Smiling in the Sun – Lyman Bostock

Originally published September 24, 2008

On September 24th, 1978, The California Angels were in Chicago to play the White Sox. It was by all accounts a fine late summer afternoon. The stands of Comiskey Park were sparse with spectators, seeing as how the White Sox were on their way to a 71-90 finish, well out of the American League playoff race. The Angels were on the verge of being eliminated from the post-season as well. They would finish tied for 2nd in the then Western Division, 5 games behind the champion Kansas City Royals.

Talk on both sides had turned to next year, the constant, reliable fair maiden in the heart of every player and fan of a team that does not reach October. While the White Sox had little hope for the following spring, the Angels faithful felt they were but a year away from greatness. Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana would be back at the front of the rotation, with an up and coming Dave Frost on the verge of a breakout season. The bullpen was getting better, and the Angels played solid defense.

The primary reason for hope however came from the lineup. Bobby Grich, Brian Downing, Carney Lansford and Don Baylor gave opposing pitchers headaches, the deep, throbbing kind that just won’t go away. And in centerfield was a 27 year old hitting machine from Birmingham, Alabama named Lyman Bostock.

He had raised his batting average to .296 following a 2-4 performance that day. His career batting average stood at .311, having finished 4th and 2nd in the AL batting race in ’76 and ’77 respectively. If it wouldn’t have been for his awful month of April where he hit under .150, he would surely be back at the top of the list once again in ’78. Oh well, there’s always next year.

By the time the sun came up over the Chicago skyline the following morning, Lyman Bostock was dead, killed by a shotgun blast to the right temple.

Bostock lived in nearby Gary, Indiana for 5 years as a child. He had relocated there following the break-up of his parents marriage. His father, Lyman Bostock Sr., had played in the Negro Leagues for 17 seasons. Baseball was in his blood. Though he moved to Los Angeles in 1958, he had family and friends back in Gary, and would stop in to visit whenever he was in Chicago.

So after the game he traveled back to his old neighborhood with his Uncle, Thomas Turner, for dinner and a bit of reminiscence. At some point after dinner Lyman and his Uncle went to call on an old friend he had not seen in several years, Joan Hawkins. Lyman had tutored her back in school. He did a lot of that. In addition to being a promising young athlete, Bostock was a good student who would go on to attend what is now Cal State Northridge. He shunned baseball his first two years in college, focusing on activism and academics.

Before departing with his Uncle back to Gary and eventually the team hotel, Bostock agreed to give Hawkins and her sister Barbara Smith a ride to a cousin’s house not far away. He had never met Barbara Smith, or her estranged husband Leonard Smith. We know him now as the man who murdered Lyman Bostock.

While stopped at an intersection, Mr. Smith pulled up alongside the passenger side of Thomas Turners car, aimed a shotgun toward the backseat, and pulled the trigger. He had hoped to kill Barbara Smith, whom he believed to be unfaithful and illicitly involved with the man seated to her right. Leonard Smith didn’t know Lyman Bostock, had never met him, never spoken with him. He only knew him as the man with his wife, the man whose head exploded at the end of his shotgun.

Bad things happen to good people. It’s true, and we all know it. That night a bad, bad thing happened to a good, good man.

Bostock played his first 3 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the 26th round of the 1972 amateur draft. He began to reward them for their wise choice in ’75 when he hit .282 in limited duty. The following spring he was the starting center fielder, playing brilliant defense and upping his average at the plate to .323. He was just getting warmed up.

In 1977 he raised his average again, to .336, trailing only teammate Rod Carew for the AL batting crown. He finished in the top 10 in the American League in on-base %, runs, hits, doubles and triples to boot. He made $20,000 per season those first 3 years in the majors, peanuts by today’s standards but respectable for a young hitter 30 years ago.

Then came free agency. The stars aligned and Bostock became one of the pioneers of the new baseball economy, signing a 5 year $2,200,000 contract with the high flying California Angels. The first thing he did upon inking the deal was donate $10,000 to a Birmingham, AL church. This was hardly surprising, he had been giving small bits of his previous small salary to charities for years.

On opening day, 1978 you couldn’t find a bigger smile than the one plastered across his sun laden face. He was 27 years old, entering his prime, making a great living and doing what he loved more than any other thing in this world or any other.

A month later, that smile was hidden behind frustration. Through the end of April Bostock had amassed a .146 batting average. He was disgusted with himself. Angels fans were disgusted with this first close-up look at their new superstar. Here he was making all this money and couldn’t even hit his weight. He agreed. So he tried to give it back.

Bostock went to owner Gene Autry and offered to return his April salary, in excess of $40,000. He hadn’t earned it, and didn’t want it. Autry refused, so Bostock gave it away. No one knows how many local charities benefited, but his entire first months salary found its way to people in need. Again, this was nothing new.

His hitting picked up, the team got hot, and by September both were in full stride. Everyone saw this bright kid and this bright team shining in the California sun and couldn’t help but smile. He loved the game of baseball, and it loved him right back.

His entire team attended his funeral, along with nearly 1,000 strangers. The procession stretched 6 city blocks.

Leonard Smith was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He was tried twice. The first time he walked free thanks to a hung jury, the second due to his attorneys claim that Smith was insane. He spent 7 months in a California mental hospital. He was declared sane, and released. He lives in Gary, Indiana, in the same ratty apartment he lived in back then. Lyman Bostock lies in the Inglewood Park Cemetary in Inglewood, California. If you get out that way, stop by his grave and pay your respects. I had the opportunity to do so in 2002 while travelling for work. It’s a plain, ordinary grave. It does not mention his batting average. It does not mention his charitable exploits. It only says he is dead.

in 1979 the California Angels won the American League West. In the previous off-season they had acquired Rod Carew, a tremendous hitter and former teammate of Bostock. The Angels went to the playoffs, where they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series. Baltimore went on to the World Series, and won. Lyman Bostocks’ widow went to his grave, and wondered what might have been.

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