Rare photo of Lee Smith in the dreaded pajama road uniform, taken either in 1980 or 1981 at Philadelphia
Profile by BCB reader Ihatethecards (with additions by Al)
Lee Smith was one of the best closers in major league history. Smith's 478 saves were the most all-time until Trevor Hoffman broke his record on September 24, 2006. In his 18-year career from 1980 through 1997, Smith played for eight teams; his longest tenure was with the Chicago Cubs, with whom he spent his first 8 seasons. He was known as an intimidating figure on the pitcher's mound at 6'6" and 265 pounds with a 95 MPH fastball.
Lee Arthur Smith was born December 4, 1957, in Shreveport, Louisiana. The late Negro League player and manager Buck O'Neil gets some credit for having scouted him; partly on his recommendation, at age 17 Smith was drafted in the second round of the 1975 MLB draft (the 28th overall pick) by the Cubs. Smith began his professional career as a starting pitcher. In 1978 with the AA minor league Midland Cubs, he was struggling as a starter with an ERA near 6.00, prompting manager Randy Hundley (yes, that Randy Hundley) to move him into the bullpen. Smith resisted the move and briefly tried college basketball at Northwestern State University. At the behest of Cubs legend and eventual Hall of Famer Billy Williams, Smith returned to Midland as a reliever for 1979 and excelled. He was promoted to AAA for 1980 and, with the Cubs struggling to a last place finish, Smith was a September call-up that same season.
Smith made his major league debut with the Cubs on September 1, 1980 against the Atlanta Braves. In 18 September games, he pitched well -- 21 innings, 17 strikeouts, 2.95 ERA, and made the staff for the strike-interrupted 1981 season, where he was used mostly in middle relief, finishing with a respectable ERA of 3.51, and his first of 478 major league saves on August 29 at Dodger Stadium. He was the last player drafted by the Wrigley organization to make the major leagues.
The Cubs' closer for 1981, Dick Tidrow, had a poor season and in 1982, closing duties were shared by Smith, Willie Hernández and Bill Campbell. Smith pitched well and even started five games from mid-June to early July. In the last start (which was also the last start of his career), Smith picked up his first major league hit by hitting a home run off eventual Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Smith managed only two singles for the rest of his career. He saved 17 games for the season and was locked in as the regular closer for the Cubs, a position he held for the next five years.
1983 was Smith's breakout year. In early May, Smith had pitched ten games and had yet to give up a run while allowing only three hits and striking out 12. His ERA rose to only 1.85 at the end of May but allowed only one run in July and his ERA dropped to 1.15. Smith was selected for his first All-Star Game but did not fare well, surrendering the final two runs in the American League's 13-3 rout. His second half was almost as good as the first, even though the Cubs continued losing. He finished with a career-best 1.65 ERA -- more than two points below the league average -- and a career-best 1.074 WHIP while leading the N.L. with 29 saves and 56 games finished. He also received a point in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting and eight points in the N.L. MVP voting.
The 1984 Cubs were the best team Smith pitched for in his career. In seven of Smith's eight seasons in Chicago, the Cubs failed to win as many as 80 games. While the Cubs finished with the franchise's best record since World War II, Smith compiled his worst ERA of the decade -- although he saved more than 30 games for the first time in his career. In Game 2 of the 1984 NLCS, Smith recorded two outs for the save to put the Cubs up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series against San Diego. The Padres easily won Game 3 but Game 4 was tied when Smith started the 8th inning. After a scoreless 8th and a strikeout to start the bottom of the 9th, Smith allowed a single to Tony Gwynn. Steve Garvey followed with a two-run homer to force Game 5. The Cubs led that game in the 7th inning but Smith watched from the bench as the underdog Padres scored four runs and won a trip to the 1984 World Series.
Smith saved more than 30 games while the Cubs had a losing record in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In 1987, Smith was chosen for his second All-Star Game. When the midsummer classic went into extra innings, Smith pitched the 10th, 11th and 12th innings, striking out four and getting credit for the win when the National League scored the only two runs of the game in the 13th.
