When Lee Smith called it a career after the 1997 season, there was no closer more fruitful in baseball history. He held the record in career saves, with 478. He acquired at least 30 saves 10 times and 40 saves three times, leading the NL four times (and the Majors twice). He toed both sides of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry, was a three-time Rolaids Relief winner, a seven-time All-Star and finished second for Cy Young voting in 1991. Above all, though, Smith is a Hall of Famer.
Relievers have come and bested Smith’s records since he retired, but the fact remains that he was one of the best, most trusted closers to toe the rubber. His powerful right arm gave him a chance to fill that destiny, and his competitiveness ensured that it became reality.
These are the top moments of Smith’s illustrious career.
1. The all-time saves record
Date: April 13, 1993
A pair of all-time greats have come and surpassed him. But when Smith, then a Cardinal, passed Jeff Reardon and reached save No. 358 — getting Tim Wallach of the Dodgers to fly out — no one in baseball history had compiled more. It was a mark that stood for 13 years, and it became an ode to Smith himself — to his longevity, to his competitiveness, to his excellence. With 478 saves by the time he called it a career, only Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera have bested Smith; no active closer is within 100 saves of him.
2. An NL record, a career year and Cy Young flirtation
Date: The 1991 season
The greatness of Smith’s career was the longevity paired with the consistency. It’s not just that he was a dominant closer at his peak, but he was a dependable one for eight teams across most of his 18-year career. But for one season especially, he was in the conversation as one of the best pitchers in the Majors, not just closers. The 1991 season was immaculate for Smith. He pitched to a 2.34 ERA, set a then-NL record with 47 saves and walked just 13 batters in 73 innings. You can debate which season was truly his best — the advanced metrics favor his 1983 campaign as a Cub — but this ’91 performance saw him finish the highest he would accomplish in balloting for the NL Cy Young at second, behind Tom Glavine, amid what was a career revival in St. Louis.
3. Save No. 450
Date: June 11, 1995
The milestones were defining for Smith. He tied Bruce Sutter’s career mark of 300 on Aug. 25, 1991, as a member of the Cardinals (a Chicago-to-St. Louis path Sutter also followed). Save No. 350 got easily brushed over when he passed Reardon for No. 1 all-time, and save No. 400 — accomplished as a Yankee in ’93 — made him also the first to reach that mark. But save No. 450 was the last great milestone of Smith’s career. He reached it as a member of the Angels, his sixth team, and did it against the Orioles, his fifth team. Another legend stood in his way, but Smith, with runners on first and third and nursing just a one-run lead, got Cal Ripken Jr. to harmlessly fly out to center. Only 28 more saves would be coming in his illustrious career.
4. A long-awaited induction
Date: July 21, 2019
Missing from Smith’s career arc, for a lengthy amount of time, was recognition. Career over after 1997, Smith had to wait 22 years for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, left out of Cooperstown by the voting process from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for 15 years. But in 2019, under consideration by the Today’s Game Era Committee, Smith earned a perfect 16 out of 16 votes to earn admittance to the Hall of Fame, joining a class with Harold Baines (also by the committee), Rivera (who holds the all-time saves record now), Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina for the long-awaited honor.
5. Taking over for Sutter
Date: The 1982 season
Sutter’s final year in Chicago was in 1980. Smith’s first appearance in the big leagues was the same year. The two joined forces as the Cubs’ late-inning threats, not just a formidable pairing but a Hall of Fame one. After Sutter was traded to St. Louis the ensuing offseason, Smith started, slowly but surely, to find himself in even higher-leverage roles. By the time Sutter was winning a World Series with the Cardinals in 1982, Smith was the full-fledged closer for the rival club. The torch was officially passed.
6. The switch from starting
Date: The 1979 Minor League season
What could have been (or never been). For most of Smith’s first four seasons in the Minors, he was being bred as a starter. But the results did not follow. The young righty was struggling to get outs, with an ERA that struggled to stay down and a walk rate that did the same. But in 1979, he was spurred into relief, and what ensued was a plummeted walks-per-nine-innings mark, a path to the big leagues, and a Hall of Fame career.
7. A conversation with Buck O’Neil
It wasn’t just relieving where Smith needed some guidance to find his niche, but baseball in general. When he was coming up in the high school sports scene of Castor, La., Smith’s first love was basketball, and he was especially good at it. But Smith developed a special bond with Buck O’Neil, the pioneering Black baseball executive who would convince Smith to choose baseball. O’Neil’s Cubs drafted Smith in the second round of the 1975 Draft.
At the time of his enshrinement, Smith was the second player to be signed and scouted by O’Neil and find himself in the Hall of Fame (Lou Brock was the other one). Now O’Neil (posthumously) joins them in Cooperstown.
8. An all-time All-Star appearance
Date: July 14, 1987
Smith was named to an All-Star squad seven times, including five times in a row from 1991-95. But only three times did he actually make an appearance, and it’s his showing in the 1985 Midsummer Classic that stands out. With the AL and NL in a scoreless tie heading into extras, Smith took the mound for the NL in the 10th; he was the squad’s seventh pitcher of the evening. Facing the likes of Kirby Puckett and Mark McGwire (twice), Dave Winfield and Tony Fernandez, Smith allowed just two hits and struck out four across three scoreless frames. By the time Tim Raines broke the gridlock in the 13th, Smith was the pitcher of record and escaped with the win.
9. A pair of perfect three-inning saves
Dates: May 10 and Aug. 29, 1983
Baseball rules stipulate that any reliever who throws the last three innings of a game, no matter the score, qualifies for a save should his team win. What do you call it when those save chances come with the other qualification for a save, nursing a lead of three runs or fewer? Smith made that a conversation during the 1983 campaign. Not only did he compile four saves of at least three innings, but two were amid perfect outings. The first, on May 10, came just a day removed from his first loss of the season, in which he was tagged for a run in 1 2/3 innings against the Dodgers. So he responded with utter dominance: nine batters faced and no baserunners allowed, protecting just a tenuous one-run lead. Smith would accomplish a similar feat in August while paying a visit to the Braves, whiffing two across three flawless innings. His ERA following that outing dipped to 1.49 during a season in which Smith fully introduced himself as one of the top closers not to be trifled with.
10. The postseason opportunity
Date: Oct. 3, 1984
Smith, somewhat infamously, had his fair share of postseason hiccups, with five earned runs across just four total postseason appearances (5 1/3 innings). But it didn’t start out that way. In his postseason introduction, then fully entrenched as the Cubs’ closer in 1984, Smith relieved Steve Trout with one on and one out in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS against the Padres, staked to a 4-2 lead. How did Smith respond? A couple quick outs and his first and only postseason save. The Cubs would lose that series in five games, though, with Smith getting the loss in Game 4. He would only pitch in two more playoff games before he retired.