Lee Smith

August 25, 1991: Lee Smith earns his 300th save

On August 25, 1991, Lee Smith became just the fifth pitcher to reach the 300-save milestone, joining Rollie Fingers, Jeff Reardon, Rich Gossage, and Bruce Sutter as baseball’s top closers.

“Starting pitchers use 300 wins as a measuring stick for the Hall of Fame,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre said. “For him to get 300 saves means he’s been a part of 300 victories. You might just put that in the same category. He’s right up there.”[1]

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Smith took an unlikely path to 300 saves and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Born in northern Louisiana, Smith’s favorite sport was basketball and he didn’t play baseball until his junior season. Nonetheless, his strong right arm stood out, and no less an authority than Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil scouted him. Upon O’Neil’s recommendation, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the second round of the 1975 draft.

Smith made his major-league debut as a 22-year-old in 1980 and soon emerged as the heir apparent to Sutter in Chicago. In 1983, he posted a 1.65 ERA and led the league with 29 saves. He saved at least 31 games in each of the next four seasons. After he saved 36 games and was named an all-star for the second time in his career in 1987, the Cubs traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi.

Smith pitched two-plus seasons in Boston, saving 60 games before he was traded to the Cardinals on May 4, 1990, for Tom Brunansky. By the time he arrived in St. Louis, he already had saved at least 25 games for eight consecutive seasons.

“He’s been durable for a guy who throws as hard as he does,” Torre said. “What has helped Lee is the fact that he pitched in places like Chicago and Boston. He’s had to learn to pitch, not just be a thrower.”[2]

Smith agreed.

“Pitching in Chicago is the best thing that ever happened to me, especially someone my height,” Smith said. “I had to learn to keep the ball down. In Wrigley Field, you’ve got to make good pitches even when the count is 0-and-2.”[3]

In St. Louis, Smith picked up saves faster than ever. After saving 27 games for the Cardinals in 1990, Smith entered 1991 with 265 career saves. By late August, he found himself on the cusp of 300. With saves in six consecutive appearances, including a scoreless ninth inning to cap off a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 23, Smith entered the series finale against the Dodgers on August 25 with a 2.47 ERA.

“The other guys (in the bullpen) are the unsung heroes,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t be having the year I’m having if it weren’t for guys like Scottie (Scott Terry). Everywhere else I’ve been, I’ve had to come in and pitch 2 to 2 1/3 innings, but here, I know I’m just going to be used for one inning or one situation most of the time. That’s because Joe has the confidence to use the other guys. They’ve been tremendous.”[4]

Torre used the same formula ahead of Smith’s 300th career save.

The Cardinals and Dodgers exchanged runs in the first inning as L.A.’s Darryl Strawberry grounded out to score Brett Butler and St. Louis’s Todd Zeile hit an RBI double to tie the game.

The Cardinals took the lead in the third inning after rookie starting pitcher Rheal Cormier and Ozzie Smith each singled. Zeile scored Cormier on an infield single to give St. Louis the 2-1 lead.

Cormier pitched into the sixth inning. After retiring the first two batters of the frame, Strawberry hit a line drive that struck Cormier on his left arm. Cormier left the game immediately (though x-rays after the game were negative[5]), and Torre turned to Willie Fraser to face the switch-hitting Eddie Murray. Murray grounded out to end the inning.

“I thought it was broken,” Cormier said. “It felt like it was real bad. I knew I had to come out.”[6]

Zeile led off the bottom of the sixth with his second ground-rule double of the game. After Dodgers starting pitcher Tim Belcher intentionally walked Milt Thompson to get to Rex Hudler, the “Wonder Dog” made him pay, hitting a line drive to right field to score Zeile.  Catcher Tom Pagnozzi followed with a sacrifice bunt that scored Thompson and extended the lead to 4-1.

Butler hit an RBI single in the seventh to score the Dodgers’ second run of the game, but Ozzie Smith answered with an RBI that gave the Cardinals a 5-2 lead.

The Dodgers threatened in the eighth as Mitch Webster and Strawberry each singled against Cardinals reliever Bob McClure. McClure got Murray to bounce into a 5-4-3 double play, but after he walked Gary Carter, Torre called upon Cris Carpenter. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda countered with pinch-hitter Kal Daniels, who grounded out to end the inning.

With a 5-2 lead heading into the ninth inning, it was Lee Smith’s opportunity to make history. He opened the inning by retiring Lenny Harris on a ground ball, then got pinch-hitter Stan Javier to fly out to shallow left field.

With two outs, however, Brett Butler and pinch-hitter Mike Scioscia each singled. With Webster at the plate representing the tying run, Lee Smith induced an infield fly that he caught himself for the 300th save of his career.

“It’s another save,” he said. “I don’t worry too much about those things right now. After the season I might look at the statistics, but right now I don’t look at it too much. The important thing is we won.”[7]

Cormier earned the second win of his career, allowing one run over 5 2/3 innings. He also went 2-for-2 at the plate.

“He did a helluva job,” Torre said. “He throws strikes. He’s not afraid to come inside and challenge people. He keeps that guy close at first. He’s a little bulldog.”[8]

Zeile and Ozzie Smith each finished with three hits and Hudler added two.

Lee Smith’s outstanding season proved to be arguably the best of his 18-year major-league career. After leading all of baseball with a career-high 47 saves, he placed second to Tom Glavine in the Cy Young Award balloting and was eighth in the National League MVP vote.

In 1992, Lee Smith saved 43 games with a 3.12 ERA. Once again, he was named an all-star and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. On April 13, 1993, he became baseball’s career saves leader, passing Jeff Reardon with his 358th save. Smith saved 43 games with a 4.50 ERA that season before the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees on August 31 for Rich Batchelor.

In four seasons in St. Louis, Lee Smith saved 160 games with a 2.90 ERA. He retired in 1997 with 478 saves and remained baseball’s saves king until Trevor Hoffman passed his career total in 2006.

Lee Smith was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018 by the Today’s Game Committee.

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[1] Dan O’Neill, “Smith Hits Milestone: 300 Saves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[2] Dan O’Neill, “Smith Hits Milestone: 300 Saves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[3] Dan O’Neill, “Smith Hits Milestone: 300 Saves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[4] Dan O’Neill, “Cards Win Quietly 2-1,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 24, 1991.

[5] Dan O’Neill, “Team Torre ‘Tees Off’ On LA,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[6] Dan O’Neill, “Cards’ Cormier Gets A Break – Bone Not Fractured,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[7] Dan O’Neill, “Smith Hits Milestone: 300 Saves,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.

[8] Dan O’Neill, “Team Torre ‘Tees Off’ On LA,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 26, 1991.