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Former saves leader Smith among elite closers

MLB.com

Over the course of February, which is Black History Month, MLB Network and MLB.com are looking back at some of the most prominent African-American players in MLB history. Today, we look back on the career of longtime big league closer Lee Smith.

Smith established himself as one of baseball's most dominant closers during his 18-year Major League career. He converted 478 saves, holding the MLB record for career saves from 1993-2006. Trevor Hoffman (601) eclipsed Smith's record in 2006, and he held it until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2011.

Over the course of February, which is Black History Month, MLB Network and MLB.com are looking back at some of the most prominent African-American players in MLB history. Today, we look back on the career of longtime big league closer Lee Smith.

Smith established himself as one of baseball's most dominant closers during his 18-year Major League career. He converted 478 saves, holding the MLB record for career saves from 1993-2006. Trevor Hoffman (601) eclipsed Smith's record in 2006, and he held it until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2011.

Smith's professional career began as a second-round Draft pick by the Cubs in 1975. He made his big league debut five years later, pitching in relief for Chicago against the Braves on Sept. 1, 1980. Smith took over the closer's job midway through the '82 season.

Video: Lee Smith discusses how he became a closer

The big right-hander immediately excelled as a closer, posting a 1.65 ERA with a National League-leading 29 saves in 1983, earning his first of seven All-Star nods. Smith recorded 31 or more saves each of the next four seasons for the Cubs, and he still holds the franchise record for career saves with 180. In '84, he helped the Cubs reach the postseason for the first time since 1945, but they lost to the Padres in the NL Championship Series.

Smith's Chicago tenure came to an end after the 1987 season, when he was dealt to the Red Sox in exchange for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. Smith helped the Red Sox return to the playoffs in '88, but again, his team couldn't reach the World Series, losing to the A's in the American League Championship Series.

Boston brought in another star closer, Jeff Reardon, in free agency prior to the 1990 season. Smith received the bulk of the ninth-inning duties to begin the year, but was dealt to the Cardinals in early May. In St. Louis, Smith enjoyed arguably the best seasons of his career.

Video: LAD@STL: Smith records his 300th career save

Smith made three consecutive NL All-Star appearances from 1991-93 and established a new NL single-season saves record with 47 in '91. That season, he was the NL Cy Young Award runner-up behind Atlanta's Tom Glavine and finished eighth in NL Most Valuable Player Award voting.

In August 1993, Smith was traded to the Yankees for right-hander Rich Batchelor. He then spent the final four years of his career bouncing around the Majors to a few different teams. After making just eight appearances with New York, Smith signed a one-year deal with the Orioles and led the AL with 33 saves as an All-Star in 1994, again earning Cy Young (fifth) and MVP (14th) votes.

Smith made an All-Star team for the final time in 1995 as a member of the California Angels, then split the '96 season between the Angels and Reds. He played his final big league games for the Expos in 1997.

Though Smith never received enough votes to reach Cooperstown in his 15 years of Hall of Fame eligibility, Smith left behind quite the legacy as one of the game's most feared closers. He compiled a 3.03 career ERA and converted 478 of 581 save opportunities (82.3 percent) over 1,022 games (1,289 1/3 innings) in the Majors. He led the NL in saves three times and the AL once, while he totaled 30 or more saves 11 times.

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles.