COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Lee Smith's journey from the mound to Cooperstown was much like his entrance in from the bullpen, slow and deliberate.
On Sunday, he finally arrived.
Smith, 61, retired in 1997 as baseball’s all-time saves leader. He still ranks third on the list with 478 career saves, accumulated with eight different clubs over 18 seasons. It took nearly that long for him to break through the doors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. After being passed over by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for 15 consecutive years, Smith earned induction into the Hall as a unanimous selection of the Today’s Game Era Committee last December.
Lee gave a poignant speech Sunday afternoon, in front of an estimated 55,000 fans outside the Clark Sports Center, speaking to the importance of family, community, being a good teammate and an even better person.
Lee grew up in Castor, La., a town that he said is even smaller than tiny Cooperstown. But tiny Castor supported the imposing Smith, putting him on a career path toward baseball.
"It was Mr. Sneed, my high-school principal; once he called me into his office,” Smith said. “I thought I was in trouble, but instead he wanted me to come out for the baseball team after seeing me throw a ball in our [physical education] class. But I was focused on basketball. I said no. I knew my family couldn't afford the equipment I needed. The next day, Mr. Sneed called me into his office again, and I can still picture it. On his desk was a brand-new uniform, glove and all the equipment I needed.
"It was community that gave me the chance to play baseball."
The Cubs selected Smith in the second round of the 1975 Draft. He eventually became one of the greatest closers in baseball history, but only after Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams convinced Smith to keep pitching after the Cubs moved him from the rotation to the bullpen as a Minor Leaguer in 1979.
Back then, Smith took the move as an insult.
“In those days, you wanted to be a starter or nothing,” Smith said.
Smith debuted for the Cubs in 1980. He became the Cubs’ closer in two years. Smith finished the ’82 season with a league-leading 29 saves. He credited Hall of Famer and teammate Ferguson Jenkins for showing him the way – as well as his curveball and his love of cowboy boots. Smith notched his first 180 saves for the Cubs, the team whose logo will appear on his Hall of Fame plaque. He remains the franchise’s all-time saves leader.
The Cubs dealt Smith to the Red Sox after the 1987 season, starting what would be a transient second half to Smith’s career. He went from Boston to St. Louis, where Smith would put together some of the most dominant years of his career. Over four-plus seasons, Smith accrued 160 saves for the Cardinals. He twice led the National League in saves (47 in 1991; 43 in 1992), and finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NL Cy Young Award voting those years.
“Those were some of my favorite seasons, playing under the great Joe Torre,” Smith said of his tenure in St. Louis.
He had already saved 43 games when the Cardinals shipped him to the Yankees on the final day of August 1993.
New York would be one of five stops Smith made over the final five seasons of his career. He retired with the distinction as baseball’s all-time saves leader, a mark he held until Trevor Hoffman surpassed him in 2006.
Smith’s career numbers include a 3.03 ERA, 802 games finished, 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 169 saves of at least four outs. He was a three-time winner of the Rolaids Relief Man award and finished in the top five of the Cy Young vote three different times.
"No matter where I pitched,” he said. “I always wanted to embody my two traits -- loyalty, to the team and my teammates … and dependability, as a teammate and a pitcher.
"It didn't matter when I was given the ball -- seventh, eighth or ninth inning, no matter how many innings I pitched -- as long as I could impact the game and help my team.
"I truly believe, from all walks of life, if you work hard, and if you are loyal and dependable, you can really find success. Those are the lessons that I learned in the course of my life, from the community, from the people in baseball who have become my second family, many of whom sit behind me today. You kept me pointed toward home plate, and I am forever grateful."