With his 30th save in 1987, Smith became only the second pitcher, after Dan Quisenberry, to reach the mark in four consecutive seasons. But rumors were swirling about his weight and its effect on his knees and Smith was requesting a trade out of Chicago. Many Cubs fans were ready to ride Smith out of town on the proverbial rail, and GM Jim Frey accomodated them -- on December 8, 1987, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. Nipper pitched only 104 more innings in the majors and Schiraldi was out of baseball before age 30. There were rumors that Frey had turned down better deals; supposedly, the Dodgers had offered Bob Welch straight-up for Smith, and the Braves had offered Jeff Blauser and John Smoltz for Smith and Shawon Dunston. Either of those would have worked out far better for the Cubs than the actual trade.
Smith, meanwhile, registered nearly 300 saves after leaving the Cubs. The trade started him on a journey that included seven teams in eight seasons and that some feel contribute to him not being in the Hall of Fame. He still holds three of the top ten best single-season save years in Cub history -- 36 in 1987, and 33 in both 1984 and 1985.
The 1980's ended with Smith as one of the premier closers of the decade. One of the few that could lay claim to being even better was Jeff Reardon. While Smith had four consecutive 30-save seasons, Reardon finished the decade with five in a row. Smith saved 234 games by the end of 1989, Reardon had 266. Reardon did Smith one better with a World Series trophy, as a member of the 1987 Minnesota Twins. The Boston Red Sox had both dominating closers on their roster when they signed Reardon as a free agent on December 6, 1989. As a result, two of the best closers in history wound up pitching in games together for Boston for the first month of 1990 with Reardon setting up Smith for a save on April 18 -- a game started by a third legendary pitcher, Roger Clemens. The unusual double-closer situation lasted less than a month before Smith was traded to St. Louis for slugging outfielder, Tom Brunansky, on May 4, 1990.
In 1991, Smith accumulated saves at a record pace. Smith reached 40 saves for the first time in his career. On September 28, he picked up save number 45 to tie Bruce Sutter's National League record from 1984 (coincidentally, when Sutter and Smith reached 45 saves in their respective seasons, both were ex-Cubs pitching for St. Louis against the Cubs). Smith claimed the league record for himself three days later and finished the season with a career-high 47 saves. This record was broken two years later by Randy Myers' 53 saves for the Cubs in 1993.
In 1992 Smith's former teammate Reardon broke the career saves record which had been held by Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers for over a decade. But Smith was registering saves at a faster pace than Reardon and, at the end of 1992, he was not far behind. Just two weeks into the 1993 season, Smith passed Reardon with career save number 358. At age 37, Reardon was slowing down and Smith was well in front of him when Reardon retired in 1994. Smith seemed to be getting better with age and was again racking up saves at a ferocious rate with St. Louis. The day after setting the career major league record, he saved his 301st National League game to break that record as well (similar to the single-season NL record, the career NL record had been held by Bruce Sutter. That record, of course, is now also held by Trevor Hoffman). He reached 30 saves in only the 83rd game of the season tying the record set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990 for the earliest any pitcher had reached 30 saves. While only in August, Smith logged his 40th save for the third consecutive year but his ERA had ballooned to a career-worst 4.50. Also, the Cardinals were ten games behind Philadelphia, seemingly out of contention, and Smith was poised to become a free agent after the season. On August 31, 1993, they traded Smith to the Yankees for Rich Batchelor, who was a highly regarded prospect at the time, but whose 43-game major league career resulted in a 5.03 ERA.
The well-traveled Smith went on to pitch for the Yankees, Orioles, Angels, Reds and Expos.
For 1996, the Angels replaced Smith in the closer role with second-year pitcher Troy Percival. After only eight games as a setup man, Smith, who was unhappy in California, was traded to Cincinnati for another ex-Cub, Chuck McElroy, on May 27. He signed with Montreal for the 1997 season, but pitched poorly in 25 games (five saves) before leaving the club in July. At age 40, he hooked up with a ninth team -- the Royals -- for spring training 1998, but retired before pitching in a regular season game.
Career Highlights and Awards
#2 all-time for career saves
#1 all-time for career games finished
3-time Rolaids Relief Man of the Year
4-time TSN Fireman of the Year
4-time single-season saves leader
4 times in the top 10 for Cy Young Award voting