At the time of his retirement, the numbers left little room for doubt.
Lee Arthur Smith – by virtue of having saved the most games in major league history – was one of baseball’s greatest relief pitchers.
Smith, born Dec. 4, 1957, in Jamestown, La., was an excellent basketball player and part-time baseball player in high school. But bad knees and a million-dollar arm convinced him to turn to the diamond instead of the hardwood, and he was drafted in the second round of the 1975 amateur draft by the Chicago Cubs. He quickly advanced through the minor leagues – but nearly quit the game when the Cubs decided to make him a relief pitcher.
“I thought it was a slap in the face, like I wasn’t good enough to be a starter,” said Smith, who was lured back to baseball with the help of future Hall of Famer and former Cubs star Billy Williams.
Smith was good enough. By 1980, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander with the blazing fastball debuted with the Cubs, and by 1982 he had earned Chicago’s closer job with 17 saves and a 2.69 earned-run average in 72 games.
The next season, Smith led the National League with 29 saves – the first of four times he would lead his league in that category – while posting a 1.65 ERA and earning the first of his seven All-Star Game selections. In 1984, Smith helped the Cubs win their first NL East title with nine wins and 33 saves.
But when the Cubs began to slide, management made Smith available via a trade. Following the 1987 season, the Cubs dealt Smith – their all-time saves leader – to the Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi.
Smith saved 54 games during the next two seasons, then was traded to St. Louis during the 1990 campaign. He led the NL in saves in 1991 (47) and 1992 (43), and had 43 saves on Aug. 31, 1993, when the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees.
Smith then pitched for four different teams from 1994-97. He led the majors in saves with 33 during the strike-shortened 1994 season, and ended his career with a big league-best 478 saves after he retired during the 1997 season. His powerful right arm never required a single surgical procedure during his 23 seasons in professional baseball.
Smith held the all-time saves record for 13 seasons before Trevor Hoffman broke it in 2006. Today, Smith ranks No. 3 all-time behind Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
His final totals: a 71-92 record, a 3.03 ERA, 1,022 games pitched, 802 games finished (the top career total at the time of his retirement), an NL-record 546 straight games pitched without a fielding error, three reliever of the year awards and those 478 saves.
Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.