Lee Smith, an underappreciated Cardinal, achieves baseball immortality
By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
LAS VEGAS — Baseball is perhaps the ultimate team game, so no matter how great an individual effort may be, it can be difficult for elite players on average teams to receive their just desserts. “Average” may be a kind description of the St. Louis Cardinals teams for which Lee Arthur Smith pitched between 1990 and 1993, but his dessert has come in.
It’s extra sweet and everlasting. Lee Smith has been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Smith was unanimously selected by the sixteen members of the Today’s Game Era Committee for induction in the 2019 Cooperstown class. At a press conference introducing Smith and fellow inductee Harold Baines on Monday in Las Vegas, Jane Forbes Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, referred to the members of the Hall as a team.
“I’ve played for a lot of teams, but this has to be the best ball club by far,” Smith beamed. “I love this one here.”
Former Cardinals manager and Hall of Fame member Tony LaRussa was asked to put Smith’s career in context with other Cardinals greats. Despite the team’s relative mediocrity in those years, La Russa pointed out Smith’s longevity as a driving force behind his Hall of Fame credentials.
“You can have a couple of good years as a pitcher and a hitter in the major leagues,” La Russa said. “If they expose your weaknesses, those two years aren’t enough.”
The Cardinals won a total of 324 games between 1990 and 1993, and Smith saved 160 of those wins – almost exactly half. Consider that Jason Isringhausen, the franchise’s all-time saves leader, recorded 217 saves between 2002 and 2008. In that period of time, the Cardinals won 634 games; that washes out to only 34% of team wins saved by Isringhausen.
Smith credited his late sister Bobbie Jean as being his “pitching coach, my mom, [and] my dad.” Bobbie Jean Smith, according to her brother, refused to fly and would instead ride the bus from the family home in Shreveport, LA for periods exceeding 24 hours to see her brother pitch when he was with the Chicago Cubs.
The candidacy of relief pitchers and designated hitters, among other specialists, is beginning to receive more attention in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters. Seattle’s Edgar Martinez is in his last year of ballot eligibility after a long career as the prototypical DH and is widely expected to be elected. Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, MLB’s all-time saves leader, is a mortal lock to be voted in in this, his first year of eligibility. Players like Smith (and Baines) helped blaze the trail for those players by shifting the conversation window to grant legitimacy to specialists.
“In that era,” Smith said, “it was sort of a slap in the face to be a relief pitcher.” He said he nearly quit baseball before Billy Williams convinced him to return to the Cubs and, eventually, become a legendary figure in the game.
La Russa defended the shift in beliefs of voters, saying, “it’s a dynamic game. As it changes, you have to change your perspective.”
The perspective of Cardinals fans may have been limited in years past when it comes to Lee Smith. Not now, and not ever again.
The Hall of Fame is Lee Smith’s ninth and last team. It’s one that he earned. And one that will be remembered.