Smith played his first four seasons with the San Diego Padres where he established himself as an outstanding defensive player who was known for performing backflips while running out to his position on special occasions. When turmoil with Padres' ownership developed, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for shortstop Garry Templeton in 1982. Smith was a major contributor to the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series championship and 1985 and 1987 National League championships. He hit a dramatic game-winning home run during Game 5 of the 1985 National League Championship Series and was named the 1985 NLCS MVP.
Smith retired after the 1996 season, and subsequently had his uniform number (#1) retired by the Cardinals. Since retiring Smith has worked in various broadcast-related positions and was host of the TV show This Week in Baseball from 1997 to 1999.
When Smith was six years old, his family moved from Mobile to the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles. His father became a delivery truck driver for Safeway stores, while his mother became an aide at an Armenian nursing home. Smith's mother was an influential part of his life who stressed the importance of education, and encouraged him to pursue his dreams. When not at the local YMCA or playing sports, Smith sometimes went with friends to the neighborhood lumberyard, springboarding off inner tubes and doing flips into sawdust piles (a precursor to his famous backflips). Developing quick reflexes through leisure activity, Smith would bounce a ball off the concrete steps in front of his house, moving in closer to reduce reaction time with each throw. It was during this time period that a ten year old Smith was forced to endure the 1965 Watts Riots with his family.
Smith's parents decided to divorce while he was attending junior high school, yet his passion for athletics continued to grow. A Los Angeles Dodgers fan, Smith would ride the bus for nearly an hour to get to Dodger Stadium, attending about 25 games a year. Upon becoming a student at Locke High School, Smith played on both the basketball and baseball teams. On the basketball team Smith was a teammate of future NBA player Marques Johnson, just as Smith's baseball teammate Eddie Murray would eventually play in Major League Baseball. After high school Smith attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1974 on a partial academic scholarship, and managed to walk-on to the baseball team. In addition to his classroom education, Smith learned how to switch-hit from Cal-Poly coach Berdy Harr. Smith broke multiple school records during his four years as the school's starting shortstop, including career at-bats (754) and career stolen bases (110).
Smith began 1978 as a non-roster invitee to the San Diego Padres' spring training camp in Yuma, Arizona. Smith credited Padre manager Alvin Dark for instilling confidence in him, as Dark told reporters the shortstop job was Smith's until he proved he could not handle it. Even though Dark was fired in the middle of training camp, Smith made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut on April 7, 1978.
It did not take long for Smith to earn recognition at the Major League level, making what some consider his greatest defensive play only ten games into his rookie season. The Padres played host to the Atlanta Braves on April 20, 1978, and with two out in the top of the fourth inning, Atlanta's Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle. As Smith describes the play in his own words:
It was also during the 1978 season that one of Smith's trademarks came to fruition. Padres promotion director Andy Strasberg knew Smith could perform backflips, but that he only did them during practice before fans entered the stadium. Strasberg asked Smith to do a backflip for fans during Fan Appreciation Day on October 1, the Padres' last home game of the season. After conferring with veteran teammate Gene Tenace, Smith went ahead with the backflip, and it proved to be wildly popular. At the conclusion of the 1978 season, Smith finished second in National League Rookie of the Year voting to Bob Horner.
After working with hitting instructor Bill Allen during the offseason, Smith failed to get a base hit in his first 32 at-bats of the 1979 season. Adding to this was the friction that soon developed between Padre ownership and Smith and his agent at the time, Ed Gottlieb. The parties got into a contract dispute before the 1980 season, and when negotiations lasted into spring training, the Padres opted to renew Smith's contract at his 1979 salary of $72,500. Angered by the Padres' attitude during those contract talks, Gottlieb took out a help-wanted ad in the San Diego Union, part of which read, "Padre baseball player wants part time employment to supplement income. When Joan Kroc, wife of Padres owner Ray Kroc, publicly offered Smith a job as an assistant gardener on her estate, Smith's relationship with the organization deteriorated further.
Aside from the turmoil, Smith was increasingly recognized for his outstanding abilities on the field. In 1980 he set the single season record for most assists by a shortstop (621), and began his string of 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards. The following year Smith found himself as a reserve in the 1981 All-Star Game.
