DANVILLE — Baseball fans may remember Nate “BoBo” Smalls as a star pitcher for more than 20 years with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro leagues.
But in Danville, he will likely best be remembered as an ambassador of peace for the young people of Vermilion County.
“BoBo Smalls was a friend and a mentor to young people and a great help to our community,” said Danville Mayor Rickey Williams Jr.
Smalls died Tuesday afternoon at OSF Sacred Heart Medical Center in Danville, according to his longtime friend, NAACP President Ed Butler. He was 72.
“He was a great activist and a treasure for the people of Danville,” Butler said.
Mr. Smalls, a native of Savannah, Ga., pitched for the Clowns from 1965 to 1986.
In one legendary game, Mr. Smalls sent all his fielders to the dugout and proceeded to strike out the side.
The Clowns didn’t make much money. Sometimes during barnstorming tours, Mr. Smalls and his teammates pooled their $3-per-person-per-day meal allowance to buy enough bread, bologna and peanut butter to feed everybody.
He moved to Vermilion County in 1969 after meeting his wife, Anita, at Danville Stadium. The couple raised four daughters.
When his playing days were over, Mr. Smalls stayed in Danville and worked at a grain-processing plant for 34 years.
Williams said his father played ball with Mr. Smalls in the Twilight League when he was a child.
“Nothing he ever did was for himself. He was always doing something for other people,” Williams said.
In Danville, Mr. Smalls was known as one of the Three Kings of Peace, a trio of men who worked together to reduce violence in city schools and the community. His compatriots were Butler and the Rev. Frank McCullough Jr. of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
The Three Kings of Peace got its start following a rash of shootings in 2016 in Danville. The men began organizing regular peace marches in troubled neighborhoods in Danville, asking young people to choose peace over violence.
“A lot of young people in Danville can truthfully say they have led positive lives because of BoBo Smalls,” Butler said. “A generation of youth looked to him for advice.”
“He was a great pioneer of justice and peace,” the Rev. McCullough said Tuesday night. “BoBo was a legend because of his years of service with the Indianapolis Clowns, but to me he was an even greater friend who cared about your youth staying safe and staying in school.”
During the school year, the Three Kings of Peace made frequent visits to North Ridge Middle and South View Upper Elementary schools and eventually Danville High School, monitoring the students, giving them hugs and encouraging them to make positive choices in life.
The two new playing surfaces at Garfield Park will be dedicated today in honor of Nate 'BoBo' Smalls, who came up with the idea for the Mount Olive Baptist Church Youth Basketball League and Junior NBA.
“Whenever BoBo met a young person, he would grin with this infectious smile,” Butler said. “He dedicated his life to make sure the kids were OK, doing fine and staying out of trouble.”
Mr. Smalls also helped organize a summer basketball league at Danville’s Garfield Park. Two basketball courts at the park were dedicated to honor him.
“When I became the director of the Boys and Girls Club, I didn’t have money to pay anybody to run the gymnasium,” Williams said. “Mr. Smalls volunteered to run the gym for me. And when we started our basketball league, he was there to coach and serve as a volunteer referee. We will all miss him.”