by Jason Pugh
NATCHITOCHES – A bit of a unique situation in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday will shine the spotlight on a 2004 Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer.
When Lee Smith enters the National Baseball Hall of Fame, most naturally will assume the Northwestern State baseball program was the genesis for Smith’s professional career, which ended with him as Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader.
Instead, Smith’s tenure at Northwestern was spent in Prather Coliseum playing basketball. While Smith left an indelible mark on Major League Baseball – one that will be honored in perpetuity beginning with Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. CDT induction ceremonies – his short time on the Demons basketball team left memories as well. The event will air live on MLB Network.
“I remember playing against him when I was a senior in college and he was a freshman,” current Demons men’s basketball coach Mike McConathy said. “I don’t remember the game, but I saw him play the next couple of years. His athleticism was incredible. Now, he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a tribute to the great athlete he was, and more importantly, to his dedication to maintain a high, high level of play over such a long period of time. What he did was done under a different style where he didn’t get as many opportunities as they do today.”
Smith joins former Demon tight end Jackie Smith as former Northwestern State athletes inducted into national Hall of Fames. He joins the likes of Mel Ott and Bill Dickey as members of both the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Smith retired with a then-MLB record 478 saves, a mark that still ranks third all-time trailing only fellow 2019 inductee Mariano Rivera (652) and 2018 inductee Trevor Hoffman (601). He entered the Hall via the Today’s Game Era Committee, which also led to the enshrinement of Harold Baines this year.
Despite playing basketball at Northwestern State, Smith’s baseball talent was clear.
He began his pro career in 1975, going 6-2 for the Chicago Cubs Rookie League team, and then pitched at Class A Pompano Beach in 1976 before averaging 3.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game for the Demons, who finished 17-9 in the 1976-77 season under Hildebrand.
“You have to be proud of him,” Hildebrand said. “You’re talking about a youngster who went from Castor High School to the Hall of Fame. It’s a proud moment for someone when you know where they came from and what they’ve done. He took his God-given ability and did a lot with it.”
Smith’s God-given athletic ability also came with a pair of massive hands that remain embedded in Derwood Duke’s mind.
“He had hands that could wrap around two baseballs,” said Duke, an assistant basketball coach who helped recruit Smith to Northwestern State. “He was a tremendous rebounder for us that year. We thoroughly enjoyed having Lee.”
Duke said he had to recruit Smith’s mother as much as the 6-foot-5 forward/right-handed pitcher.
What started with Smith’s decision to play basketball at Northwestern State eventually morphed into a career that saw him become the fourth major league pitcher to appear in 1,000 games and a total of 29 wins above replacement. Smith notched four league-leading saves totals and finished in the top four in the National League Cy Young voting in 1991 and 1992.
“Even before Cooperstown bestowed the highest of all MLB honors upon Lee Arthur Smith, his name ranked among the greatest of any athlete to ever don an NSU uniform,” Northwestern State Director of Athletics Greg Burke said. “Now, he is deservedly in even more elite company alongside the likes of pro and college football hall of famers and USA Olympians. I speak on behalf of NSU and its athletic program in congratulating Lee Arthur on this marvelous accomplishment and want him to know how proud everyone in Demonland is of him now and always have been.”