Lee Smith makes the Hall of Fame after reluctantly playing baseball - Sports Collectors Digest
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Lee Smith makes the Hall of Fame after reluctantly playing baseball

Baseball wasn't Lee Smith's passion as a kid, but he had a talent for the game that has led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

By Robert Grayson

If there’s one guy a batter standing at home plate didn’t want to see glaring back at him from the mound, it was Lee Smith. At 6-foot-6, and weighing 250 pounds, Smith was an imposing figure and looked even bigger standing on the hill.

Of course, the intimidating right-hander, who is part of the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2019, didn’t get by on looks alone. He backed up his commanding presence with a searing fastball and a nasty slider that frustrated major league batters throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

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“Actually that stare, the look on my face while I was on the mound, started when I came up with the Cubs (1980),” Smitty recalled. “We played a lot of day games then, and the glare from the afternoon sun, when you were on the mound, made it hard to see the signals from the catcher, especially in the late afternoon when I came into the game. I wasn’t trying to scare anyone. I was just trying to see the signs. I was looking very hard, staring at the catcher. I had a very serious expression on my face. I was stone-faced, glaring. I just wanted to get the sign right—that’s all. And the look just became my trademark.”

The seven-time All-Star also became known for his long, slow walks in from the bullpen to the mound late in the game. The ace made the batter wait, but that trait also had a story behind it.

“That’s another thing that I’m associated with, and it just sort of happened. I had a lot of friends on the grounds crew at Wrigley Field. I found out they got time and a half if the game went past 4:30 p.m. So, I took my time getting to the mound. The slow walk to the mound became part of my routine,” the hurler said with a smile. “I took care of my grounds crew buddies. But I would tell them, ‘You owe me.’ Those guys still thank me when I go back to Chicago. We became very close. Those guys are more than friends. They are like family.”

When he’s on the stage in Cooperstown in July for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Smith may walk slowly to the podium to make his speech. He might even glare out at the crowd for old times’ sake. But that notorious look will undoubtedly fade quickly, replaced by his warm smile, which many have come to know him by off the field.

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An intense competitor, Smith was a dominant relief pitcher, serving mostly as a closer, for 18 major league seasons, from 1980 to 1997. When he retired, Smith, owned the major league record for saves in a career with 478. He’s since dropped to third on the all-time major league saves list, which is still quite an accomplishment. He held the record for saves until 2006, when San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman eclipsed it. Hoffman ended his career in 2010 with 601 saves, only to see that record broken by New York Yankees bullpen ace Mariano Rivera in 2011. Rivera retired in 2013 with 652 saves and still holds the record for career saves. Interestingly, Rivera will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Smith, this year. Hoffman entered the hallowed Hall last year.

Early on, Lee Arthur Smith was a reluctant baseball player. Asked as a youngster what his favorite sport was, Lee Arthur, as he was known back home in Castor, Louisiana, would say basketball without any hesitation. Baseball wasn’t even a passing thought for Smith, who could play hoops with the best of them.

Lee Arthur was a big, powerful shooting guard with a knack for sinking buckets for the Castor High School Tigers in the early 1970s. Ronnie Daniels, who was Smith’s high school basketball coach, also coached the school’s baseball team. He kept bugging his star basketball player to play baseball as well, but Smith just wasn’t interested.

One spring day during Smith’s junior year in high school, gym class was being held outside, recalled Smith, who loves referring to himself as a “country boy.” Some of the kids were playing baseball, he remembers. Smith was not taking part in the game; he was running in the outfield area. A ball was hit all the way down the right-field line, and Smith picked it up and threw it to home plate on a fly. Coach Daniels was looking on and became even more determined to get this kid on the diamond.

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“I said, ‘No way am I ever going to play baseball.’ Basketball was my game,” the Louisiana native said. It was Smith’s older brother, Willie, who got him to play baseball by betting Lee $10 that he couldn’t make the team as a catcher. “So, naturally, I won the bet and was the catcher for the first half of the season,” Smitty said.

Then the team’s star pitcher was shot and killed in a hunting accident, and Daniels asked Smith to step in and pitch. The kid who didn’t want to play baseball pitched a no-hitter his first time out. Relying mostly on a blistering fastball, Smith, went 8–0 with a 0.14 ERA during his time on the mound as a junior for the Castor Tigers. After a bit of prompting from Daniels, Lee Arthur came back to the mound his senior year and went 7–1 with a 0.95 ERA, while striking out 124 batters in 53 innings of work. For his efforts, Smith was named Louisiana’s Outstanding Class B baseball player for 1975.

