January 8, 2002: Ozzie Smith is elected to the Hall of Fame

On the day the Baseball Writers Association of America was set to announce the Hall of Fame class of 2002, Ozzie Smith had a backup plan ready.

If the phone rang with the news that he had not been inducted in his first year of eligibility, Smith and his family were all set to drive to Steak ‘n Shake and begin looking forward to next year. Instead, Smith and his family opened a bottle of champagne they had been saving for just such an occasion.[1]

“I had gone over it a thousand times in my mind the way it would come about,” Smith said. “The only thing I miscalculated was the degree of emotion you get when you do get that phone call. I didn’t know how much this was going to touch me. The tears … they just come.”[2]

The call from Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, came before noon.

“I had butterflies,” Smith said. “In knowing you had a chance to (be elected) on the first time, it’s important. It has more significance going in on the first ballot than having to wait two or three years.”[3]

O’Connell informed Smith that not only had he received 433 of a possible 472 votes (91.7%), but he was the only player on that year’s ballot to receive the 75% necessary for induction.

“He said, ‘It’s 92% and you’re the only one going in,” Smith said. “Right away, I started thinking, ‘Oh Lord, that means I have to talk longer.’”[4]

Smith became just the 37th player in baseball history to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, joining fellow Cardinals Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock.[5]

Gary Carter received 343 votes, just 11 shy of the 354 necessary for election. Jim Rice received 260 (55%), former Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter received 238 (50%), Andre Dawson got 214 (45%), and Goose Gossage had 203 (43%).

“It’s appropriate that Ozzie is going on a solo excursion into the Baseball Hall of Fame,” wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. “He’s always had to do it by himself because so many people counted him out as he made his way along the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Cooperstown. And Smith’s relentless, Wizard-against-the-world spirit made this brilliant career possible.”[6]

That brilliant, 19-year career included 15 all-star games, 13 Gold Gloves, one Silver Slugger Award, and the 1985 NLCS MVP Award. A .231 hitter in his first four major-league seasons with the Padres, Smith worked to improve as an offensive player even after establishing himself as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the game.

“When he came here in ’82, his lifetime batting average was .230-something, he couldn’t drive in a runner from second, he didn’t have any strength,” said Whitey Herzog, who pulled off the trade for Smith ahead of the 1982 season and managed him to three National League pennants and the 1982 World Series championship. “He made himself stronger, he made himself better, he learned how to pull the ball, all the things we suggested he try, he put his heart and soul into it.”[7]

Upon Smith’s arrival in St. Louis, Herzog demanded that Smith take advantage of his speed and Busch Stadium’s AstroTurf by hitting the ball on the ground. To motivate him, Herzog offered Smith $2 for every ground ball he hit as long as Smith gave him $1 for every fly ball.

“I was $302 down by July and I said, ‘That’s enough. Gussie (Busch) doesn’t pay me enough money to do this,’” Herzog recalled.[8]

“There’s one guy who I hope one day has the opportunity to stand before you and also say that he’s a Hall of Famer, and that’s Whitey Herzog,” said Smith (Herzog was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010). “He came to San Diego one day and said to me, ‘If you come to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, we’re going to win the World Series.’ That man can tell the future.”[9]

Smith retired with 2,460 hits, including 1,944 with the Cardinals, and a .262 career batting average. Though he hit just 28 regular-season homers in 19 seasons, that didn’t include the lone postseason home run of his career – a game-winning shot in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS against Tom Niedenfeur and the Dodgers.

“That was a defining moment,” Smith said. “Of all the great plays that I made, that was the one thing that made people stand up and take notice that I was much more than just a defensive player. I didn’t like the moniker of being a one-dimensional player. There was no reason for me, being as good a defensive player as I was, not to be a better offensive player.”[10]

Of course, Smith’s Hall of Fame election was fueled primarily on the strength of his defense. In addition to his incredible range and flair for jaw-dropping plays, Smith was a steady presence on the left side of the infield. He led the National League in fielding percentage eight times and retired with a .978 fielding percentage.

“Ozzie’s great plays stand out in your mind, but what really stands out to me is that he didn’t mess up the routine plays,” said second baseman Tom Herr, Smith’s double-play partner from 1982 until 1988. “He made all of those. His attention to detail, his pregame preparation, the focus he always had on the field. He never took for granted his skills as a defensive player. I don’t think there will be another one like him. The Hall of Fame is for special players, and he fits into that category.”[11]

Jack Clark, who won two National League pennants in the three seasons he played with Smith, said that he had no doubt that Smith deserved to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

“I say every player should have the opportunity to be Ozzie Smith’s teammate,” Clark said. “Then you’d really find out how great this game can be – and more.”[12]

“You never saw the same thing twice,” he added. “Every day, on ground balls or pop-ups or whatever, you had to pay attention because you could be looking at something you’d never see again. And to be on the same team, on the same field, wearing the same uniform, going for the same goal as him – that was really special.”[13]

The Cardinals won the 1982 World Series in Smith’s first season in St. Louis, then reached the World Series in 1985 and 1987. The 1987 season was Smith’s best offensive campaign, as he hit .303 with 104 runs scored, 75 RBIs, and 43 stolen bases. That season, he finished second in the National League MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger Award to go along with his Gold Glove.

