Ozzie Smith, known throughout baseball as “The Wizard,” is arguably the best fielding shortstop of all time, redefining the position in his nearly two decades of work at one of the game’s most demanding positions. Always a base-stealing threat who would later turn himself into an above-average hitter, the fleet-footed and acrobatic Smith used his glove and athletic skill to make plays for the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals that often left those watching in true amazement, assured that they were witnessing something that had never been seen before on a ball field.
Osborne Earl 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, Ozzie 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, Ozzie 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, Ozzie 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, Ozzie 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. It was his defense, however, that caught everyone’s eye. Padres manager Roger Craig said at the time, “Ozzie is the best young infielder I’ve ever seen…very soon he’s going to be one of the best shortstops in baseball, if not the best.”
Though Smith’s defense continued to improve over the years, the Padres’s fortunes did not, as they were in a stretch where they finished at or near the bottom of the National League’s Western Division for a number of years. The first of 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards came Smith’s way in 1980, the same year he set the major league single-season record for most assists by a shortstop (621) and lead the league shortstops in total chances, putouts and double plays.
After the 1981 season, in which Ozzie Smith was named to his first of 12 straight All-Star teams and led league shortstops in total chances, assists and fielding percentage, he was traded to the Cardinals for another shortstop, Garry Templeton. Smith followed up his rookie season with batting averages of .211, .230 and .222, while Templeton was a consistent .300 hitter.
Ozzie Smith’s career and national recognition blossomed in St. Louis. Now possessing the kind of defensive shortstop needed for Busch Stadium’s quick artificial turf, the Cardinals won the National League East in 1982. 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, Ozzie’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).
As Smith’s career continued through the 1980s and early 1990s the accomplishments and milestones continued to pile up: in 1991 he set the NL record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop with eight; in 1992 he collected his 2,000th hit, 500th stolen base and won his 13th consecutive Gold Glove Award to break the NL record held by Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente; in 1994 he passed Luis Aparicio for the career assist record for a shortstop.
Ozzie Smith retired after the 1996 season, the same year the Cardinals retired his number, and in his 19 seasons he compiled a .262 batting average, 2,460 hits, 580 stolen bases, 13 Gold Glove awards, and was named to 15 All-Star teams. Smith, who is the 20th Major League shortstop elected to the Hall of Fame (Negro Leaguers “Pop” Lloyd and Willie Wells bring the total number of shortstops in the Hall of Fame to 22), set the following major league records for his position: most assists (8,375), most 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).
Off the field, Ozzie Smith has been active in civic projects and won the Branch Rickey Award in 1994, which is given to the player who personifies “service above self.” He also won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1995 for his work in the community. Smith’s worked in broadcasting, including hosting the long-running television show, This Week in Baseball, and working for CNN/SI as a baseball analyst.