University in Indiana, and came to enjoy coaching baseball just as much as basketball.

 The coming years involved career moves and more baseball. Ish taught and coached at Greenville University, then went to Florida State for his doctor of philosophy. He returned to G.U. prepared to coach and teach for the rest of his career.

 But once again, God had bigger plans.


 Not long after his return to G.U., Ish found himself invited to two administrative roles.

 The first invitation came from G.U.’s president at the time, Orley Herron. Herron enjoyed working with Ish and asked Ish to become his personal assistant and director of alumni affairs.

 “And I said, ‘Orley, I just spent two years getting my doctorate. I’m the best prepared I’ve ever been [to teach and coach],’” Ish remembers. With more prompting, however, Ish accepted and took his first step into an administrative role in higher education.

 Meanwhile, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) also wanted to put Ish to work. He’d directed end-of-year NAIA tournaments in four states including Illinois. Now the head of the NAIA asked Ish to represent the organization on the United States Baseball Federation (USBF), which served as the Olympic arm of baseball.

 At his first USBF meeting in 1975, Ish was elected secretary treasurer, a two-year appointment. In 1978, he became USBF president—which put him on the U.S. Olympic Committee the same year that the committee chose Los Angeles as the location for the 1984 Olympics.

 Ish recalls, “So here I am, president of U.S.A. baseball starting in 1978, and the Olympics are coming to my country . . . and baseball wasn’t in the Olympics.”

 Baseball administrators around the world speculated that the time was right to push for its inclusion—baseball was, after all, America’s national pastime, and the Olympics were coming to America. At the IOC Olympic World Congress in Los Angeles, Ish chaired a committee dedicated to getting baseball into the Olympics as a gold medal sport.

 In 1980, Ish attended another world congress in Tokyo where several individuals pulled him aside to ask that he run for president of the International Baseball Association (IBA), an influential group poised to secure recognition of baseball by the Olympics. At first Ish refused. He was VP of advancement at Greenville by then and didn’t want to neglect that role. But his colleagues in baseball insisted that Ish had an excellent chance of influencing decision makers.

 Ish called G.U.’s president at the time, Rich Stephens, to ask about the dilemma. Stephens responded with enthusiasm: “Let’s go for it! You become [IBA] president and we’ll work it out.” G.U. hired additional employees in advancement, which allowed Ish to devote more time to international baseball.


 Ish embarked on four years of preparation for the tournament-style baseball exhibition at the 1984 Olympics. This led to that heart-pounding day in Dodger Stadium when the cheering crowd confirmed that baseball deserved a spot in the Summer Olympics.

 “To have that happen in that kind of moment, walking out, going up the ramp, looking up and seeing the stands full, was just exciting,” Ish says.

 After the games, the president of the International Olympic Committee publically mentioned the need to include baseball as a medaled sport. In 1986, the committee voted to do so for the 1992 games. With six years to prepare the first medaled Olympic baseball tournament, planners tapped Ish—the man who helped make it possible—as tournament director.

 Over the next six years, Ish also assisted the spread of international baseball. Exposure from the Olympics helped. Various countries reached out to the IBA about founding national teams. Also, the IBA identified likely countries and scheduled visits with the appropriate sports leaders—government officials, education officials, the head of sporting “clubs” or Olympic committee representatives, depending on which entity ran national sports in a given country. The IBA provided coaching and equipment assistance where needed. Baseball spread to new frontiers.

 By the time baseball made its debut as a medaled sport in the 1992 Olympics, Ish had flown across the globe introducing his beloved pastime to 42 countries. And he was there, in Barcelona, proudly directing the baseball tournament for the Summer Olympics.


“We had accomplished our goal, and had gotten baseball spread into 42 new countries,” Ish says. “I’d had the chance to run about 25 international world tournaments at different levels.” What more could a baseball enthusiast dream of doing to promote the sport he loved?

 So, Ish retired from baseball. But he had one last presidential term to complete—president of Greenville University from 1993-1998. It was the first time in 13 years that he’d worked at G.U. without simultaneously serving on international baseball committees.

 Ish had come full circle back to the environment that first nurtured his leadership and instilled confidence in his abilities—higher education.


 What has a baseball administrator and university president learned after a lifetime of service to athletics? Ish offers advice to today’s students, tomorrow’s leaders, particularly those interested in athletics or athletics administration after college.

 Grow leadership abilities gradually. Ish never felt intimidated by his hefty responsibilities because “I kept moving up little steps at a time.” From coaching at Greenville, to holding increasingly greater responsibilities with the NAIA, to eventually serving on the Olympics committee, one role flowed naturally into the next.

 Do it for the right reasons. Ish met many sports administrators who steadfastly served their sports, but he also met others who put personal ego first. In fact, the reason he retired in 1993 after achieving his Olympic goal was “because I saw so many world sports leaders fighting harder to keep their positions than they were to advance the causes for which they were elected.”

 Stay honest. “Honesty is important in leadership,” Ish says. “The quality of honesty comes from our commitment to Christ, but it’s not common in the world.”

 Build strong communication skills. “I cannot overstress learning to communicate, both in writing and in speaking,” Ish says. He remains grateful for the writing skills he learned in college classes and working for the Papyrus. He urges students to throw themselves into writing early and often.


 Ish was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame on February 11, 2019, in O’Fallon, Illinois. Though the honor recognizes his achievements, Ish is quick to deflect attention to God’s goodness rather than his own talents. He recalls being just a guy from a little school, a modest player and “little bit better” coach.

 “How many thousands of times I thought, ‘Why me, Lord? How did I ever get to be in this position?’. . . All these doors opened up just one step at a time, and I literally found myself on the world stage . . . I was blown away by the fact that I got to be there, and many times I questioned why God was so good.”

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This story was published on March 11, 2019

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