Smith struck fear into the minds of many hitters while closing out games for nearly two decades, but it was never about his abilities on the mound. For Smith, one word came to mind during his induction speech: community.
For every great player, the physical abilities are what garner attention. What rarely gets mentioned are the experiences and supporting casts behind these players.
“Don’t let the small town fool you, Castor provides one of the strongest local communities you could ever find,” Smith said of his home town. “It wasn’t just my arm that got me here, it was the whole community of Castor, Louisiana.”
Opening The Door
With a reminiscent smile and voice resonating with happiness and excitement, Lee Smith recounted the impact that the town of Castor had on his MLB career. Smith was a talented basketball player as well, and he thought that was his ticket to better opportunities.
That changed when he was called in to the principal’s office one day in high school. He remembers the principal, Mr. Sneed, talking to him about playing baseball after watching him throw a ball in P.E. class.
Smith declined because he knew the game was too expensive for his family to afford but Sneed persisted. The following day, Sneed called the talented student-athlete back into his office, but with a better offer on the table. Sneed provided a brand new uniform as well as the necessary equipment Smith needed to embark on his journey, leaving him with no option but to play.
“It was community that gave me a chance to play baseball,” Smith said.
And so began Smith’s path to success in baseball, and along the way, community was always there to keep him in check. Another example Smith mentions is Bobby Gray, a community leader from Castor. Gray would drag him to games and stall the start of games when he wouldn’t show up to others.
Sometimes doors shut just as quickly as they open. If not for the tight knit community in Castor, Smith’s baseball door would have shut long before his career took off.
The Cubs signed Lee Smith out of high school, and he began the arduous process that is minor league baseball. During his speech, he made note of Wrigley Field truly being the ‘Friendly Confines.’ He talked about how the familial vibe that everyone gave on Chicago, from the fire department across the street to the grounds crew. The Cubs community stood out above all else to him.
The impact of the Cubs community shined bright when Smith almost quit the game before he even debuted as a Cub. He was discouraged when the organization wanted him to pitch in relief rather than start games.
“In those days, you wanted to be a starter or nothing,” Smith said. “Instead of going on a ten-day road trip, I went home.”
The Cubs community came to the rescue. Cubs icon Billy Williams knew the potential Smith possessed. He took it upon himself to assure him that baseball was changing, and relief pitchers were emerging as valuable assets to MLB teams. As a result, Smith embraced the role and signed his contract for 1980, a season that ended with his MLB debut.
Along the way, he befriended Fergie Jenkins, another great Cub, who taught him a curveball. The Cubs community provided Smith a lifelong friend, who also had a significant impact on his career.
Lee Smith’s career has long been worthy of Cooperstown, NY. He retired as the all-time saves leader with 478, a record he would hold for 13 years. Throw in ten, 30 save seasons, and tremendous success both in multi-inning and one-inning closer roles, it is clear that he was destined to be a Hall of Fame pitcher.
Thinking back, it is crazy to imagine that this could all have never existed if not for the kind hearts and caring generosity provided by members of Smith’s communities.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images