Lee Smith’s illustrious professional baseball career fell short of a final chapter on the field with the Royals, but he’ll always share a special bond with Kansas City.
Smith was back in town Saturday night — honored at the Gem Theater along with Al Oliver, Tony Perez and Maury Wills as members of 2017 “Hall of Game” class for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
It was almost 20 years ago that Smith failed to catch on for a final big-league season with the Royals, who had invited him to spring training in 1998 but designated him for the minors, an assignment Smith would refuse.
Smith, now 59, was emotional as he shared how, much like Hall of Famer Lou Brock, he owed his very career to the man who was the driving force behind the creation of the museum at 18th and Vine — the late, great Buck O’Neil himself.
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“This means so much to me because Buck O’Neil found me when I was just 17 years old, and it’s like coming full circle,” Smith said. “Every time I come here, I get goosebumps. It’s going to be years before I really understand what we’re doing here.”
Smith has the Chicago Cubs record for most saves (180) and ranks third on the MLB career saves list (478) and games finished (802) behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Smith, a seven-time MLB All-Star, held the MLB record for career saves from 1993-2006 and had been scouted by O’Neil himself.
Perez, who was a vital cog in Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine,” in the 1970s became a perennial All-Star at first base. He went to seven All-Star games in his illustrious 23-year playing career. He won three World Series championships, two as a player and one as a coach, and was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1998 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
“This was my first time here in the museum, and I just really enjoyed it,” Perez said. “I met Jackie (Robinson) a little before he passed away, and that was the greatest thing that happened to me in my career in baseball.”
Wills — who said his dream of playing for the Dodgers started when he first saw Robinson play — was a critical part of the Dodgers’ championship teams in the 1960s. Wills was a seven-time All-Star and won an All-Star Game MVP in 1962, the first time an MVP for the annual game was named.
Wills was also name the National League MVP for the 1962 season. He still holds Dodgers franchise records for single-season at-bats (695), single-season stolen bases (104) and career stolen bases (490).
“It’s just so nice to be here among these great players that I played against,” Wills said. “I had heard about Jackie Robinson being signed by the Dodgers, and I just wanted to go where Jackie was. I always played with the spirit of the Negro Leagues because I got to realize my dreams.”
Oliver, nicknamed “Scoop,” played 18 seasons in the majors for seven different teams and finished with a career .303 batting average. Oliver, a first baseman and outfielder who played the majority of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, batted above .300 in 11 seasons, including nine straight, good enough to become a seven-time All-Star.
Oliver became a World Series champion with the Pirates in 1971. He won three Silver Slugger Awards and captured the 1982 National League batting title.
“It is an honor for me to be here, and to go in with the rest of these guys is really something,” Oliver said. “I know when I was called about this, there was no way I was going to miss this day; this is such a pleasure to be here.”
Additionally, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum presented Dave Stewart the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award for “career excellence in the face of adversity.”
Stewart pitched for five different teams across a 16-year MLB career, winning three World Series championships and the MVP of the 1989 Fall Classic. After his playing career came to an end, Stewart served as a pitching coach, an assistant general manager and eventually, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“To even be mentioned with Jackie Robinson, I am just not worthy, but the biggest part of it is this man (Jackie) opened up doors for us to be able to play this game, to be able to share the field and show our talents,” Stewart said. “God gave us the talent and the opportunity, but Jackie opened up the door for us to be able to do that.
“There are just no words. Ten years from now, I still won’t be able to capture the moment I got the phone call for this award.”