Record-setting closer Lee Smith enjoys every minute of Hall of Fame visit
Lee Smith’s Hall of Fame journey ended in December with a call informing him he had achieved baseball’s greatest individual honor. In his first trip to Cooperstown since, the joy was apparent throughout his whirlwind visit.
“It’s been crazy. There’s a lot of this stuff here I already knew, especially about the Negro League and guys I played with and against. But being here is like no game you’ve ever been in before,” said an awed Smith, the longtime closer dressed casually in blue jeans, a blue turtleneck and a blue fleece sweater at a late morning press conference held inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Plaque Gallery on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
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Smith had been to the Hall of Fame a number of times in the past, including attending the 2009 Hall of Fame induction of Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice and Joe Gordon. But this time it was different as the monumental aspect of the event was still sinking in with the 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony a little less than six months away.
“It’s getting there, but I’m still in awe,” said Smith, currently a minor league pitching coach with the San Francisco Giants, a franchise he has worked with for two decades since he retired as a player. “Whenever I sign an autograph and someone says, ‘Hey, put Hall of Fame on it,’ I don’t know if the ‘Hall of Fame’ goes first or the year goes first. Miss Jane (Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark) told me yesterday you always put the Hall of Fame first.”
Smith was at Hall of Fame for his Orientation Visit, an annual rite for all living inductees in preparation for their Induction Weekend. He will be joining fellow closers Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Trevor Hoffman in Cooperstown’s bullpen.
Smith and Harold Baines were Today’s Game Era Committee electees, the pair’s selection announced on Dec. 9. The Windy City legends were among the six former big league players, three managers and one executive that comprised the 10-name Today's Game Era ballot that was voted upon at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.
“Most people know my reputation, that I’m pretty relaxed. And I can’t lie to you – I was asleep when the call came,” said Smith, who appeared on the BBWAA ballot for 15 years before becoming eligible for Today’s Game Era Committee consideration for the first time this year. “It was unbelievable just to get that call. You wait so many years. When I first retired, people told me I was going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
The six-member Hall of Fame Class of 2019 will also include Baseball Writers’ Association of America electees Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez and Rivera. The Induction Ceremony will be held on Sunday, July 21 at the Clark Sports Center.
“I’ve got goosebumps. I’ve never been nervous before, but I’m nervous right now,” said Smith, who turned 61 in December. “I’ll get there when I see all the guys at the Induction Ceremony. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. It can’t get there soon enough.”
Smith, with his menacing glare, was of baseball’s premier closers in the 1980s and ‘90s, an imposing 6-foot-5 figure atop a pitching mound. During an 18-year career, he pitched with the Cubs (1980-87), Red Sox (1988-90), Cardinals (1990-92), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995), Reds (1996) and Expos (1997). The all-time saves leader at the time of his retirement with 478, the seven-time All-Star led his league in saves four times and topped the 30-save mark in 11 seasons. Smith held the all-time saves record for 13 years, from 1993 to 2006, before 2018 Hall of Famer Hoffman eclipsed it in 2006, and his 478 saves now rank third all-time behind 2019 Hall of Fame electee Rivera and Hoffman.
Asked if his life had changed since receiving the Hall of Fame news, Smith joked, “You think?” before adding, “Everybody recognizes me know because of the Hall of Fame. Back in the day I had an identity crisis because in Chicago everybody wanted to throw me on the football field because I was such a big guy. I don’t have that problem anymore. Now they know who Lee Smith is. I’m proud of that.”
Prior to meeting with the media, an engaged and inquisitive Smith went on a two-hour tour of the Museum guided by Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl.
While visiting the Pride and Passion exhibit dedicated to the African-American baseball experience, Smith told a story of the desegregation of his high school. Soon after, an opposing baseball team hung Smith in effigy when his Louisiana school visited. With an early lead, Smith began hitting batter after batter.
As Smith retold it, he didn’t realize it when the opposition eventually took the offending image down from a tree. According to Smith, his coach soon came out to the mound and told his young pitcher, “I think they got the point.”
The six newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame will take their permanent place in Cooperstown on Sunday, July 21, with the Induction Ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m. EDT – televised live on MLB Network, highlighting four days of celebratory events and programs for baseball fans of all ages, as part of Hall of Fame Weekend 2019, July 19-22.
Hall of Fame Weekend 2019 will also feature the Saturday, July 20 Awards Presentation, when J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Jayson Stark and Ford. C. Frick Award winner Al Helfer will be honored. The Weekend will include family programming for baseball fans of all ages, including the July 20 Parade of Legends and a July 22 Legends of the Game roundtable discussion event with the five living inductees.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum