From 1977 to 1996, Alabama native Osborne "Ozzie" Smith (1954- ) was among the most accomplished athletes in baseball. The team for which he played through most of his career, the St. Louis Cardinals, is generally regarded as the best team of the 1980s, playing in three World Series and winning the championship in 1982. Smith played a central part in their success by anchoring the team's defense and, as a speedy switch-hitter, he epitomized manager Whitey Herzog's take-charge, aggressive style of offense. In his 19 years as a player, he appeared in 15 All-Star games and won 13 Gold Glove Awards.
Ozzie "The Wizard of Oz" Smith, was born Osborne Earl Smith, the second child of Clovis and Marvella Smith, in Mobile, on December 26, 1954. It was in Mobile that Smith first entertained dreams of becoming a baseball player, as he retrieved baseballs that landed in his yard and threw them back to the older boys. His family left Alabama when Smith was six years old, moving to the Watts section of south-central Los Angeles. While his father worked as a truck driver for a supermarket chain, his mother encouraged the Smith children to work hard in school to escape the poverty and violence of their neighborhood. His family was caught up in the Watts riots in 1965, and Smith recalls having to sleep on the floor for days because of sniping and looting.
Life for Smith in Los Angeles was not all bad, however. He frequently attended Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games. Also, in a nearby lumberyard, he and his friends learned to perform flips off inner tubes and land on piles of sawdust—a skill he put to notable use when he was in the spotlight as a baseball player. Although Smith was an outstanding athlete at Locke High School, playing on both the baseball and basketball teams, it was his academic performance that earned him a scholarship to California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. Smith walked on to the university's baseball squad during his freshman year and became its starting shortstop midway through the 1974 season. Smith remained the starting shortstop at San Luis Obispo throughout his college career, setting school records of 110 stolen bases and 754 at bats, as well as leading the team to a record 41 wins and a berth in the NCAA Division II Championship tournament.
After his athletic success in college, Smith was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1977. He played briefly with the Walla Walla Padres of the Northwest League and then was brought up to the big leagues. Smith had an impressive rookie season, finishing second in the voting for the Rookie of the Year award. Smith played in his first All-Star game as a Padre in 1981, but when management changed hands, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for fellow shortstop, Gary Templeton. It turned out to be a good trade for the Cardinals, who would go on to win the World Series in Smith's first year with the team in 1982. For the next 14 years, Smith was a mainstay in the Cardinals' infield, performing his customary back flips and earning a reputation as arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball history.
Between 1980 and 1992, Smith won 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, which are given to the best fielder in each of the nine positions on the field, and in 1991 he committed only eight errors, a record for the fewest miscues by a starting shortstop in a season and a feat that still stands today. Although Smith was known for his expert fielding, he was also a consistent hitter and was adept at stealing bases. In 1987, one of his best seasons at the plate, he batted .303, had 75 runs batted in, scored 104 runs, and finished second in the voting for Most Valuable Player in the National League. His career 580 steals place him among the top base stealers of all time.
A dispute with Cardinal manager Tony La Russa over lack of playing time led to Smith's retirement in 1997. In that same year,
he was divorced from Denise, his wife of 15 years, with whom he had three children. Since his retirement from baseball, Smith
has worked as a baseball commentator for This Week in Baseball and for the CNN-Sports Illustrated Network. In 1997, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and, in 2002, into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Smith, Ozzie, and Rob Raines. Wizard. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988.
Jonathan W. Bolton
Published May 12, 2008
Last updated April 26, 2013