ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1790, when the United States held its first census, one surname stood above all others. Nearly 6,000 white families, and more than 33,000 people, were called Smith. Today, 230 years later, among young and old, Black and white, Smith remains the king of American names, with nearly 2.5 million.
Similarly, there is a good case to be made that William has emerged as the most seminal given name in America. Never has William been the most popular, at least not since the government has kept track starting with births in the 1880s. But its staying power is remarkable. William has outlasted Robert, John, Michael, David and other challengers. William is so powerful that one of its derivatives, Liam, is currently the most popular boys’ name in America while William itself is fourth. It is a name that can be regal and hardscrabble, bourgeois and backcountry.
The consequence of these two things, then, is that the single most American name, owed such a title for its longevity, is William Smith. And while it’s unclear whether that’s numerically the case — it could be James Smith or John Williams or some other combination using Michael or David and Johnson or Brown or Jones — days like Friday certainly bolster the argument in its favor.
Something happened here, and it was beautiful: A 31-year-old man, born William Michael Smith, in Newnan, Georgia, stood on top of a 10-inch mound of dirt, 60 feet, 6 inches from a 25-year-old man named William Dills Smith, of Louisville, Kentucky. The Smith atop the pitcher’s mound throws a baseball with his left hand. The Smith who stood in the batter’s box swings a baseball bat from the right side.
In the annals of MLB postseason history, with thousands of games played, never before had two men with the same name faced one another. Will Smith, the pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, against Will Smith, the catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And it’s important to note that they’re both Will, because Will Smith vs. William Smith, or Will Smith vs. Will Smyth, or Wil Smith vs. Will Smith — those simply wouldn’t be the same. They’d be cute. They just wouldn’t be history. These are grown men, remember, men who choose to bear the name Will Smith, which happens to be shared by the person who, during their childhood, was arguably the biggest movie star in the world. Each could have remained William Smith, who’s an accountant or a banker or a truck driver or cashier. Both instead chose Will Smith, who punches aliens in the face.
That the National League Championship Series pitted them at perhaps its most vital moment made the confrontation that much more delicious. The Braves entered Game 5 of the series with a 3-1 advantage over the Dodgers. One Atlanta win would secure its first World Series appearance since 1999. The Braves led the Dodgers 2-1 in the top of the sixth inning when the dream of the tiniest niche imaginable — baseball geek/onomastics nerd — turned into a meme for the masses.
The at-bat was magnificent, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. However plain their names, the two Will Smiths who play baseball are very good. The pitcher signed a $40 million free-agent contract with the Braves over the winter. The catcher earlier this postseason became one of nine players ever to record five hits in a playoff game.
Old Will threw a first-pitch curveball and bent it into the top of the zone for strike one. He benefited from plate umpire Dan Iassogna’s friendly strike zone to get a called strike with a fastball on the inside corner. During at-bats in which he went down 0-2 this season, Young Will hit only .174.
He took two fastballs, at 94 and 95 mph, high and inside to even the count. He spit on a near-perfect slider — one closer to the plate than the pitch Iassogna called strike two. The count was full. The runners on first and second would be moving with two outs. As soon as the low-and-inside 94.5 mph fastball arrived, it exited precisely 10 mph faster. The ball soared into the night at Globe Life Field.
Smith the Dodger is not known for his expressions of joy. Zeno of Citium would marvel at his stoicism. So Smith’s reaction — bounding down the first-base line, caterwauling toward his dugout, rounding the bases having given the Dodgers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a season-saving 7-3 victory — illustrated the import of the moment as much as anything.
This wasn’t just a cute story of two guys named Will Smith playing baseball against one another. If the Dodgers do come back to beat the Braves on Saturday in Game 6 and then Sunday in Game 7 and win their first World Series since 1988, that at-bat — Will Smith vs. Will Smith — will mark the turning point every bit as much as Mookie Betts’ shoestring catch earlier in the game or the phenomenal walk by Max Muncy that preceded the Smiths’ at-bat.
“I’ll always bet on our Will Smith,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
When Fox went to commercial after the top of the sixth, it played one of actor/rapper Will Smith’s hits, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Which was fine, even though he’s technically not William Smith; he was born Willard Carroll Smith Jr.
There are Will Smiths everywhere. A Will Smith running for office, a Will Smith who’s a comedian, a Will Smith who plays the drums, a Will Smith who works in local TV. Will Smith is Black. Will Smith is white. Will Smith plays baseball. Will Smith plays football. Will Smith will smith, so long as he’s got the proper materials.
“It’s a common enough name,” the Dodgers’ Smith later said, and because the Braves’ Smith did not speak after the game, this is pretty much all that was said by the subject on the subject. Actually, Dodger Smith did say he went to high school with another Will Smith, but that’s no surprise: Smith was one of 521 Williams born in Kentucky in 1995.
The internet loved it all. Will Smith trended No. 1 nationally on Twitter. Bots were posting the words “Will Smith” and attaching political memes. There were jokes about “Gemini Man,” the movie where alien-punching Will Smith faces a younger version of himself. It was funny for about three seconds. Fine. Maybe five.
What most didn’t realize is that exponential Will Smith was nothing new. On Sept. 7, 2019, Dodger Will Smith stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning as the go-ahead run and would face then-Giant Will Smith. The count ran full that time too, and pitcher Smith buried a back-foot slider over which catcher Smith swung. Friday was his revenge.
There could be a third act, one to settle the score for now. In Game 4, Smith stood on deck while Smith stood on the mound. They never were going to face one another in that particular scenario — the lefty-against-righty matchup is one Atlanta typically wants to avoid — but it showed what could be.
On Friday, we found out. It was an at-bat 230 years in the making. And it was well worth the wait.