McKeon and Herzog agreed in principle to a six-player trade, with Templeton for Smith as the centerpiece. It was then that Padres manager Dick Williams informed Herzog that a no-trade clause had been included in Smith's 1981 contract. Upon learning of the trade, Smith's initial reaction was to invoke the clause and stay in San Diego, but he was still interested to hear what the Cardinals had to say. While the deal for the other players beside Templeton and Smith went through, Herzog flew to San Diego to personally meet with Smith and Gottlieb over the Christmas holiday. Smith describes how the meeting went:
After more behind-the-scenes contract wrangling, Smith became a St. Louis Cardinal on February 11, 1982. As the 1982 season got underway, Herzog's newly assembled team won 12 games in a row during the month of April, and ultimately finished the season atop the National League East division. The style of baseball Herzog utilized (namely speed on the basepaths, hit-and-run plays, and sacrifice plays) was soon termed "Whiteyball". With excellent speed on the basepaths, his Gold Glove worthy defense, and aptitude for hitting line drives and ground balls at the plate, Smith exhibited traits that coincided with the essence of Whiteyball. In fact, Herzog later claimed that at his peak Smith saved 75 runs per year with his glove.
Not wanting to rest on his defensive laurels, Smith knew that to improve offensively, he would have to use his speed and hit the ball on the ground. Approaching Smith one day during spring training, Herzog said, "Every time you hit a fly ball, you owe me a buck. Every time you hit a ground ball, I owe you a buck. We'll keep that going all year. The bet worked well, and Smith won close to $300 from Herzog during the season.
The 1982 season was also notable for Smith on a personal level. He became a father for the first time with the birth of his son O.J., today known as Nikko, on April 28 in San Diego. When outfielder David Green tore a hamstring muscle less than a month later, the Cardinals brought up prospect Willie McGee from their Triple-A affiliate in Louisville. Thrown together by their status as newcomers to the Cardinal organization during spring training, Smith and McGee got to know each other fairly well. Once McGee joined the big league roster, the two developed an even closer rapport, and Smith likes to think he "helped Willie get over some of the rough spots of adjusting to the major leagues".
Smith participated in the postseason for the first time when the Cardinals took on the Atlanta Braves in the best of five 1982 National League Championship Series (NLCS). Making the most of the opportunity, Smith drove in the series' first run by hitting a sacrifice fly that scored McGee in Game 1, ultimately going five for nine over the course of St. Louis' three-game series sweep.
Just as Herzog had predicted when he told Smith the Cardinals would win the pennant with him on the team, Smith found himself as the team's starting shortstop in the 1982 World Series. It was a matchup of completely opposite strategies; Herzog's Whiteyball pitted against the Milwaukee Brewers and their power-hitting lineup know as "Harvey's Wallbangers". From an individual standpoint, Smith scored three runs, had five hits, and did not commit an error in the field. Additionally, when St. Louis was trailing three to one with one out in the sixth inning of Game 7, Smith started a rally with a base hit to left field, eventually scoring the first of the team's three runs that inning. After Bruce Sutter struck out Gorman Thomas in the ninth, Smith celebrated a World Series championship with his teammates.
It was not until 1985 that the Cardinals reached the postseason again. Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, a split of the first four games set the stage for Game 5 at Busch Stadium. With the score tied at two runs apiece in the bottom of the ninth inning, Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda called upon closer Tom Niedenfuer to prevent the Cardinals from scoring and send the game to extra innings. After inducing Willie McGee to pop up to third, Smith came to bat against Niedenfuer. Never before in his previous 3,009 left-handed Major League at-bats had Smith homered from that side of the plate. Smith then proceeded to hit a fastball down the right field line and over the fence for a home run, ending Game 5 in a 3–2 Cardinal victory. Commenting on his home run, Smith said, "I was trying to get an extra-base hit and get into scoring position. Fortunately, I was able to get the ball up." Smith's feat was later voted the greatest moment in Busch Stadium history by Cardinal fans, and became one of the most notable play-by-play calls in the career of broadcaster Jack Buck.
After Smith's teammate Jack Clark hit a late inning home run of his own in Game 6 to defeat the Dodgers, the Cardinals moved on to face the Kansas City Royals in the 1985 World Series. Once again the story was not what Smith did at the plate (two for 23), but his outstanding defensive play that sportswriters were quick to draw attention to. After the Cardinals took a three games to two advantage, a controversial call by umpire Don Denkinger during Game 6 overshadowed the remainder of the Series, which the Royals won in seven games.
