Ozzie Smith Bio: In His Own Words
Osbourne Earl “Ozzie” Smith (December 26, 1954) was a professional baseball player for the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals from 1978 to 1996. His athleticism and his abilities at shortstop were nothing short of magical; his prowess at the position earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Oz.” He displayed this athleticism with his signature backflip that he would often do in the middle of any given game. At the time of his retirement, Smith had set the MLB records for career assists (8,375), double plays (1,590), as well as the National League record for games played (2,511) by a shortstop (Omar Vizquel has since broken the double plays record).
Smith was a key member of the World Series-winning 1982 Cardinals as well as the NL pennant-winning team in 1985. A 15-time All-Star, Smith won the NL Gold Glove Award at shortstop for 13 straight seasons (1980-1992) and was also the winner of the 1987 NL Silver Slugger Award for shortstops. In 2002, he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Smith was born in Mobile, Alabama. He was Clovi and Marvella Smith’s second of six children (five boys and one girl). When he was six, the Smiths moved to Los Angeles or, more specifically, the Watts section. His mother worked as an aide at a nursing home and his father was a delivery truck driver for Safeway.
Smith played almost every sport in what was a very active childhood thanks in part to his mother. His mother encouraged him and his siblings to play sports as long as they worked hard in school, so that one day they could escape the impoverished and violent environment. In 1965, they got tangled up in the Watts riots; Smith recalls having to sleep on the floor for a week because of snipers and looting.
Smith was able to stay content and happy as a child in Los Angeles; he would often go to Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games via an hour long bus ride about 25 times a year. He also discovered a neighborhood lumberyard which he and his friends used as their own apparatus to practice backflips.
In high school, Smith had narrowed his athletic focus to basketball and baseball. He was in good company at Locke High School: on the basketball team, he was a teammate of future NBA player Marques Johnson, and on the baseball team, he was a teammate of future fellow Hall-of-Famer Eddie Murray. After graduating, he received a partial academic scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1974 and walked on to the baseball team. It was here that he learned to switch-hit from Cal Poly coach Berdy Harr. When the starting shortstop broke his leg in the middle of the 1974 season, Smith took over. He was later named an All-American and set school records in stolen bases (110) and at bats (754) before graduating in 1977.
San Diego Padres
In 1977 Smith was drafted by the Padres in the fourth round and signed to a contract that included a $5,000 signing bonus. After a year at the Class A level, he began 1978 as a non-roster invitee to the Padres’ spring training camp in Arizona. Padres manager Alvin Dark told reporters that the shortstop job was Smith’s until he proved he couldn’t handle it. Smith cites this as a moment that gave him the confidence to play at the major league level. Despite Dark getting fired during spring training, Smith won the job and debuted on April 7, 1978.
Smith made an impact almost right away with his impeccable fielding ability. In just his tenth game, he made what many consider to be one of the most impressive fielding plays of his career. On April 20, 1978, the Padres were hosting the Atlanta Braves. Jeff Burroughs hit a ground ball up the middle, which should have been a base hit. Smith had a good jump on it though and fully extended his body in a dive for the ball. However, the ball hit a rock or a bad lip of dirt and jumped in another direction. Smith simply reacted to it and, while he was still in the air, reached behind him with his bare hand and caught the ball: he then leaped to his feet and threw Burroughs out at first.
While on a road trip in Houston, Smith met an usherette at the Astrodome, named Denise, who would eventually be his wife. It was also during his rookie year that he introduced his signature backflip. Andy Strasberg, the Padres’ promotion director, often watched Smith doing backflips during practice or warmups before the fans entered the stadium. Strasberg asked him to do one for the fans during Fan Appreciation Day on October 1. Smith ended up doing it and received a great reaction and after that day it stuck with him.
Smith finished that season as the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year race to Bob Horner. After a less successful sophomore season, Smith and his agent Ed Gottlieb engaged in a contract dispute with the Padres before the 1980 season. Eventually it was sorted out and Smith began to excel in the majors. In 1980, he set the single-season record for most assists by a shortstop with 621 and began his streak of 13 consecutive Gold Gloves. In a preseason feature article on Smith by the Yuma Daily Sun, the nickname “The Wizard of Oz” made its first appearance. Smith was then named to his first All-Star game in 1981 as a backup.