“That was a very impressive team Whitey put together and Ozzie was the anchor,” Clark said. “No one is bigger than the game, but Ozzie was about as close as you could get on those teams.”[14]

For Willie McGee, Smith’s on-field performance was only surpassed by all he did off it. When McGee was called up to the majors in 1982, Smith invited the 23-year-old outfielder to live with him in St. Louis.

“Ozzie is such an outstanding ballplayer, but he’s as great a person as he was a ballplayer, in my eyes,” Willie McGee said. “Oz loves people and loves helping people. He wears his heart on his shoulder. It really shows. When I lived with him, I’d see him get up in the morning to go promote the game of baseball and the Cardinals. People didn’t know how much he did that. That’s what separates him from everyone else. He’s a class act.”[15]

Just as Smith was key to the Cardinals’ championship teams in the 1980s, his Hall of Fame induction played a vital role in helping St. Louis heal after a difficult summer. Approximately six weeks before Smith’s induction ceremony, Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck and pitcher Darryl Kile each passed away in the same week.

“This Ozzie-Fest 2002 is exactly what Cardinals Nation needed,” Miklasz wrote. “It was a day of joy and happiness. It was love. It was a baseball Woodstock, with thousands of red-wearing Cardinals fans sitting in the grass, savoring an exceptional day in baseball’s spiritual garden.”[16]

At the ceremony, Smith was joined on stage by Gibson, Brock, and Red Schoendienst. At one point, Musial pulled out his harmonica and played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” then drew a roar from the crowd when he posed in his famous batting stance.

Herzog, McGee, Vince Coleman, Bernard Gilkey, and Tom Lawless were also in attendance.[17]

“The Cardinals are very well-represented in this Hall of Fame and I’m just honored and very humbled to be one of those guys,” Smith said. “I’m the person up on the stage, but I was accepting on behalf of all the great St. Louis fans that have been part of the success we’ve had over the years. It’s a great feeling.”[18]

Before Smith stepped to the lectern to give his induction speech, his 15-year-old son Dustin read Smith’s Hall of Fame plaque. In his remarks, Smith held a baseball in one hand and a copy of Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the other. He described his career and his drive to succeed in metaphors, comparing them to the components of the baseball and the quests of the tin man, scarecrow, and lion in the book.

“This little cork pill weighs less than an ounce, but when you look at its role in the history of baseball, this is where it all began,” Smith said. “Likewise, it also represents the core of my quest. A dream of what one might do. A vision of what one might become. A specter of potential greatness and achievement in one’s mind. Ironically, that’s exactly what the scarecrow wanted most from the Wizard of Oz – a mind so that he could think and dream.”[19]

As Smith concluded his speech, the sound system played the song “Over the Rainbow.”

“You knew his presentation would be polished,” Miklasz wrote. “You knew it would be theatrical. You knew it would be memorable. And you knew it would make you cry. And Ozzie came through. This time his trademark backflip was replaced by poetry, music, literature, props. It was a one-man show, a veritable Broadway production, as smooth as his elegance in the field. By the time he was finished speaking, Cardinals fans were ready to do backflips for him.”[20]

When Smith concluded his speech, his son Dustin presented him with his plaque.

“I never played this game to make it to the Hall of Fame,” Smith said. “I played it because I loved it and because it was a thing I was put here to do.”[21]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY8kdeA4uxs


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[1] Rick Hummel, “In A League Of His Own,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[2] Rick Hummel, “In A League Of His Own,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[3] Rick Hummel, “In A League Of His Own,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[4] Joe Ostermeier, “Ozzie Smith joins baseball’s most elite club,” Bellville News-Democrat, January 9, 2002.

[5] Joe Ostermeier, “Ozzie Smith joins baseball’s most elite club,” Bellville News-Democrat, January 9, 2002.

[6] Bernie Miklasz, “In defying skeptics, No. 1 showed he was one of a kind,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[7] Joe Ostermeier, “Ozzie Smith joins baseball’s most elite club,” Bellville News-Democrat, January 9, 2002.

[8] Joe Ostermeier, “Ozzie Smith joins baseball’s most elite club,” Bellville News-Democrat, January 9, 2002.

[9] Rick Hummel, “In A League Of His Own,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[10] Rick Hummel, “In A League Of His Own,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[11] Mike Eisenbath, “Smith’s ex-teammates share his happiness,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[12] Mike Eisenbath, “Smith’s ex-teammates share his happiness,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[13] Mike Eisenbath, “Smith’s ex-teammates share his happiness,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[14] Mike Eisenbath, “Smith’s ex-teammates share his happiness,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[15] Mike Eisenbath, “Smith’s ex-teammates share his happiness,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 9, 2002.

[16] Bernie Miklasz, “Wizard delivers perfect performance in Cooperstown,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 2002.

[17] Bernie Miklasz, “Wizard delivers perfect performance in Cooperstown,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 2002.

[18] Dan O’Neill, “Smith uses baseball, ‘Oz’ theme to illustrate his journey,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 2002.

[19] “Ozzie Smith delivers Hall of Fame induction speech,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxIuovnpUXg.

[20] Bernie Miklasz, “Wizard delivers perfect performance in Cooperstown,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 29, 2002.

[21] Joe Ostermeier, “Ozzie Smith joins baseball’s most elite club,” Bellville News-Democrat, January 9, 2002.

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