Northwestern State celebrates Lee Smith’s Hall of Fame election

Greg Burke, Lee Arthur Smith, John Cohen

When the next National Baseball Hall of Fame induction takes place July 21, 2019, in Cooperstown, New York, fans may have to wait a while for Lee Smith to make his way to the dais.

Anyone familiar with the time it took the longtime Chicago Cubs closer to amble from the bullpen to the mound may be surprised to know how quickly Smith could cut down a baseline during his one season as a Demon basketball player.

“As powerful as he was, he could move quickly when he wanted to,” said Tynes Hildebrand, Smith’s head coach and eventual NSU director of athletics. “He had that long, gangly walk and people laughed at it. That’s just him. That’s the way he walked. He walked that way at Castor. He walked that way here.”

And he walked – at his own pace – into the annals of baseball glory despite never having logged an inning on the Brown-Stroud Field mound. Along with his contemporary Harold Baines, Smith was announced as one of the two newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, chosen by the Today’s Game Era committee.

During his senior season at Castor High School, Smith signed to play both baseball and basketball at Northwestern State. The Chicago Cubs plucked Smith in the second round of the 1975 June Amateur Draft, and the 6-foot-5 right-hander decided to sign a professional contract.

Smith retained his amateur status in basketball and played the 1976-77 season for Hildebrand’s Demon basketball team, becoming the first NSU athlete “declared professional in one sport and competing as an amateur in another.”

After compiling a 6-2 record for the Cubs Rookie League team in 1975 and making 18 starts for Class A Pompano Beach in 1976, Smith transitioned to the basketball court, averaging 3.4 points on 56.8-percent shooting from the field.

Smith grabbed an average of 1.8 rebounds per game while appearing in 17 games off the bench for the Demons, who finished 17-9.

A large but athletic forward who Hildebrand said was his first player who could “go from the corner, drive the baseline and stuff it,” Smith’s physique was chiseled from a unique workout regimen.

“Lee Arthur was an interesting guy,” Hildebrand said. “He was throwing in the 90s all the time at Castor. He was big and strong – all muscle. Arm muscle. Shoulder muscle. Leg muscle. Lee Arthur made his spending money hauling pulpwood. Those sticks are about six feet long.

“He’d take those on the ground and toss them all the way up to the top of a pulpwood truck. That’s how I assume he got so developed and strong. Doing that develops your leg and core muscles, your back muscles, shoulders and arms. He was tremendously strong.”

Derwood Duke was an assistant coach under Hildebrand and saw Smith’s ability on the court for that 1976-77 season.

“He was a very good rebounder and had a very good attitude toward the game,” Duke said. “He really worked hard to be a good basketball player even though he knew he was going to play baseball. I was very pleased to be able to recruit Lee. He came from such a good family.”

Smith often said basketball was his first love, but Hildebrand and others understood the value of Smith’s right arm, even if the Castor native may not have understood his own worth.

“He loved basketball more than baseball,” Hildebrand said. “He had trouble understanding how valuable he was for baseball and that his future was in baseball. If he had devoted his career to basketball, he would have been one of Northwestern State’s all-time greats. Same with baseball. If he had played here, he would have been the greatest baseball player in school history.”

Instead, Smith enjoyed an 18-year run as one of Major League Baseball’s best relief pitchers.

At the time of his retirement in 1999, Smith was the all-time saves leader with 478 and held the record for saves in a single month (15, June 1993).

Smith became the fourth major league pitcher to appear in more than 1,000 games, finishing his career with 1,022 appearances, compiling a 71-92 record with a 3.03 ERA and 29.0 wins above replacement.

A seven-time All-Star and three-time Rolaids Reliever of the Year, Smith set a career high with 47 saves with St. Louis in 1991 and helped the Cubs claim the 1984 NL East title with 33 saves. He saved 29 games for Boston in 1988, helping the Red Sox win the AL East title.

Smith, a 2004 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee, produced four seasons where he led the league in saves and had consecutive top-four finishes in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1991-92.

He remains active in baseball, coaching one of the two San Francisco Giants entries in the Arizona League where he crossed paths and initiated a friendship with former Demons outfielder Kwan Adkins, a 30th-round Giants draft pick in June.

“We are extremely proud of Lee for the well-deserved honor of being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” Demons coach Bobby Barbier said. “Lee has always been a tremendous representative of the Northwestern State athletic program and Demon baseball. We could not be happier to see him receive the recognition for the type of career he had.”

Pictured above, Lee Smith (center) poses with Northwestern State Director of Athletics Greg Burke (left) and then-NSU head baseball coach John Cohen. Photo Credit: NSU Athletics