St. Louis Cardinals
Smith still had his issues with the Padres’ front office though. Coincidentally, the Cardinals also had issues with their shortstop, Garry Templeton, who had mad obscene gestures at fans in a game on August 26, 1981 before being pulled by manager Whitey Herzog. Herzog had been doubling as the manager and general manager and was looking to deal Templeton before the trade deadline. Herzog was contacted by Padres GM Jack McKeon at the 1981 baseball winter meetings. McKeon informed Herzog that the Padres were so fed up with Smith’s agent Gottlieb that they were willing to deal Smith. He flew out to San Diego after hearing from Padres manager Dick Williams that Smith’s contract had a no-trade clause in it and met with Smith to persuade him into waiving the clause and coming to St. Louis. Smith claims that Herzog made him feel wanted and told him that the Cardinals could go to the World Series with him at shortstop. This was enough for Ozzie.
This exchange catalyzed a strong relationship between Smith and Herzog. Herzog saw great offensive potential in Smith in addition to his defensive brilliance and advised him to hit more ground balls and less fly balls in order to get on base more. “Every time you hit it in the air, you owe me a buck. Every time you hit a grounder, I owe you a buck,” Herzog told him. At the year’s end, Smith had hit about $300 away from Herzog.
Over the course of the season, the Cardinals won enough games to make the playoffs, which was Ozzie’s first appearance in the postseason. Just as Herzog had envisioned for Smith, they swept the Braves for the pennant and were set to face the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1982 World Series. Trailing 3-1 in the sixth inning of a decisive Game 7, Smith sparked the rally they needed with a hit to left field and was brought around to score their first of three runs that inning. They scored two more runs in the eighth and held on to win the World Series.
Smith and the Cardinals agreed on a new contract following the championship season that paid Smith $1 million a year. In 1983 Smith was voted as the NL’s starting shortstop in the All-Star game for the first time.
After missing most of the 1984 season with a wrist injury, in 1985, Smith compiled a solid .276 batting average, 31 stolen bases, and 591 assists. The Cardinals were dominant again, winning 101 games during the regular season and were set to face the Dodgers for the pennant. In the bottom of the ninth Game 5, with the series and the game tied at 2, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called in closer Tom Niedenfuer to pitch against Smith. Smith hit lefty against the right handed Niedenfuer and in his previous 3,009 left-handed at-bats, he had never hit a home run. Needless to say, Smith cracked an inside fastball to right field that barely cleared the fence and won the game for the Cardinals. This glorious moment prompted broadcaster Jack Buck to famously make the “Go crazy, folks” call. It was also voted as the greatest moment in Busch stadium history by Cardinals fans.
Smith’s teammate Jack Clark hit a game-winning homerun in Game 6 to send the Cardinals to the 1985 World Series against the Kansas City Royals. The Cardinals got out to a 3-2 lead in the series and were on the verge of closing the Royals out in the ninth inning of Game 6 when umpire Don Denkinger controversially called a runner safe at first when he was actually, upon review, out. In Herzog’s book, You’re Missing A Great Game, he claims that if he could go back in time he would have asked Commisioner Peter Ueberroth, who was at the game, to overrule the call. If Ueberroth would have refused, Herzog says he would have forfeited the game for St. Louis. The Royals would rally and win Game 6 and then blow the Cardinals out 11-0 in Game 7.
Following this disappointment, Ozzie would continue his great on-field success; 1987-1990 marked his best statistical stretch in the big leagues. His fielding was still as sharp as ever, but it was during this stretch he elevated his offensive game to new heights. After always hitting either second or eighth in the Cardinals’ lineup, in 1987 Herzog made Smith the full-time two hitter. That year, Smith hit a career-high .303, stole 43 bases, scored a career-high 104 runs, and drove in a career-high 75 RBIs. These numbers were good enough for him to earn the Silver Slugger Award that year. On top of this, his popularity was at an all-time high, which was evident by the fact that he was the leading vote-getter for the 1987 All-Star Game.
