While Major League Baseball may be a little bit more conservative than the other pro sports, some players still are able to transcend the game with such swag, cultural dominance and elite skills that they grow into larger than life figures.
For example Babe Ruth, was one of the United States’ first celebrity athletes. Derek Jeter would follow in his footsteps, transforming from a quiet workhorse into a ladies-loving Yankees legend.
In St.Louis however, few men stole the spotlight quite like Ozzie Smith.
While Smith’s defensive skills were unforgettable, it’s been over 20 years since we last saw Ozzie shine at shortstop. We still haven’t found anyone who could duplicate his unprecedented greatness with the web.
After spending years of his life in Alabama, Smith and his family moved to Los Angeles. In California, he began to show the athleticism that would later make him famous.
In high school he played both basketball and baseball. While he didn’t earn any major league attention (three of his teammates were drafted) the shortstop did earn a partial scholarship to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. That was hardly a ticket to success however.
In college, Smith managed to walk onto the baseball team and when the starting shortstop broke his leg, Ozzie got his chance to shine. He would take advantage of the opportunity and develop into an All-America, while garnering plenty of professional attention.
He was initially drafted by the Detroit Tigers, but he and the team couldn’t agree to terms. So he returned to school for his senior year and was then drafted by the San Diego Padres.
Early in his career, Ozzie Smith became involved in a bitter contract dispute with the Padres and was shipped to the St.Louis Cardinals.
That move as we all know changed the trajectory of his career. In fact in his first season in the Midwest, Smith helped the Cards win the World Series.
The club would capture two more pennants but no more titles during his career. In 1985, Ozzie did his part hitting one of the most iconic home runs in baseball history.
During his career, Smith won 13 Gold Gloves and redefined what it meant to be a middle infielder. While never really known as an offensive threat, he still developed into a capable batter.
By the time he retired he was a .262 career hitter, with a .337 on-base percentage. His defense and backflips however, became the stuff of legends. The Cardinals retired his jersey in 1996, and in 2002 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and would forever be immortalized in Cooperstown.
Since retired, he’s dabbled in a few business ventures, and he also became the president of the Gateway PGA Reach Foundation.
The Foundation is a charitable arm of the PGA, dedicated to “positively impacting the lives of youth, military, and diverse populations by enabling access to PGA professionals, PGA Sections and the game of golf. Smith’s branch serves the Gateway section of the country, which includes parts of Illinois and Missouri.
While Ozzie Smith might have made his name on the baseball, St. Louis sports fans of every discipline came to love the Wizard of Oz.
His new role might not be much different. He’s still giving those in “The Lou” something to cheer about. He’s undisputably the best shortstop to ever do it and we need more Black shortstops in MLB if we ever want to surpass the all-encompassing magnificence of the GOAT.
Mr. Cub is probably the greatest African-American shortstop to grace the MLB diamond. Banks not only set the standard for black shortstops, but he was the first true power-hitting shortstop in MLB. Banks was A-Rod before A-Rod, an icon who changed the game by providing uncanny power at a position previously reserved for slap hitters.
Banks played 19 years for a losing Cubs franchise and was Wrigley Field’s only bright spot for two decades as he clubbed 512 career homers. In his prime from 1957-1960, averaged a .293 batting average, 44 HR, 123 RBI and won back-to-back NL MVP awards in ’58 and ’59.
“El Capitan” is one of the greatest winners MLB has ever seen. He was the Captain and clutch catalyst for a Yankees Dynasty that won five World Series rings between 1996 and 2009 and lived in the postseason.
Jeter, a 14-time All-Star, is the Yankees all-time hits leader with a whopping 3,465. He has a .310 career batting average and has won five Gold Gloves. His stats are Hall of Fame worthy, but don’t begin to tell the story of his marketing and cultural impact as the flawless face of baseball for 20 years. He led the Yankees to the top of the sports landscape by performing at his best in the biggest moments. “Ice in the veins” should be Jeter’s middle name.
He is arguably the greatest postseason hitter of all time, with a career .308 BA, 20 HR, 61 RBI, 18 SB line in 158 postseason games, earning the name “Mr. November.”
3. Barry Larkin
He was a Black Knight in beast mode as the premier National League shortstop of the 1990s. Larkin was a consistent offensive boss and formidable glove for an inconsistent Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was elected to the All-Star team every year from 1988-2000, winning eight Silver Slugger awards during that span.
Larkin, who played every one of his 19 seasons with the Reds, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012, with a .295 career average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases. Larkin scored at least 80 runs in a season seven times, hit 30-plus doubles in six seasons, and stole 30-or-more bases five times. He won his three Gold Glove awards at shortstop en route to a career fielding percentage of .975 and won nine Silver Slugger awards.
Larkin won a World Series in 1990 and then did something that Jeter couldn’t accomplish when he took home NL MVP honors in 1995.
The Wizard is simply the greatest defensive infielder in MLB history and his 43.4 career defensive WAR is the best by any player at the position. Even with the defensive metrics on smash, his .978 fielding percentage and 13 Gold Gloves support his claim to the title of glove king.
Smith is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime talent that you would never understand based on numbers. He was truly a magician with the glove. He was also a huge personality in the game and understood the essence of entertainment as he began each game with his patented backflip.
Smith had artistry, flair, and athletic superiority that put him in another stratosphere. His fielding was so good that people often dogged him for his hitting, which is not shabby at all. Smith had a .262 career average and 2,460 hits. He’s also among the greatest base stealers of all-time with 580 career swipes.
“J-Roll” is one of the most offensively prolific shortstops the game has ever seen. He has 2,455 hits, which includes 511 doubles (53rd all-time), 115 triples, and 231 home runs. He ranks 103rd in career total bases and 83rd in extra-base hits. He’s also stolen 470 bases, good for 46th in MLB history. His 1,421 runs are good for 86th and 936 RBI from pretty much always being in a table-setting position is pretty solid as well.
He makes the all-time Top 20 in almost every offensive statistic for a shortstop and was the centerpiece of a Phillies team that won two NL pennants and a World Series in 2008. He has four Gold Gloves and four seasons of at least 10 Defensive Runs Saved.
J-Roll was a true soul patroller. His 2007 NL MVP award was the stamp that at some point he was the best at his position. Standing a diminutive 5-foot-7, 175-pounds, Rollins defied the odds and continues to be a living example of skills over scales when it comes to the sport of baseball.
Honorable Mention: Maury Wills
Wills didn’t get his Hall of Fame props from the writers, but he was an MLB pioneer and one of the fastest players in history.
Wills was finally nominated by the Golden Era committee in 2014, which could induct managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players for possible election in 2015, but he fell three votes short.
The barn-burner made a living off of his superior wheels as he stole 586 bases in his career, good for 20th all time.
The lack of respect for his career is indicative of the lost appreciation in the modern game for the stolen base, which was a staple of black excellence in baseball ever since No. 42 broke the color barrier in ’47. In 1960, Wills won the first of six straight National League stolen base crowns.