Baseball Digest Birthdays: Lee Smith

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

In an era with closers in both the American League and the National League with more than 550 saves, it might be hard to appreciate the stellar career of Lee Smith. It may be even more surprising to know that Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are the only pitchers in history to have more career saves than Lee Smith. The former All-Time leader in saves turns 52 today.

Drafted in the second round of the 1975 amateur draft, Smith reached the majors on September 1st, 1980. By 1983, he had entrenched himself as one of the premier closers in baseball when he led the National League with 29 saves and earned his first of seven trips to the All-Star Game. Between 1982 and 1987, Smith notched 179 saves with an Earned Run Average of 2.85 while averaging nearly 100 innings pitched.

At 29 years old, it seemed Lee Smith’s star was on the rise. The Chicago Cubs opted instead to trade their All-Star closer to the Boston Red Sox for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper. Though he left following 1987, Lee Smith remains the Chicago Cubs’ All-Time leader in saves 23 years later.

In ’88 Lee Smith turned in another great year as he shored up the Red Sox bullpen and locked down 29 saves as he kept his ERA under 3.00. Though he helped Boston to the 1988 postseason, he became expendable by 1990 when the team acquired Jeff Reardon. He was traded early in the 1990 season to the St. Louis Cardinals for Tom Brunansky.

Coming off his 1991 season with 47 saves, Rick Hummel featured an article on Lee Smith in the June 1992 issue of Baseball Digest about the “Pitcher With An Identity Crisis”. Click here to check it out!

In St. Louis, Smith experienced a resurgence, saving 27 games and logging an ERA of 2.10 in his first season with the team. It turned out to be just a glimpse of what Smith had to offer. He surpassed the 40 save mark in each of the next three seasons, leading the league twice. Over the 3+ seasons with the Cardinals, Smith earned 160 saves with a 2.90 ERA. With the team out of contention by the end of 1993, he was traded to the New York Yankees in late August of that year. For thirteen years after his retirement, Lee Smith was the all-time leader in saves for both the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Smith’s departure from St. Louis kicked off an odyssey that started with the New York Yankees, led to the Baltimore Orioles, and westward to the then-named California Angels. The Angels traded Smith to the Cincinnati Reds and his final season in the big leagues came with the Montreal Expos in 1997. Despite the shifting around the leagues, he had two 30+ save seasons including an American League leading 33 saves in 1994.

Despite his career longevity and status among all time greats, Lee Smith remains outside of the honor that recognizes the greatest of all time. Though eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame since 2003, Smith has never received more than 47.3% of votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The voting record to date for Lee Smith’s chances at induction to the Hall of Fame is well short of the 75% threshold. On January 5th, 2011 the BBWAA will announce this year’s Hall of Fame class, perhaps with news that Lee Smith will finally join the ranks of the greatest to play the game.

Also Celebrating A Birthday Today:

Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett was born on December 4th, 1868. He had a career average of .338 and had back to back seasons hitting better than .400!

Bob Shawkey pitched in five World Series for the New York Yankees, and was born on December 4th, 1890. He won 195 games in 15 years!

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