Smith was the best defensive shortstop of the 1980s and most likely the best ever. For nineteen years, the “Wizard of Oz” (or “The Wizard of Ah!’s”, as some put it) dominated baseball with his breathtaking, and often game-saving, defensive play. To watch Ozzie play was to see a combination of baseball, ballet, and gymnastics. Smith won thirteen straight Gold Glove Awards (1980-1992) at shortstop and led the National League in fielding percentage seven times; St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog has argued that at his peak Smith saved 75 runs per year with his glove.
Smith began his major league career with the San Diego Padres in 1978 after only 68 games in the minors. Despite an unremarkable performance at the plate (.258, one homer, 46 RBIs) Smith’s 40 stolen bases and incredible glove work helped him to a second-place finish to Bob Horner in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. On April 28, 1978, Smith made what he rated as his best play ever when he dove to his left to snare a grounder hit by Atlanta’s Jeff Burroughs. The ball took a bad hop and skipped behind Smith’s head, so Smith promptly stuck out his bare right hand to snag the ball before popping to his feet and throwing Burroughs out at first base. Cardinal fans came to expect such plays from the Wizard, who consistently obliged.
Smith’s outstanding defensive play for San Diego was at times tempered by his failures at the plate. In 1980, Smith set the record for most assists in a season (621) but hit just .230. The following year he hit only .222. Unwilling to give Smith the pay raise he demanded, the Padres dealt him to the St. Louis Cardinals for shortstop Garry Templeton in February 1982. Whitey Herzog‘s Cardinals, who emphasized speed and defense in spacious Busch Stadium, turned out to be a perfect match for the young defensive wizard. Because they rarely routed an opponent, the Cardinals relied heavily on Smith’s ability to thwart late-inning hits. With the Gold Glover at short, the Cardinals won it all in 1982 and enjoyed pennant-winning seasons in 1985 and 1987.
As the switch-hitting Smith gained big-league experience, his hitting began to improve. In 1985 he posted a .276 batting average — his best to date. His average would improve to .280 in 1986 and a career-high .303 in 1987. During Game Five of the 1985 League Championship Series, Smith hit his first left-handed home run in 3,009 at-bats in the bottom of the ninth off of Tom Niedenfuer to win the game.
Smith’s career year in 1987 was instrumental in the Cards’ World Series run. He hit .303 with 43 stolen bases, 75 RBI and 104 runs scored and finished second in the MVP balloting to the Cubs’ Andre Dawson. Smith’s performance, both at the plate and in the field, inspired an injury-riddled club to the top of the NL East. Prior to the Cardinals’ three home games during the 1987 World Series, Smith put on a show with an awesome flurry of cartwheels, handsprings, and back flips. Although St. Louis defeated Minnesota in all three games, they were unable to win in the raucous Metrodome and eventually fell to the Twins in seven games.
Smith continued his strong play into the ’90s. His eight miscues set an NL record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop in 1991. The following year, he collected his 2,000th hit and stole his 500th base. He also won his thirteenth consecutive Gold Glove, breaking an NL record held by Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. By this time, several “young Ozzies,” such as Ozzie Guillen and Omar Vizquel, were being heralded as his defensive heir.
When Smith announced that 1996 would be his last season, a special effort was made to let Smith, now platooning with Royce Clayton, play in each NL park as a farewell to his adoring fans throughout the country. NL fans had voted in Ozzie as their starting All-Star shortstop a record twelve times.
Near the end of his career, Smith was also lauded for his involvement in community service, winning both the Branch Rickey Award in 1994, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 1995. After his retirement, Smith turned in his glove but continued to please baseball fans with his exuberant personality by taking over for Mel Allen as the host of the long running “This Week in Baseball.”