Played 18 years for eight teams
Seven-time all-star led the league in saves four times. 29.4 WAR, 13.8 WAA
Pro argument: Great reliever who for 13 years held the all-time saves record.
Con argument: Closers are specialists who pitch a fraction of innings that starters do.
Deserves to be in Hall?: Depends on your thought on relievers.
Will get elected this year?: No.
Will ever get elected?: 40%
* * *
Buck O’Neil loved to tell the story about the first time he saw Lee Arthur Smith. He was sent to Northwest Louisiana to take a look at a high school prospect. Buck had become quite familiar with Northwest Louisiana because he had gone to Ruston several times to see a high school phenomenon named J.R. Richard.
Buck was sitting in the stands in Castor, La. — about 47 miles from Castor via a bunch of back roads — waiting for his player to come up. And then he saw this hulk take the mound; the kid couldn’t have been more than 15-years-old but already he had to be 6-foot-5.
“Lord,” Buck said to himself. “Who is this? Another J.R. Richard?”
And then the kid began to throw — and his fastballs were popping the glove. He had a slider too. He WAS another J.R. Richard. Buck sat in the stands, mesmerized. If you scout baseball long enough, you have one of those stories, one of those days when you go to see one player and then another one, a breathtaking talent you had never heard about, comes into your field of vision. It is WHY you become a baseball scout.
“Lord,” Buck said to himself after he watched Lee Arthur throw for the first time. “What do they put in the water down here?”
* * *
Lee Arthur — the only name he ever grew up hearing — played Major League Baseball as recently as 1997 and yet he grew up in a very different America. He was the son of a hog farmer and every morning he would wake up with the roosters and work the farm. Then he would get on a bus and go the 50-plus miles to school in Ringgold — passing three other schools along the way because they were for whites only. On Saturdays, his father Willie Smith would load up the pickup truck, Lee Arthur would get in, and they would drive up into the woods and cut down pine trees to sell as pulpwood.
When Lee Arthur turned 11, a court order desegregated the school in Castor. He would walk three miles to school — a big improvement from those interminable bus rides — and enter his school through a line of picketers who screamed the vilest obscenities at him. “Some of my friends I see back home,” he would tell a reporter 25 years later, “were the same ones holding the picket signs. Hey, people change.”
He didn’t want to play baseball. Lee Arthur was a basketball player and a good one — good enough that Joe B. Hall at Kentucky took a look at him. Baseball was just a thing that came naturally. As he told it, his basketball coach (also the baseball coach) said to him one day, “Lee Arthur, you have long arms. Let’s see you throw that baseball.” He would always say the first time he ever pitched, he threw a no-hitter.
By the time Lee Arthur was a senior at Castor High, Buck O’Neil was not the only scout who knew about him. Everybody knew about him. But Buck was the one who had seen him first and loved him the most, and he convinced the Chicago Cubs to take Smith in the second round of the draft.
When Lee Arthur was told that he had been drafted — he would swear this is true — he said: “I didn’t think the country did that no more.”
* * *
Everybody marveled at how slowly Lee Smith walked to the pitchers’ mound. Well maybe “marveled” is the wrong word, but it was something to see. One reporter clocked him at 21 seconds from dugout to mound, roughly three times the normal time it took a pitcher to get out there.
“It looks like you’re walking to your execution,” a reporter told Smith.
“No,” Smith said. “I’m the executioner.”
He was that … for the better part of 18 years. I would argue — have argued — that if anyone represents the transformation of the modern closer, it is not Dennis Eckersley. It is Lee Smith. For the first eight full seasons of his career, Lee Smith was what you would call a fireman. He averaged pretty close to 100 innings a year, he would be brought in to the game in different innings, depending on when the team was in the most trouble, he would get 40-plus inherited runners a year to strand.
Then, at roughly the midway point of his career, Joe Torre bercame his manager with the St. Louis Cardinals. Torre turned Lee Smith into baseball’s first modern closer. Well, technically, the first modern closer was Bobby Thigpen, who in 1990 set the modern save record by with 57 with 41 of them being modern saves (start the ninth inning with a lead of three or less). Nobody had ever had that many one-inning saves. It was a whole new way ot using a reliever. But Thigpen’s success quickly faded.
