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Lee Smith’s HOF induction tells the story of MLB’s black pitchers

The big-time closer finally made the Hall of Fame, but he’s long been an icon

Martin Luther King. Barack Hussein Obama. Serena Jameka Williams. Kobe Bean Bryant. Middle names of black folks in this country are often learned only when we reach a certain plateau. But long before Cooperstown honored him on Sunday, the first black reliever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame was well-known around baseball circles as:

Lee Arthur Smith.

That’s the type of respect he garnered.

The man who stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and rocked a mean Jheri curl dominated batters courtesy of his gargantuan hands. Over the course of his 18-year career, Smith pitched for eight teams, but his time in Chicago was when he established himself as a premier shutdown closer, who retired in 1997 with more saves than anyone in the history of Major League Baseball. He was finally recognized for his greatness by the Veterans Committee at January’s winter meetings after baseball writers somehow didn’t consider him worthy of the Hall of Fame for 15 years. Much like his smooth stroll from the bullpen to the mound to close games, he arrived in the end.

Smith wasn’t necessarily a huge star of the game, but to other black pitchers, he was a stalwart and an icon.

“Big, intimidating force that comes in at the end of the game and it’s a done deal,” Marvin Freeman, a 10-year MLB veteran whose career ended in the bullpen, said last week in Chicago. “Lee, he was one of the few guys that was getting two- and three-inning saves on an everyday basis. He really set the tone for how relief pitchers used to be. Now they just bring guys in to face one or two guys.”

Lee Smith delivers his speech during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, New York, on July 21. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Born in Louisiana, Lee was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Cubs in 1975. He almost quit the game when he had trouble as a starter in the minor leagues. Eventually he made it to the bigs as a reliever, and the rest is history.

What’s ironic is that when you look at baseball today, finding black Americans on the mound, never mind in the bullpen, is a rarity. As scouting and psychologies of baseball have changed over the years, more African Americans get moved to the outfield. It’s almost like as writers forgot about Lee in terms of the Hall of Fame, baseball was forgetting about the idea of brothers on the mound.

“You know, that was my first thought: What the f— took so long?” LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched in the majors for 21 years, said about Smith last week. “But you know what? Better late than never. Good thing that he had the chance to get inducted while he was alive instead of, God forbid, something happened and they want to vote him in, which is BS. But, man, I’m happy.”

Smith, 61, was more than just an intimidating force, a nice guy and appointment viewing. For a black kid playing baseball in the Chicago area, he was the show.

“You don’t understand. I love Lee Smith,” said Hawkins, who pitched in more than 1,000 MLB games. “I grew up right outside Chicago in Gary [Indiana]. My elementary school and my junior high school was nine blocks down and five blocks over, so I used to run 14 blocks home after school. I got out at 3:00 in elementary and 3:30 in junior high school. I would run home to try to catch the end of the Cubs game because there was a chance that Big Lee Arthur was going to be pitching.

“Sometimes I would have basketball practice. Basketball practice started at 4:00, so I would run home, see if he was pitching, because we didn’t have cellphones, had no TV in the gym. I would see if he was pitching. If he wasn’t pitching then I would run back to basketball practice.”

Think about that. With baseball sliding in ratings over the years, the idea of little kids running around the neighborhood to watch day games on television feels like a fairy tale. “Yeah, my mother thought I was crazy,” Hawkins joked. “But she was watching the games too.”

Freeman also recalled Smith’s impact on his career.

“Growing up in Chicago, I had a chance to see his work, and he was one of the guys that inspired me to want to be a major league pitcher. And when I got a chance to meet him in person, I was like a kid in a candy store, man. He shook my hand, and it was like the size of his hand just engulfed my entire arm,” Freeman said at the Double Duty Classic, a high-school all-star game for inner-city players in Chicago that pays homage in namesake to the old Negro Leagues star Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.

It’s also worth noting that Smith was originally scouted and signed by Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues legend, for the Cubs. O’Neil was the first black coach in the majors.

The very notion that a player who held records had to get into the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee, and is now the only black player at his position in the Hall, tells you everything you need to know about the direction MLB has moved in. It’s hard to find a cogent argument as to why that’s reasonable, because there isn’t one. Black folks aren’t genetically predisposed to not being able to pitch. To be fair, Cooperstown has its own issues with relief pitchers in terms of induction, which is a related though separate matter.

Even decently serious baseball fans would have problems naming offhand more than a couple of black pitchers in the game today. A casual poll of people who actually cover the sport brought answers ranging from five to 30. That in itself is wild.

From a baseball standpoint regarding Lee, however, his longevity was somehow used against him when his Hall of Fame credentials were being debated. As if a long career is somehow a bad way to amass numbers.

“The best ability is availability,” said Rick Sutcliffe, a former MLB Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner, during Smith’s induction video. “And Lee Smith was always available throughout his career. You look at the numbers. When he retired, he had more saves than anybody in baseball, completed as many games as any pitcher in baseball. He was a seven-time All-Star. He had as many appearances as any pitcher in baseball, pretty much when it all ended. Availability. Him being able to go out there and not only dominate for a long, long period of time but to be able to sustain that kind of success.”

Point is, he was excellent for a long time and should have been recognized as such.

“Everybody thinks he was just a hard-throwing guy that just threw all fastballs, but he had a really great slider that was tight,” Freeman said. “His control was absolutely outstanding, and he didn’t waste time with hitters. He went out there and he got after you, and he knew three pitches or less. That was one thing that I really learned from watching him: He was trying to get you out on as few pitches as possible, and it’s still a template for today.”

Sunday afternoon, after all these years and all these ballots, it was finally time for Lee Arthur himself to take the stage, where he instantly name-dropped another Hall of Famer, his former teammate, and reminded the crowd of exactly what the problem might have been:

“I did promise to Ozzie Smith after I saw that video … I promised him I’d break out my Caucasian voice.”

Just a little reminder that even as a Hall of Famer, he’s still black and this is still baseball in the United States of America.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.