While the memories of lackluster performance and the managerial nightmare that was Vern Rapp put a black cloud on the Cardinals of the 1970s, it is easy to forget that the Cardinals were contenders in 1971 (7 games), 1973 (1 game) and 1974 (1.5 games). Winning the weak National League East just meant that you were fodder for the Big Red Machine. At the same time it meant the acquisition of one player might tilt the balance and put you in post season where anything can happen.
The Cardinals tried to catch lightening in a bottle several times. One of these is the subject of tonight’s Unforgotten Cardinals: switch hitting right fielder Reggie Smith.
Of all the elite players that passed through the Cardinals system in the 1970s, none played better than Reggie Smith. While the statistics list him at 6’0″ he played like a much larger player. It should also be noted that this was the era of big hair, mustaches and gargantuan sideburns – and nobody did it better than Reggie Smith. When he stepped into the batters box and held that bat as high as he could and started rocking it back and forth, you knew you were watching greatness. And for two and a half years the Cardinals were the benefactors of that greatness.
The story of the Cardinals and Reggie Smith begins in 1967, his first full year in the major leagues. Unfortunately for Smith that was also the year that Rod Carew broke into the majors and was nearly a unanimous choice for AL Rookie of the Year. Smith came in second.
The Cardinals got a good look at their future right fielder while playing Boston in the World Series. Smith would hit two home runs (off Nelson Briles in game 2 and one of the 4 home runs surrendered by Dick Hughes in game 6). It should be remembered that Dick Hughes went 16-6 in 1967 and had the same misfortune as Smith: Breaking into the majors the same year as another future Hall of Famer, Tom Seaver. Hughes would also come in second in Rookie of the Year voting. You can’t make up things like this.
Smith’s star would start burning rather brightly in Boston. A free swinger, Smith would be a frequent strikeout victim. But learning some patience at the plate increased his walk rate and after a few adjustments he would be a perennial .300 hitter with good power. His defense was also rewarded by winning the gold glove in 1968 while playing center field.
Smith would come to the Cardinals before the start of the 1974 season in a deal that sent the Red Sox the talented yet tremendously disappointing pitcher Rick Wise and outfielder Bernie Carbo. Always playing hard, Carbo made a big impression on Cardinals fans and we were sad to see him leave. Wise, on the other hand, we helped back his luggage on the fear that he might stay.
For two years Smith played hard in St. Louis, slowly becoming a fan favorite. He represented the Cardinals in the All Star game both seasons hitting over .300 and driving in 100 runs in 1974. He even received a few courtesy votes for league MVP in recognition of his contributions. His 20 home runs a season seems low for such a slugger, but remember that Richie (Dick) Allen had a monster year in 1970 and managed only 34 home runs. So Smith’s 23 and 19 home runs put him near the top of the Cardinals in the 70s.
Injuries in 1976 lead to a drop in production. Prior to the trade deadline, the Cardinals would trade Smith to the Dodgers for catcher Joe Ferguson. Smith would find a good home in Los Angeles and his star would be shining brightly again. Smith regained his stroke and had a couple of great years helping the Dodgers reach consecutive World Series in 1977 and 1978 (losing to the Yankees both times). He would also represent the Dodgers both years in the All Star game and one more time in 1980.
Smith would play 17 seasons and rack up 2,020 hits, 314 home runs, and 1,030 RBIs. And for a free swinger that never saw a pitch he didn’t like, he ended his career with respectable .287 batting average. And he is one of the best player that will never make it into the Hall of Fame.
Here is another summary of Reggie Smith – nicely written with lots more detail.
While more known for his heroics in Boston and Los Angeles, for those two seasons nobody played harder or was more productive for the Cardinals than Reggie Smith.