Born during an era where shortstops were expected to be defenders first and foremost, Ozzie Smith redefined what was possible at one of baseball’s most demanding positions.
For baseball fans, it was a Dec. 26 present they had no desire to return.
Fifty-eight years ago this week, on Dec. 26, 1954, Ozzie Smith arrived in the world in Mobile, Ala. When Smith was six, his family moved to Los Angeles – and in the year-round sunshine he showed the dexterity that made him a multi-sport star. Baseball, however, had always been Smith’s favorite.
A teammate of future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray on the Locke High School baseball team, Smith graduated to a spot on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo baseball team, where his speed and defensive skill resulted in the Detroit Tigers drafting Smith in the seventh round in 1976. Smith, however, opted to return to college.
The next summer, the Padres took Smith with a fourth-round pick, and Smith quickly signed before spending the summer with Walla Walla of the Northwest League. After hitting .303 in 68 games, Smith earned an invitation to the Padres Spring Training camp in 1978.
Padres manager Alvin Dark gave Smith a chance to win the team’s starting shortstop spot, but Dark was fired during Spring Training. Nonetheless, new manager Roger Craig installed Smith at short, where he played 159 games while hitting .258 with 40 stolen bases. It was edge-of-your-seat defensive plays, however – including a diving, bare-handed grab of a Jeff Burroughs’ grounder that is still a staple on highlight reels – that powered Smith to a second-place finish in the 1978 National League Rookie of the Year vote.
Soon, Smith was known throughout baseball as “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Ozzie Smith just made a play I’ve never seen before,” said Jerry Coleman, the Padres’ longtime broadcaster. “And he’s done it more times than anyone else.”
Smith spent the next three years with the Padres, winning the first of 13 straight Gold Glove Awards in 1980. Following the 1981 season, Smith was traded to the Cardinals in a deal that was basically a swap of shortstops, with Garry Templeton going to San Diego.
In 1982, Smith proved to be the missing piece for a Cardinals team that made it all the way to the World Series, where St. Louis defeated the Brewers in seven games.
Smith spent the final 15 years of his big league career with the Redbirds, helping St. Louis win two more NL pennants while being named to 14 of his 15 career All-Star Games. He retired following the 1996 season with a .262 batting average, 402 doubles, 1,257 runs scored and 580 stolen bases.
Defensively, Smith set standards at shortstop for assists (8,375) and double plays (1,590, since broken by Omar Vizquel) while becoming the standard by which all other shortstops are judged.
Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002 in his first year of eligibility.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum