Tragedies in sports happen. Take the 1986 World Series. Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner was literally run out of town after his error allowed the winning run to score. The Red Sox lost the series and thousands of Sox fans cried. There have been other sporting events that have ended in heartbreak, but those are not really tragedies per-say, they’re just bad breaks that cost your team a game.
Today we are going to discuss the truly tragic murder of Lyman Bostock.
The Early Life of Lyman Bostock
Lyman Bostock Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama, the son of Annie Pearl Bostock and Lyman Bostock Sr. (1918–2005). Bostock’s dad was a professional baseball star from 1938 to 1954 as a first baseman in the old Negro Leagues. Pearl and Bostock Sr. split when Bostock Jr. was just a young child. Pearl relocated with her son Lymon to Gary, Indiana in 1954. At one time Gary had been a thriving steel mill city full of hope and promise. The growth of the steel industry brought prosperity to the community. Broadway was known as a commercial center for the region. Department stores and architecturally significant movie houses were built in the downtown area and the Glen Park neighborhood. Unfortunately, after World War II, Gary entered a period of steep decline which began in the mid to late 1950’s. With opportunities dwindling in Gary, Annie and Lymon choose to relocate again and in 1958. They hitched up stakes and moved to sunny Los Angeles in California. Sadly after his parents broke up, Bostock remained estranged from his father for the remainder of his life, feeling that his dad his abandoned him.
Times remained tough for the Bostock’s. Money was tight. Young Lymon’s baseball glove was stolen. His mother didn’t have the cash to buy him a new mitt so he accepted a donated glove. The problem was that the glove was a left-handed and Lymon was right-handed. To compensate for the left-handed glove, Lymon learned to catch the ball with the awkward glove by making basket catches. Bostock frequently caught fly balls this way for the rest of his baseball life.
Bostock in College
Bostock played baseball at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles and after graduating from there, he attended San Fernando Valley State College, now known as California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Bostock did not play baseball his first two years in College, choosing instead to protest the unfair treatment against African-American. A wake-up call arrived in 1970 after he was arrested and thrown in jail for three weeks because of a student protest he was involved in.
Professional Baseball Career
Bostock’s minor league stops were in Charlotte in 1972, Orlando in 1973, and Tacoma in 1974. His batting averages for those years were .294, .313, and .333.
He was promoted to the major leagues in 1975 by the Minnesota Twins. Bostock was an excellent fielding centerfielder. In just his second year, he batted .323 placing him fourth in the American League behind legends like George Brett, Hal McRae, and Rod Carew. One of Bostock’s greatest achievements was hitting for the cycle in a 17–4 Twins victory over the Chicago White Sox.
In 1977, Bostock’s .336 batting average was second only to that of teammate Rod Carew’s .388. Bostock tied the Major League record with twelve putouts in one game that season as well.
Bostock Moves on to the Angels
Free-Agency allowed Angels owner Gene Autrey to acquire Bostock for the 1978 season. He immediately decided to donate 10,000 dollars to a church in Birmingham to rebuild its Sunday school. Bostock’s Angel’s career got off to a slow start. His April batting average was a miserable .150. Bostock met with team officials and offered to forgo his first month’s salary because he was playing so poorly. The Angels management turned him down. Instead, Bostock donated a month’s salary to charity. He eventually got his swing straightened out, finishing the season with a .296. batting average. Unfortunately, his 1978 season would be cut short.
The Tragic Murder of Lyman Bostock
Bostock’s last day on earth was on September 23, 1978. The sequence of events that led to Bostock’s senseless murder is from various Chicago newspapers.
Bostock met Barbara Smith at a dinner party his uncle, Ed Turner, was hosting. Afterward, Smith, Bostock, Turner, and Smith’s sister, Joan Hawkins, got into Turner’s car and started driving to Hawkins’ home. At some point, Leonard Smith drove up alongside Turner, began chasing him, and Turner ran several red lights, but then hit congestion and stopped. Smith got out of his car with a small-gauge shotgun, fired a single shot into the back seat of Turner’s car, and hit Bostock, not the intended victim, Barbara. Actually, Barbara was hit by a single pellet in the neck, but Bostock took the rest of the shot in the right side of his head. He was taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center and declared dead there about three hours later.
Leonard Smith, the man who killed Bostock, was mentally ill and thought his estranged wife Barbara was cheating on him with Bostock. The truth was that Bostock had met Barbara for the first time that night and had never had any previous contact with her.
Ken Brett, Angels pitcher and player representative for the 1978 Angels, recalled:
Don Baylor said, “Lyman’s been shot. It doesn’t look good.”
Freddie Frederico (the Angels’ trainer) was going to drive him to the hospital. Everybody else went up to Freddie’s room and waited to hear something. Ten minutes later, Freddie called us and said “Lyman hasn’t got a chance. All they can do is make him comfortable before he dies.”
Bostock’s death hit Angels manager Jim Fregosi hard, remembered Brett: “Jimmy got really emotional about it. Lyman was one of his guys. He’d been with him through all the ups and downs. At the funeral, Jimmy was supposed to do the eulogy, but he came up to me and said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ As the player’s rep, he asked me to do it. So I did.”
An Excerpt from that Eulogy:
We called him Jibber Jabber because he enlivened every clubhouse scene, chasing tension, drawing laughter in the darkest hour of defeat. When winning wasn’t in the plan, Lyman knew the sun would come up the next morning…. There’s only one consolation: We’re all better persons for having him touch our lives.
Rod Carew in an excerpt from his biography said this about Bostock:
“Lyman Bostock was my teammate on the Twins for three years. I knew he was very close to an uncle who lived in Gary, Indiana, just outside Chicago. Lyman often visited him after games against the White Sox. . . . How senseless. How horrible. I still can’t believe it happened. Everyone really liked Lyman. I remember how he loved to argue about anything–no matter what. And he’d always come out a winner because he’d argue until you gave in. He loved to fish and actually told big whopper tales, about all those tremendous fish that he nearly caught.
When we played the Angels [in 1978], he sent the batboy over to me with a newspaper photograph of himself wearing sunglasses with dollar signs on the lenses. Above the picture Lyman had written, Rod, I need help. His average was around .200. So I watched him in the game. I noticed he was lunging at pitches. He was too anxious. His swing wasn’t smooth, as it normally is. I told him I thought he was trying to hit the ball into “holes” between fielders instead of swinging with the pitch. No one can manipulate a bat so well that he can consistently hit the ball into holes. I don’t know if I helped or not, but Lyman picked up and was batting .296 when he died, at age 27.”
The Funeral of Lyman Bostock
The following account of Bostock’s funeral was taken from the Los Angeled Times.
“Hundreds lined the nearby streets, a somber collection of men and women, adults and children, lawyers and plumbers, doctors and construction workers. Some stood to see what all the fuss was about. But most were, simply, stunned. Whereas other athletes from the tough streets of L.A. often made their money and left for the Hills, Bostock knew whereof he came. He worked with local kids, contributed thousands of dollars to a new low-income housing complex, invested in a local chain of photo kiosks and an apartment complex. He was one of them, and it showed. “They came on bicycles. They came walking,” wrote Brad Pye Jr. in The Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s African-American weekly newspaper. “They came talking. They came on crutches. They came in Cadillacs and other cars. They came dressed up, and they came in rollers and curlers to watch from a distance. They came in record numbers. And they just kept coming.”
The Fate of Leonard Smith
Leonard Smith was actually tried twice for murder, with his lawyers arguing that Barbara Smith’s alleged infidelity had driven him insane. The first trial resulted in a hung jury. In the second trial, Smith was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed for psychiatric treatment. Within seven months, he was deemed no longer mentally ill by his psychiatrists and released. Including his time in jail awaiting and during the trial, Smith’s time in custody amounted to a meager 21 months.
Smith would eventually return to Gary, Indiana, where he resided for the remainder of his life, he never publicly commented about the murder and eventually passed away in 2010 of natural causes.
The Life and Story of Lymon Bostock
When people remember Lymon Bostock, the first thing that pops into their head is his death and how he died – which is understandable because it was so so shocking and unnecessary. That’s a shame though because they are missing the most important part of this story – the life that he led. Bostock grew up poor without a father and never let that discourage him from his goals. The man was a giver. After he signed his first huge free-agent contract in 1978, he donated money to a church in his native Birmingham that needed help. That’s the kind of person Bostock was. You don’t find his kind in society very often these days.
The next time you hear somebody mention Lyman Bostock, instead of talking about how he died, maybe just bring up how he lived, because to me that is the most extraordinary part of Bostock’s story.