On June 4, 1975, while 17-year-old Lee Arthur Smith was hauling wood with his father in Bienville Parish, he stopped at the general store in Jamestown and was told he had been drafted..
“I’m too young to go in the army,” he said.
Wrong draft, they explained. The Chicago Cubs had picked him in the second round of the major league baseball draft.
Basketball was Smith’s first love. He was the Most Valuable Player on the Class B All-State team as a senior at Castor High, earning a scholarship to Northwestern State University. He only played baseball because Ronnie Daniels, the Castor basketball coach, told him he couldn’t play basketball unless he also played baseball.
Although he pitched for Castor High and the Minden American Legion team, Smith’s heart wasn’t in it. More than once, his coaches had to hunt him down at one of his favorite fishing holes to take him to a baseball game. But major league scouts were familiar with the parade of talented black pitchers coming out of the piney cone hills of North Louisiana. They had signed Mansfield’s Vida Blue, Ruston’s J.R. Richard and Gibsland’s Lynn McGlothen a few years earlier.
The Cubs sent Buck O’Neil to check out Smith’s 90 mile-per-hour fastball. He liked what he saw.
Smith didn’t have an agent, but he got some advice from Coushatta’s Joe Adcock, who had gone to LSU on a basketball scholarship before embarking on a 17-year major league baseball career.
Adcock, who had been out of baseball for 10 years, told him to ask for a $50,000 signing bonus, and negotiate between that figure and whatever they offered.
When Smith asked for $50,000, O’Neil wrote a check for $50,000.
Smith, a woodcutter’s son who grew up in a house with no running water (they hauled buckets from a neighbor’s house a half mile away), couldn’t believe it. “Man, I’ve been doing this for free after school, and they’re going to give me $50,000? I should have asked for $80,000.”
Taking advantage of a new NCAA rule that allowed professionals in one sport to participate at the collegiatge level in other other sports, Smith enrolled at Northwestern State after his first pro baseball season and played basketball for one season. The way he figured it, he could play a couple of years in the minor leagues and come back to the thickets to haul lumber.
When he retired in 1997, only two men had pitched in more games. Smith was the all-time leader in saves with 478. He struck out 1,251 batters in 1,289 innings.
Jerry Byrd is the former sports editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune and an award-winning columnist. You can contact him by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org