Smith's season and big hit in the NLCS are made all the more remarkable by a health issue that developed in 1985 and continued the rest of his career, that of a torn rotator cuff on his right shoulder. After injuring his shoulder diving into first base, Smith then tried to compensate by changing the angle of his throws, leading to the rotator cuff tear. The 5'-10" (1.78 m), 180-pound (82 kg) Smith rarely spoke of the injury during his career, opting to forgo surgery and instead build up the strength in his arm in the weight room, playing through whatever pain he encountered. Says Smith, "I didn't tell anybody about the injury, because I wanted to keep playing and didn't want anybody thinking they could run on me or take advantage of the injury. I tried to do almost everything except throw a baseball left-handed; opening a door, turning on the radio, everything. It didn't get any better, but it was good enough that I didn't have to have surgery."
In light of his injury, Smith was unable to perform his traditional Opening Day backflip for the start of the 1986 season. Instead, Smith opted to let his now four-year-old son O.J. perform the backflip for him in front of the Busch Stadium crowd. Smith's most "eye-popping" play in a Cardinal uniform came on August 5, 1986 during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium. In the top of the ninth inning Phillies first baseman Von Hayes hit a short fly ball to left field, which was pursued by both Smith and left fielder Curt Ford. Running with his back turned to home plate, Smith leaped forward, simultaneously catching the ball while parallel to the ground, and leaping over the diving Ford, avoiding a collision by inches.
After hitting in either the second or eighth spot in the batting order for most of his time in St. Louis, Herzog made Smith the number-two hitter full-time during the 1987 season. Over the course of the year Smith accrued a .303 batting average, 43 stolen bases, 75 RBI, 104 runs scored, and 40 doubles, good enough to earn him the Silver Slugger Award. In addition to winning the Gold Glove Award at shortstop for the eighth consecutive time, Smith also posted a career high on-base percentage of .392. Baseball fans rewarded Smith for his efforts by making him the leading vote-getter in the 1987 All-Star Game. The Cardinals were then able to earn a postseason berth, where they first faced the San Francisco Giants in the 1987 National League Championship Series. Smith contributed a triple during the series, as the Cardinals won the contest in seven games.
The 1987 World Series marked the Cardinals's third trip to the World Series in six years, where they faced the American League champion Minnesota Twins. After losing Game 1 and Game 2 in Minnesota, Smith and the Cardinals countered by winning Games 3, 4, and 5 at Busch Memorial Stadium. When the Series returned to Minnesota's Metrodome, the Cardinals failed to secure another victory, dropping the Series in seven games. In 28 at-bats during the Series, Smith scored three runs and had two RBIs. After the Series had concluded, Smith questioned whether the Metrodome's use of air-conditioner blowers during play was the reason behind the Twins' dominance at their home park. This suspicion was later shared not only by Herzog, but also then-Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, and in 2004 by Alan Trammell, a former Detroit Tigers shortstop who by then had become the Tigers' manager. Smith finished second in MVP balloting to Andre Dawson, who had played on the last-place Chicago Cubs, largely because Smith and teammate Jack Clark split the first-place vote. Following the 1987 season, Smith was awarded the largest contract in the National League at $2,340,000.
While the team did not see the postseason for the remainder of the decade, Smith continued racking up All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves. Combined with the attention he received from his contract, Smith continued to be a national figure. Always known to be a savvy dresser, he received recognition in that arena by making the April 1988 cover of GQ magazine. Smith was then witness to significant change within the Cardinal organization, as owner Gussie Busch died in 1989, followed by Herzog's decision to quit as manager during the 1990 season.
While players such as Willie McGee and Vince Coleman left the Cardinals under the watch of Anheuser-Busch, Smith remained in St. Louis. Joe Torre took his turn at the Cardinals' helm next, but the postseason remained elusive for the team during the first half of the 1990s. While the Cardinals' celebrated their 100th anniversary in 1992, Smith marked milestones of his own, stealing his 500th career base on April 26, 1992, then notching a triple on May 26 in front of the home crowd for his 2,000th hit. While St. Louis had a one-game lead in the National League East division on June 1, injuries took their toll on the team, including Smith's two week illness in late July after contracting chicken pox for the first time. As a testament to his national visibility during this time, Smith appeared in a 1992 episode of The Simpsons titled "Homer at the Bat". Smith became a free agent for the first time in his career on November 2, 1992, only to sign a new contract with the Cardinals on December 6.
