Almost universally regarded as the finest fielding shortstop of all time, Ozzie Smith - a 13-time Gold Glove winner for fielding excellence - was the 37th player elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Always a base-stealing threat, Smith turned himself over time into a decent hitter as well - he retired with 2,460 base hits, 1,072 walks, a career OBA of .337 (better than Cal Ripken's, when adjusted for league and park factors) and 580 stolen bases.
But it was his glove in the field that earned him HOF stripes. He redefined the position, making acrobatic plays that left those watching in true amazement, assured that they were witnessing something never before seen on a ball field. He appeared on 15 National League All-Star teams, won a record 13 Gold Gloves in a row (from 1980 to 1992), and in 1980 he set the major league fielding record with 621 assists (the record still stands). Smith also set the following career records for shortstops: most career assists (8,375); most career double plays (1,590); most total chances accepted (12,624), most years with 500 or more assists (8), and most years leading the league in assists and chances accepted (8).
He broke into the majors with the San Diego Padres in 1978, and played 4 seasons there. Smith hit .258 in his rookie season, and followed that up by hitting .211, .230 and .222. After the 1981 season, he was traded straight up to St. Louis for Garry Templeton, who was a steady .300 hitter. Smith's career blossomed there under the tutelage of Whitey Herzog; he was the perfect fit for Busch Stadium's quick, artificial turf, and in 1982 the Cardinals won the NL pennant.
In that year's National League Championship Series, Smith hit .556 with three doubles in a sweep of the Atlanta Braves, then went on to help the Cardinals to the World Series championship in seven games over the Milwaukee Brewers. In his first off-season after helping St. Louis win their first World Series since 1967, Smith's defensive skills were not only recognized by his third consecutive Gold Glove, but also by a three-year contract that made him baseball's first $1 million shortstop. Said Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog of Smith at the time of the signing, "He took two hits or a run away from our opponents every game last year. That's just as important as a guy who drives in runs."
While not known for his bat, Smith's offense continued to improve while in St. Louis. In 1985 he batted .276 and helped the Cardinals win their second pennant since his arrival. In the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the series tied at two games apiece, Smith faced Tom Niedenfuer with one out in the bottom of the ninth and hit his first career home run batting left-handed (in 3,009 at-bats) to win the game. Smith went on to bat .435 in the Cardinals' six-game triumph and won the NLCS Most Valuable Player Award, but St. Louis would fall to the Kansas City Royals in seven games in the World Series. Smith's third and final World Series appearance would come in 1987 in arguably his best offensive season, and he would be rewarded with finishing second to the Chicago Cubs' Andre Dawson in N.L. Most Valuable Player voting.
In addition to his fine fielding and 43 stolen bases, he would finish the year with career bests in batting average (.303), hits (182), runs scored (104), doubles (40), on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.383) and runs batted in (75).
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Smith was born on December 26, 1954, at Mobile, Alabama. As a six-year-old, he and his family, which included five siblings, moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles, Ca. Though he played a number of sports as a youngster, he never played a position on the baseball field other than shortstop. Going unselected by any big league team in the free-agent draft after his graduation from Locke High School, where he was a teammate of longtime first baseman Eddie Murray, Smith had the option of pursuing baseball or basketball on the collegiate level. Deciding to concentrate on baseball, Smith attended California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, Ca. on an academic scholarship, where he walked on to the team.
After his junior year at Cal-Poly, the Detroit Tigers selected Smith in the seventh round of the 1976 free-agent draft; he did not sign and returned for his senior year. He would eventually sign for $5,000 with the San Diego Padres after being drafted in the fourth round of the 1977 draft. Soon after agreeing to a contract, Smith began his professional baseball career with the Walla Walla (WA) Padres of the Class A Northwest League.
The switch-hitter turned heads not only by batting .303 and leading the league in games played, at-bats, runs scored and stolen bases, but also by leading league shortstops in double plays, assists and fielding percentage. During his first off-season, Smith attracted attention with a .323 batting average in the Arizona Instructional League, and so it was that after only 68 games of professional experience he made the jump to the major leagues. As their regular shortstop in 1978, he helped the Padres to an 84-78 record, played in 159 of the team's 162 games, led the league in sacrifice hits with 28, finished fourth in stolen bases with 40, and was runner-up to Atlanta's Bob Horner for Rookie of the Year honors.
"He took two hits or a run away from our opponents every game last year. That's just as important as a guy who drives in runs."
Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.
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