The Heroes of Wrigley Series returns as we pay tribute to the historic closer and Chicago Cubs great, who this week finally got his long-awaited Hall call.
From an early age, longtime Chicago Cubs closer Lee Smith seemed destined for greatness. Having been scouted by Negro League Legend Buck O’Neil and molded mechanically by Fergie Jenkins, Smith quickly became a formidable closer throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s.
Smith began his Major League career in 1980 after being drafted in the second round of the 1975 Amateur Draft by the Cubs. Initially utilized as a reliever and a spot starter, Smith became the Cubs’ full-time closer by 1983 after successfully earning the role after beating out teammates Willie Hernandez and Bill Campbell.
He settled in brilliantly in his first season in his new role, compiling 29 saves in 103 1/3 innings (66 games) with a minuscule 1.65 ERA. He also earned his first All-Star Game nod that year.
While the Cubs only managed to win 71 games in 1983, the following season in 1984, proved a memorable one for the team as they won 96, en route to the Eastern Division crown. For the third-straight season, Smith amassed over 100 innings pitched, saving 33 games. The Cubs eventually fell to the San Diego Padres in five games in the National League Championship Series in what wound up being the only winning season Smith had during his tenure with the Cubs.
By 1985, Smith improved his strikeout totals and led the league among all relievers, striking out a career-high 112 batters, good for a 10.3 K/9.
He earned his second All-Star selection in 1987 and, when the Midsummer Classic went into extra innings, pitched the tenth, eleventh and twelfth innings, striking out four and ultimately earning the victory as the National League defeated the American League in 13 innings. Smith also reached a significant milestone during the 1987 campaign. Saving a total of 36 games, he became only the second pitcher (Dan Quisenberry) to save at least 30 games in four consecutive seasons.
After the successful 1987 season, rumors began to swirl about his extra weight gain affecting his knees and his willingness to play for a contending team. Smith was traded to the Boston Red Sox, ending his time in Chicago after eight seasons. His 180 career saves as a Chicago Cub remains a club record to this day.