Smith, meanwhile, embraced his new role. In 1991, he led the league with 47 saves — 34 of them were modern saves, most in baseball. In 1992, he led the league in saveswith 43 — and 36 of them were modern saves, again most in baseball (more even than Eckersley who had 51 total saves and won the Cy Young and MVP Award).
And those two years really changed the landscape. From that point on, every team wanted a modern closer. Often the one they wanted was, well, Lee Smith. He led the American League with 33 saves for Baltimore in 1994. He had 37 saves for the Angels in 1995. By then he was 38 years old and more or less done. But by then he had also set the career record for saves.
As for Smith, well, he didn’t particularly care how he was used. When he was first made a reliever (by former All-Star Randy Hundley, his manager in Class AA) he remembered saying, “I ain’t relieving for any other man,” and, as Smith told the story, he quit baseball for two weeks until Buck O’Neil and Billy Williams talked him into coming back.
That might be an exaggeration, but what is real is that once he accepted his role as a relief pitcher, he came to accept any part of the job. Lee Arthur figured his job was to pitch. They were paying him good money to do it. So when his role changed, when he got traded (he was traded four times), when a team decided to let him go elsewhere, well, he didn’t see any reason to complain about it. He’d worked the farm. He’d crossed furious picket lines. He’d cut down so many trees that the sawdust wouldn’t come out of his hair. Pitching baseballs seemed a pretty good life to him.
* * *
It looked at first like Lee Arthur would get elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers. His first year on the ballot he got 42.3%, which is a very solid number, one that promises eventual election. There was quite a lot of enthusiasm for relievers on the Hall of Fame ballot at that point — Bruce Sutter was climbing as was Goose Gossage and both would eventually get elected. Smith, with his career saves record, seemed perfectly in line with them.
Then, a couple of things quickly happened. One, the voters seemed to decide in unison that Sutter and Gossage were both better Hall of Fame candidates than Smith. This is easier to understand with Gossage, who pitched 600 more innings than Smith and was more of an old-fashioned reliever, but it’s not quite as clear why Sutter was deemed better. I guess it came down to a couple of things: One Sutter already had a few years of momentum beind him. And two, Sutter got a lot of credit for popularizing the split-fingered fastball.
Whatever the reasons, over the next two years Sutter and Gossage moved well ahead while Lee Smith’s vote total stayed stagnant. There was a traffic jam of relief pitchers and Smith found himself blocked out.
Then in 2006, Sutter was elected, Goosage moved to the cusp, it seemed ike Smith would finally get his time. He jumped back up to 45% and seemed ready to begin the climb … only that very year, 2006, Trevor Hoffman passed Smith on the all-time saves list. The one thing about borderline Hall of Fame candidates is that they usually need one thing, an elevator pitch, in order to get to 75%. For Jim Rice, it was being “the most feared hitter.” For Sutter, it was that split-fingered fastball. For Gossage it was, “an old-time reliever.”
Lee Smith’s elevator pitch had been that he was the all-time saves leader.
And he wasn’t anymore.
After Gossage was elected in 2008, Smith’s numbers did climb slowly, peaking at 50.6% in 2012. But by then, Hoffman and Mariano Rivera had left his record in the dust. Other closers with a lot of saves like Todd Jones and Troy Percival and John Franco had come on the ballot to absolutely no fanfaire or enthusiasm, and the whole idea of putting in a pitcher into the Hall of Fame for saves lost significant appeal. It’s hard to justify putting a pitcher with fewer than 1,500 innings pitched into the Hall of Fame. You need momentum. Lee Smith just couldn’t get any.
And so Lee Smith was the reliever stuck between Hall of Fame reliever gold rushes. Before him, Rollie Finger, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage got in. After him, Trevor Hoffman will get in, Billy Wagner could build momentum, and Mariano Rivera is on the horizon. Like Artie Fufkin, Smith had no timing.
I do think Lee Smith will have a very good chance of getting elected by the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee, whatever that committee happens to look like when it’s his time.