Much is made of the fact that baseball’s history makes the sport so rich in numbers—a statistic to back up every story and an analysis to run for every situation, as broadcasters and newspaper columnists and front office nerds alike will all remind you—but that baseball’s history makes the sport so rich in names is just as interesting, if not more so. Thousands and thousands of them (18,856), easily lending themselves to cultural lessons and historical studies and material for stupid jokes. Wonderful Monds, Johnny Dickshot, Ed Head, Tim Spooneybarger. An embarrassment of riches!
The names that are generally the weirdest, the most unfathomable today, are the ones that get top billing on this baseball-name-fun-fact circuit. But here is a very good one from a name that is incredibly simple and common to the point of being boring: baseball’s present Joe Smith is baseball history’s only Joe Smith. There are, right now, more living American men named Joseph Smith than there have been players in MLB history—20,242 of them, plus 4,683 Joe Smiths and 661 Joey Smiths, and this is to say nothing of what one can only assume to be very many non-living American men named Joe Smith who were born after baseball was born and died before right now—and there has only been this one, this sidearmer relief pitcher, who played major league baseball.
And that seems kind of crazy, so you go to Baseball-Reference, and you type in “Joe Smith,” and you see that I’m wrong, because there is this Joe Smith but there was also Joe Smith who appeared in 14 games for the 1913 New York Yankees as a teenager and then never in the big leagues again. But it’s you who are wrong, because that Joe Smith was not Joe Smith, at least depending on your perspective on what it means to be Joe Smith.
The 1913 Joe Smith played baseball under the name Joe Smith. But he was born with the name Salvatore Joseph Persico, and—this is the crucial part—he died with the name Salvatore Persico:
Persico went by Joe Smith, but he did not change his name to Joe Smith. This creates a very important distinction, legally and technically; this could very well mean nothing, in the way that legal and technical distinctions can very easily have no meaning beyond their own tiny domain. Maybe he used Joe Smith only for his baseball career, maybe he went by Joe Smith both publicly and privately for decades, maybe he was Joe Smith. Maybe! The death record above shows that he died, but not who he died as; the only obituary I could locate for him was in the United States Government’s Social Security Death Index, which is a straightforward listing that doesn’t offer any color beyond the facts of the death record. There is an obituary of 85-year-old Salvatore J. Persico, son of the late Salvatore Persico, in a 2013 edition of the Albany Times-Union; the timing lines up well enough, and so the late Salvatore Persico mentioned there could have been our Salvatore Persico, which would indicate that he cared strongly enough for his birth name to pass it on to his son, but is that him? Who’s to say? Nothing available in a Nexis news and documents search, at least. The fun fact of Joe Smith exists technically and legally, within a logically-drawn boundary that also happens to be a conveniently-drawn one. The stuff that fun facts are made of.
Joe Smith signed a two-year deal with the Houston Astros today.
Joe Smith is dead, if he ever lived.