During Smith’s senior year, a number of major league scouts came to one of the games he was pitching. But they were not there to see Smith. They were scouting young pitching sensation Cliff Blue, the nephew of major league pitching star Vida Blue. Smith just happened to be pitching against Blue in that game.

“I had a pretty good game and a Dodgers scout who was there said loudly, ‘Hey, who is that other guy?” Smith recalled. “That’s how I got the nickname ‘the Other Guy.’ When the Cubs drafted me, the headline in the local newspaper in my hometown was ‘The Other Guy Drafted by the Cubs.’”

It so happened that baseball legend Buck O’Neil, working as a scout for the Cubs, was also at the game Smith pitched against Blue and strongly recommended that the Cubbies draft Smith. Besides being an outstanding baseball player and manager in the Negro Leagues, O’Neil had a knack for spotting baseball talent. He discovered MLB outfielders Lou Brock (Cardinals) and Joe Carter (Blue Jays), in addition to other major league standouts.

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The Chicago Cubs took O’Neil’s advice and drafted Smith in the second round of the Major League Baseball Draft in June 1975. But Smith still wasn’t sold on this baseball idea.

“I wanted to go play basketball at Northwestern State University over in Natchitoches, Louisiana,” the reluctant baseball star said. He even signed a letter of intent with the school.

But Smith sought out the advice of former major leaguer Joe Adcock, who lived in nearby Coushatta. Adcock was a star with the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“He asked me if I was going to Northwestern State to play basketball or to get an education,” the Smith said. “I said for an education. So he told me that I should go to Northwestern State unless the Cubs offered me $50,000.”

Smith admits that he never thought the team would pay him so much money.

“When Buck O’Neil came to my house to sign me, he asked how much money I wanted. I said $50,000 and he said OK. I should have asked for $80,000,” Smith said, flashing his winning grin. “I have to say that, for me, it really was a thrill to be discovered by Buck O’Neil. He was an unbelievable man, could always put a smile on your face. He used to call me Lee Arthur. He’d always remember you and your whole family. He was just terrific.”

So Smith was off to the pro ranks. First stop: the Gulf Coast League Cubs in Rookie ball. He began his career as a starter, but had a hard time controlling that blazing fastball that got him drafted in the first place. Smith’s climb through the minor leagues was a bit slower than he had hoped; he was plagued along the way with control problems.

In 1978, Smitty was with the Double-A Midland (Texas) Cubs when Randy Hundley, the team’s pitching coach, suggested that the young hurler make the switch to the bullpen. Smith resisted and left baseball, determined to rekindle his basketball career.

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“You have to remember that in those days it was all about being a starter. To be sent to the bullpen was something of a slap in the face. My idols were the Bob Gibsons, the Fergie Jenkins and the Nolan Ryans, not some guy in the bullpen. In those days starters were expected to finish the game. They pitched a complete game. If they got knocked around, then a reliever was called in to mop up. So I wasn’t interested in that—nobody was,” Smith said.

But the Cubbies were not about to lose a guy to the hardwood who could throw a 95-mile-an-hour-plus fastball. The team sent O’Neil and Cubs legend Billy Williams to Louisiana to talk Lee Arthur into coming back to the diamond.

“They basically told me that teams were going to start building their clubs around strong bullpens,” Smith recalled. “I really didn’t buy into it, but the Cubs sent me another contract. I was hoping they wouldn’t, but they did. And I went back.”

In 1979, he returned to Midland, and the idea of pitching every day as a reliever—and eventually as a closer—began to appeal to him. “I started to see that Buck and Billy were right. Guys like Goose Gossage were saving games and teams started looking for other guys who could come in and close out a game like he was doing. There was excitement around baseball about elite closers,” he said.

With a renewed commitment to the game, Smith was able to gain control of his fastball and hone his pitching skills. He loved painting the outside corner, rarely coming inside to a hitter.

“The outside corner was my comfort zone. I think, to this day, I could close my eyes and hit that outside corner. I just felt comfortable making that pitch and it paid off pretty good for me,” the 61-year-old former hurler said.

Smitty believes he made quality pitches when he pitched to the outside corner and “When you make quality pitches day in and day out, good things are going to happen.”

At the start of the 1980 season, Smith was promoted to the Triple-A Wichita Aeros, where he notched 15 saves and earned a place on the Cubs’ major league roster in September. He was used in middle relief with the big club, and even had a few spot starts early in 1982, but settled into the closer role by the middle of the 1982 season.