Smith won what ultimately proved to be his final Gold Glove in 1992, marking a string of 13 consecutive Gold Gloves at shortstop in the National League, a feat that has yet to be matched. From 1993 onwards, injuries started to creep up on Smith. He appeared in 98 games during the strike shortened 1994 season, then appeared in 44 games of the 1995 season after shoulder surgery on May 31. Even with injuries limiting his accomplishments on the field, Smith was recognized for his positive work off the field. For instance, his community service efforts were rewarded with the 1994 Branch Rickey Award and the 1995 Roberto Clemente Award. In February 1994, Smith took on the role of honorary chairman and official spokesman for the Missouri Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health.
Smith missed the first month of the season with a hamstring injury as ill feelings continued to abound between Smith and his manager in the situation that developed. In a closed-door meeting in mid-May, La Russa asked Smith if he would like to be traded. Instead, Smith and his agent negotiated a compromise with Cardinals management, agreeing to a buyout of special provisions in his contract in conjunction with Smith announcing his retirement. The decision prompted an emotional press conference at Busch Stadium on June 19, 1996, where Smith announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, effective at season's end.
As Smith made his final tour of the National League he was honored by many teams, and received a lengthy standing ovation at the 1996 All-Star Game. Smith also experienced a mini-resurgence in the midst of a pennant race, hitting .287 entering September. On September 2, Smith tied a career high by scoring four runs, one of which was a home run, and another on a close play at home plate in the bottom of the 10th inning to secure a win against division leader Houston. The win moved the Cardinals to within a half game of Houston in the National League Central Division, and the Cardinals went on to win the division by six games, earning their first playoff berth since 1987. After 19 seasons, Smith's career culminated in a special ceremony at Busch Stadium on September 28, 1996 before a game against the Cincinnati Reds. During the ceremony the Cardinals honored Smith by retiring his uniform number. Noted for his ritual backflip before opening days, All-Star Games, and postseason games, Smith chose this occasion to perform it for one of the last times.
Although his number was retired, Smith was not finished playing. First, the Cardinals faced Smith's former team, the San Diego Padres, in the 1996 National League Division Series. After sitting out Game 1, Smith got the start in Game 2 at Busch Stadium, helping his team go up two games in the series by notching a run, a hit and two walks at the plate, along with an assist and a putout in the field. The team carried on from there, sweeping the series by winning Game 3 in San Diego.
After going up three games to one on the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 NLCS, the Cardinals could not get the extra win to put themselves into the World Series. After Game 7 in Atlanta had turned into a blowout, Smith flied out to right field while pinch-hitting in the sixth inning, marking the end of his Hall of Fame career. Along with all the other accolades he achieved in his career, not the least of which was accumulating more than 27.5 million votes from fans in All-Star balloting, Smith currently holds the record for the most at-bats without hitting a grand slam.
On January 8, 2002 Smith received a phone call from Jack O'Connell, the secretary of the Baseball Writer's Association of America, informing him that he had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot by receiving 91.7% of the votes cast. As it happened, the Olympic torch was passing through St. Louis on its way to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and Smith served as a torchbearer in a ceremony with St. Louis Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner that evening. Smith was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame during ceremonies on July 28, 2002. During his speech, he compared his baseball experiences with the characters from the novel "The Wizard of Oz", after which his son Dustin presented his Hall of Fame plaque. Days later on August 11, Smith was back at Busch Memorial Stadium for the unveiling of a statue in his likeness, made by sculptor Harry Weber.
Smith is father to three children from his marriage to former wife Denise; sons O.J., Dustin, and daughter Tarya. Smith continues to remain a visible figure around the St. Louis area, making appearances as varied as playing the role of the Wizard in the St. Louis Municipal Opera's summer 2001 production of The Wizard of Oz. Plus, Smith still received accolades even after his playing days. For instance, in 1999 he ranked number 87 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and finished third in voting at shortstop for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Then in 2003 he was given the additional honors of induction into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from his alma-mater Cal-Poly. Additionally, Smith has chosen to limit his association with the Cardinals for as long as La Russa remains manager of the team, still upset with the situation that unfolded in 1996. Besides playing golf as a hobby, Smith keeps busy with a restaurant at Westport Plaza in St. Louis that bears his name, a location he used to cheer on his son O.J. "Nikko" Smith as he cracked the top ten finalists of the 2005 edition of American Idol.
|All-time MLB rank||39th||43rd||-||133rd||94th||T147th||T386th||-||T443rd||81st||20th||-||-||-|
T = tied
Rankings as of June 18, 2008.
|All-time rank for MLB Shortstops||3rd||-||1st||1st||-||2nd||-||-||-|
T = tied
Rankings as of October 3, 2008.