What I’m Reading: “Wizard” by Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains

Wizard, by Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains, was the first sports autobiography I ever read.

I got the book from the bookmobile that came by Ellisville Elementary School, which in retrospect is strange, as our school had a library. Nonetheless, I remember emerging from the bookmobile with my prize, leaning my back against the wall of the hallway, and beginning to read as other members of my class finished choosing their books.

To be honest, the fact that I still remember this, probably 30 years later, is more a reflection of the fact that I was a baseball-mad kid and that Ozzie Smith was my favorite player than the book itself. Nonetheless, Wizard created something of a stir shortly after it was published, mostly due to comments Smith makes regarding Whitey Herzog, umpires, a few former teammates, and about the Cardinals’ recent playoff opponents.

In some ways, Wizard is a very ordinary sports biography, as Smith chronologically takes the reader through his childhood, brief minor-league career, and summarizes each season. At 184 pages in the hardcover edition, this is not a long book, and Smith doesn’t linger long on any of the specific baseball moments that take place in the book. Even Smith’s home run in the 1985 NLCS against Tom Niedenfuer, arguably the most historic play of his career, receives just a couple sentences:

For the first time in my professional career, I hit a home run batting left-handed. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run; it just happened. Niedenfuer threw me a fastball inside, and it got a little more of the plate than he had intended. I was able to drive it well enough so that it just got over the wall.

While Smith’s recollections of the clubhouse and on-field events are relatively cursory and he claims to have absolutely no knowledge of his teammates’ drug use, he’s utterly unafraid to express his opinions about the game. At times, it almost reads as though he is auditioning for one of ESPN’s modern sports-talk shows, where he has to throw out as many hot takes as he can. In some cases, such as when he recommends that Major League Baseball move from separate American and National League umpiring crews or advocates for instant replay, he appears prescient. At other times, such as when he predicts that Bob Horner is going to thrive while replacing Jack Clark as the Cardinals’ first baseman in 1988 or suggests that he may retire after his contract concludes in 1989, history shows that he was significantly off the mark.

Mostly, though, this book provides Smith the opportunity to throw some haymakers at those who he feels have disrespected him during his career. He pulls no punches when discussing the San Diego Padres organization, criticizing the lack of instruction he says he received in the minor leagues and the firing of Alvin Dark during spring training of his rookie season. He also accuses Ed Whitson of intentionally hitting him with a pitch that broke his wrist and expresses frustration that his teammates immediately thought it was an accident.

A large portion of the book is focused on his contract negotiations, and Smith says that racism may have been involved in the team’s refusal to pay Dave Winfield or him what they were worth. According to Smith, when his agent, Ed Gottlieb, purchased an ad in the San Diego paper requesting part-time job offers on Smith’s behalf to supplement the meager income the Padres were paying him, Gottlieb did that on his own without Smith’s authorization. That incident, however, leads to Joan Kroc, the wife of the Padres’ owner, sarcastically offering Smith a job as her gardener. Smith is rightfully offended and indicates that this is when he knew he couldn’t stay with the Padres.

Smith goes after other former teammates and opponents as well. He says that Neil Allen was not mentally strong enough to deal with the scrutiny that came with becoming the Cardinals’ closer after Bruce Sutter left for Atlanta in free agency. He says that Jack Clark should have taken a cortisone shot to see if he could have played through his injury during the 1987 playoffs. He says that since he signed a larger contract, his strike zone has become larger as umpires try to humble him. He criticizes the Mets and Giants for comments they made during playoff series against the Cardinals. He says that he and his teammates were frustrated by Herzog’s repeated comments that he couldn’t believe the Cardinals reached the 1987 World Series. He even theorizes that the Twins turned the air vents in the Metrodome on and off to gain home-field advantage. Most humorously, he goes after Bob Brenly after the Giants’ catcher suggested that Smith was trying to be too flashy during their 1987 playoff series:

Bob Brenly, who in my opinion is mediocre at best, said after the game that I didn’t make the play because I was ‘styling.’ He once made four errors in the same game playing third base and he’s telling me about playing defense. I don’t tell him how to catch or say anything about all his passed balls. If you walked down the street and asked 20 people if they know who Bob Brenly is, I guarantee 19 of them wouldn’t know him.

Incredibly, Smith spends more words on what is admittedly a pretty epic takedown of Bob Brenly than he does in describing the single most important home run of his career (also, I love the idea of Smith combing through box scores looking for Bob Brenly’s worst defensive game just to include that zinger in the book).

The myriad opinions Smith shared in the book made a few days’ worth of news during 1988 spring training. To promote the book, Smith participated in an interview with Tom Boswell of GQ magazine, and Boswell used parts of Smith’s book and the interview in the article. According to a March 30, 1988, St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, the GQ article created a bit of a stir.

Herzog and Smith sat down to clear the air regarding several of Smith’s comments from the book, and Herzog arranged for a phone call between Smith and National League President Bart Giamatti to discuss Smith’s criticism of umpires. Clark responded angrily to Smith’s recommendation that he should have taken a cortisone shot and tried to play through the pain, pointing out that he participated in a simulated game and simply couldn’t compete.

“I think he did one too many backflips,” Clark said in a separate March 30 Post-Dispatch article under the headline, “Clark Lashes Out At Ozzie’s Comments.”

“Now Ozzie wants to be the manager and the doctor. I don’t know why he’s deciding right now to speak his mind. Maybe it’s because he was a .230 lifetime hitter and he suddenly got paid $2 million and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that he feels he’s started to earn it.”

Ultimately, though, while the book may have made headlines when it was published prior to the 1988 season, I think I would only recommend it to hardcore Ozzie Smith fans. Other books do a much better job of documenting the Cardinals’ pennant-winning teams of the ’80s, and it obviously doesn’t cover the final nine years of Smith’s Hall of Fame career. Smith really doesn’t dive into any details of his personal life outside of brief stories about how he met his wife and the day his first son was born, and since the book is relatively brief, every incident outside of his contract negotiations comes and goes pretty quickly.

The biggest takeaway I gained from reading Wizard is an appreciation of Smith’s competitive nature. After reading this, I really get the feeling that he played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, determined to show the people who thought he was too small, or couldn’t hit enough, or thought he was a hot dog. For a guy who always seemed fairly polished in front of the TV cameras, Wizard shows the tremendous personal pride he had throughout his career and how he dealt with it when he felt disrespected by others.

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