Also in 1982, Smith met veteran pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who became a mentor, coach and friend. Jenkins was finishing up his Hall of Fame career with the Cubbies in 1982–’83. It was his second tour of duty with the team. Jenkins was in the Cubs’ starting rotation from 1966 to 1973 before playing with Texas and Boston.

“He taught me how to pitch,” Smith said. “Fergie taught me how to throw a slider and use it to set up my fastball. I believe you have to learn from the best, and Fergie was that man for me.”

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Smith saved 17 games in 1982 and also had one of the biggest thrills of his career that season. But it came at the plate in Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, not on the mound.

“Yep, I hit a homer that year in July. It was my first major league hit. Phil Niekro was pitching for them (Atlanta), throwing those crazy knuckleballs, and I got a hold of one of them,” Smith said.

He still has the ball. It hit the netting near the foul pole, he remembers, and came back onto the field. “I lost sight of the ball after I hit it, and stopped at second. But the umpire said, ‘Hey Smitty, it’s a home run keep going.’”

Pitching out of the bullpen, Smith would only have a limited number of at-bats the rest of his career and only got two more hits—both singles. “So, you can say that was my career highlight at the plate,” the right-hander said with a laugh.

Smith’s career in the bullpen corresponded to a very pivotal time for relievers in the history of baseball. The role of the closer was evolving. The bullpen was not a place where a team put their failed starters anymore.

“People in baseball were seeing that this was an important job,” Smith said.

Still, Smith came from an era where getting a save often meant pitching more than one inning in relief. Modern-day closers, who come in to shut down a team in the ninth inning, were not part of the game in the early days of Smith’s career.

“We didn’t come in with a clean slate. Back in the day, they didn’t bring in a reliever until the winning run was on second. And it usually wasn’t in the ninth; it was in the seventh or eighth. Then you stayed in the game and finished it,” Smith said.

That meant pitching two or more innings. “I didn’t mind that. I felt I could go more than one inning,” he added.

Smitty said that when the trend turned to the one-inning closer, “It took me three or four years to get used to that kind of thinking. I asked the Cubs if I could go to winter ball after some of those seasons when I was pitching one inning a game, because I felt I needed to throw more innings.” That never happened, but the big right-hander began to recognize the impact closers were having on the game.

“Players started seeing what happened to teams that didn’t have reliable closers. If you are getting beat in the fourth inning, that’s one thing, but if a team loses a game with two out in the ninth inning because they don’t have a solid closer, that really hurts a club for days. That gets a team at its core. The whole ball club feels a loss like that,” he pointed out.

“So, the way it is now, I think being the closer is one of the toughest jobs in the game,” Smith said. “Blowing a game is a big letdown. That kind of pressure makes being a closer a very tough job.”

In 1983, Smith had a National League-leading 29 saves and finally became comfortable as the Cubbies’ closer. There wasn’t much to cheer about when Smith first got to the North Side of Chicago in 1980, but now it looked like the ace reliever was one of the keys to a rejuvenated Cubs team. 

With Lee Smith recording 33 saves in 1984, the Cubs won the National League Eastern Division. The Cubs were going to the postseason for the first time since 1945. Chicago faced off against the San Diego Padres, winner of the National League Western Division. The Cubs won the first two games in the best-of-five National League Championship Series, with Lee Smith picking up the save in Game 2. Both games were at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

But when the scene shifted to San Diego, the series started to slip away from the Cubbies. The Padres won Game 3 by a score of 7–1. Then Chicago lost a heartbreaker in Game 4.

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Game 4 was tied 5–5 in the bottom of the ninth. Smith came on for his second inning of work. After striking out Alan Wiggins to start the bottom of the ninth, Smith gave up a single to Tony Gwynn. The next Padres batter, Steve Garvey, took Smith deep to win the game with a two-run homer. That forced a fifth game that the Padres won 6–3 to capture the 1984 National League pennant.

“I think that was the only hit he (Garvey) ever got off me. He didn’t have to do it then,” Smith joked.

Garvey ended up getting two hits against Smith in his career, the other being of no consequence.

“Sure it hurts. For a lot of people, that’s all they remember about me. When I used to go back to San Diego, they would always show that home run on the big screen or on TV, and I’m trying to forget it,” Smith said. “Of course, you can’t overlook the fact that we did lose two other games in that series to lose the pennant. Garvey was a low-ball hitter and that pitch was up. I’m not making any excuses—sometimes the hitter gets you, sometimes you get him. But he was one of the best.”

How to mentally handle a loss is something every closer has to learn.

“I hated to lose, I still do,” said Smith, who was named Rolaids Relief Man of the Year three times (1991, 1992 and 1994). “I never accepted losing, but eventually I learned not to take it as hard as I did when I first started out. Not hang onto to it too long. When you’re a closer, you have to have thick skin.”