The Cardinals headed back to the playoffs after winning 95 games in the regular season and were matched up against the San Francisco Giants; Smith struggled, but the Cardinals won the series in seven games. Next up were the Minnesota Twins. Smith again struggled in this series, hitting only .214. The Twins, led by Kirby Puckett, won the series in 7 games. But Smith’s great season did not go unnoticed; he finished second in that season’s MVP race to the Chicago Cubs’ Andre Dawson. In that offseason, Smith became the highest-paid player in the NL with a contract of $2,340,000.
While the team did not achieve the standard of success that it had grown used to in the rest of the 80’s, Smith did. He continued to be a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner. His brand had also grown considerably and he was now one of the most recognizable faces in sports. Known for his keen fashion sense, Smith was actually featured on the April 1988 cover of GQ magazine.
In 1990, Herzog quit as manager and was replaced by Joe Torre. The trend of the late 80’s continued as they failed to make the postseason in the five seasons that Torre was manager. Just as well, Smith continued to play well and reach personal milestones as his career began to wind down. During the 1992 season, Smith notched his 500th career stolen base as well as his 2,000th hit. In the 1993 St. Louis Cardinals Yearbook, Smith stated, “No one paid attention to my offense. So having 2,000 hits is one of the things that is an accomplishment.”
The year 1992 also marked the final Gold Glove of Smith’s career: his 13 straight Gold Gloves at shortstop in the NL is a record that still stands today. Also during that year, Smith appeared in an episode of The Simpsons titled “Homer at the Bat.” “Do I think I’ll ever do another episode of The Simpsons,” Smith repeated to uInterview. “If I’m asked asked, I will! Once I get out of that hole!” 1993 was the only season from 1981 to 1996 in which Smith was not named to the All-Star team. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, his efforts in the community were recognized when he was presented with the 1994 Branch Rickey Award. These efforts continued to be recognized in 1995 when he was awarded the 1995 Roberto Clemente Award.
In 1996, Smith finalized the process of divorcing from his wife Denise. On the field, new manager Tony La Russa proclaimed that there would be an open competition in spring training between Smith and newly acquired shortstop Royce Clayton. Despite hitting and field far better than the younger Clayton, Smith was not given the starting job on opening day by La Russa: thus creating some tension between the two. They had a meeting in mid-May and La Russa asked Smith if he wanted to play for another team. Smith and his agent instead broke a deal with management and agreed to a buyout because Smith had decided to announce his retirement. On June 19, Smith held a press conference at Busch Stadium and officially announced his retirement.
In a fashion similar to the one Derek Jeter has gone through recently, the second-half of the Cardinals’ season doubled as a final tour of the NL for Smith. He was honored and commemorated by his peers and received a standing ovation at the 1996 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. The Cardinals made the playoffs again and ironically faced the Padres in the first round of the MLB’s new postseason format of three rounds. The Cardinals swept them in three games with Smith starting in Game 2. In the next round they faced the strong Atlanta Braves, who boasted one of the best pitching rotations of all time with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux. Smith continued to play sporadically as the Cardinals lost in seven games.
After retiring, Smith went almost directly to the broadcast booth in 1997 and became a color-commentator for the Cardinals. He also replaced Mel Allen as the host of This Week in Baseball. After La Russa retired from the Cardinals in 2011, Smith reentered the game as a special instructor for the team in spring training.
In 2002, Smith was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot: he received 91.7% of the votes. At his induction ceremony on July 28, 2002, he compared his career and teammates to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Two weeks later on August 11, a statue of him diving for a ground ball was unveiled at Busch Stadium.
Smith has also been the brains behind a couple of lucrative business ventures. He started a youth sports academy in 1990 that is still in commission. He also opened “Ozzie’s,” a restaurant and sports bar in 1988 and invested in a grocery store chain in 1999. He’s appeared in numerous advertisements on television and on the radio in the St. Louis area since retiring. In 2006, Smith wrote a children’s book titled Hello Fredbird! In 2008, building off his interest in food, he debuted his own brand of salad dressing. In 2012, he began auctioning off his Gold Gloves and World Series rings and made over $500,000.
Smith is the parent of three children with his ex-wife Denise: Nikko, Dustin, and Taryn. Smith’s oldest son Nikko was one of the final 10 singers in 2005’s season of American Idol and Smith cheered him on all the way.
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