The Cubs would not get back to the postseason while Smith was with them, but the closer did put up impressive numbers during the rest of his tenure with Chicago. Smith had another 33 saves in 1985 while racking up a career-high 112 strikeouts. He saved 31 games with 93 Ks in 1986 and had 36 saves with 96 strikeouts in 1987.

By then, Smith had become the closer every team wanted. So Chicago’s North Side faithful were shaken when, in December 1987, their team, concerned about Smith’s increasing weight gain, decided to trade him to the Boston Red Sox. The closer wasn’t fazed by the trade, and continued to mow down batters. He ended up playing for seven different teams over 10 years after he left the Windy City. 

Smitty contributed wherever he went, becoming the vital piece a team was looking for to shore up its bullpen. The consummate closer collected nearly 300 more saves after leaving the Cubs. That included three consecutive seasons of 40 or more saves from 1991 to 1993.

He was with the Red Sox from 1988 until May 4, 1990, when he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis, an easygoing kind of town, fit Smitty to a tee.

“It (St. Louis) really fit my personality,” Smith said. “I was just a laid-back type of guy—really I was. That was until I got between the lines.” Then he was ferocious. 

Smith remained with the Cardinals from 1990 until the end of August 1993, when he was traded to the Yankees. During his tenure with the Cardinals, Smitty collected 117 saves. He picked up three saves in eight games with the Yankees. He didn’t allow a run in those eight games and had 11 strikeouts.

After the 1993 season, Smitty became a free agent and signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He opened the 1994 season with 12 saves in his first 12 games, posting a 0.00 ERA. He had 33 saves in the strike-shortened 1994 season. 

Smith was on the move again in 1995, signing as a free agent with the California Angels. He saved 37 games for the Halos in 1995. On May 27, 1996, the Angels traded the well-traveled Smith to the Cincinnati Reds, where his career began to wind down. He retired in July 1997, having started the season with the Montreal Expos, but picked up only five saves in 25 games.

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During his career, Smitty had a chance to participate in two of the sport’s greatest rivalries, Yankees–Red Sox and Cardinals–Cubs. Not only that, he played for all four teams, and got to experience the contests between the clubs from the perspective of each of the teams: “The rivalry between the Cubs and the Cardinals was about bragging rights. In a family, there’s a wife who is a Cardinals fan and a husband who is a Cubs fan, a fun kind of thing. But with the Yankees and the Red Sox, well, there was a bit of hatred there,” Smith observed.

Many thought Smith would have been inducted into Cooperstown’s shrine long ago. He spent 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, but never received the required 75 percent of the vote to gain entry into the Hall. The closest he came was in 2012, when he got 50.6 percent of the vote.

Relief pitchers have always had a difficult time making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition, Smith didn’t make it to the postseason very often—only in 1984 with the Cubs and 1988 with the Red Sox. Neither time did his team advance to the World Series. That cut down on Smitty’s national exposure and limited his chance to build his case for the Hall of Fame. Yet many Smith fans argue that his lack of postseason play only makes the closer’s accomplishments that much more impressive. They point out that he saved so many games in his career while playing for teams that were not always contenders; this reduced the number of save opportunities he got.

When Smith retired in 1997, there were only two relievers in Cooperstown—Hoyt Wilhelm (1985) and Rollie Fingers (1992). Starting in 2004, with Dennis Eckersley, six more closers have been given Hall of Fame honors. Besides Eckersley, Bruce Sutter (2006), Rich Gossage (2008), Trevor Hoffman (2018) and, this year, Smith, along with Mariano Rivera, now will have plaques hanging in Cooperstown.

And let’s not forget John Smoltz, who was a celebrated starter, but also recorded 154 saves as a closer. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Smith was voted into Cooperstown by the Hall of Fame’s Today’s Game Era Committee. He was a unanimous selection of the 16-member panel, made up of Hall of Famers, baseball executives and members of the media.

“I never gave up hope,” Smith said of getting to Cooperstown. “I’m a pretty patient fella. This is really sweet.”

The ace closer will go into the Hall of Fame wearing a Cubs’ cap.

“Smitty has been around. I played for many great organizations, but the Chicago Cubs gave me my first chance to get to the big leagues. I’m going in as a Cubbie,” he stated proudly. “I think there’s always a place in your heart for the organization you started out with. Cubs fans always pulled for me through all the ups and downs. I have lots of fond and great memories from my days with the Cubs. You know, when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they gave me a World Series ring. Can you imagine that? Wow!” 

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.

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