June 19, 1996: Ozzie Smith announces he will retire at season’s end

With his 9-year-old son Dustin standing beside him on June 19, 1996, Ozzie Smith tearfully announced that the current campaign would mark the end of a legendary 19-year career that included a World Series championship, NLCS MVP Award, 13 Gold Glove Awards, and, with his upcoming appearance in the midsummer classic, 15 all-star appearances.

“It’s a hard thing to do,” Smith said, “but my heart has been telling me and my mom has been telling me for the last couple of years to take some of the strain out of my life. I feel the time is here now. It’s right, and it’s pretty much on my terms.”[1]

Cardinals president Mark Lamping announced that Smith’s number 1 would be retired on Sept. 28, and that following his retirement Smith would stay with the team on a personal services contract that would pay him $200,000 per year.

“He’s an example to players today, and he will be to players who follow him,” Lamping said. “Ozzie will go down as one of the greatest Cardinals of all time.”[2]

A fourth-round draft pick by San Diego in 1977, Smith’s defense made him an almost instant big leaguer. In 1978, he played 159 games for the Padres, stealing 40 bases and placing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In 1980, he won his first Gold Glove, and the following year he made his first all-star game appearance.

Throughout Smith’s career with the Padres, however, he and the club disagreed on his salary. After Smith’s agent posted an ad in the paper advertising Smith’s availability for part-time employment to supplement his income, Joan Kroc, the wife of the Padres’ owner, responded by offering Smith hourly work as a gardener.

That untenable situation ended when the Padres traded Smith to the Cardinals for Garry Templeton. With Smith’s glovework anchoring the infield, the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 and captured National League championships in 1985 and 1987.

“As long as he’s not going to read the paper and see this I’ll tell you: Growing up as a kid, he was always my favorite player,” pitcher Andy Benes said. “It’s been in the back of my mind that I’d love to go and play with him for a little while. That’s part of the reason I came here.”[3]

Smith said he seriously considered retiring after the 1995 season, when a shoulder injury limited him to 44 games. Ultimately, however, he wanted to leave the game on his own terms.

“Sometimes I came up a little short, but every day I’ve walked away from a baseball field, I’ve been able to look in the mirror and say I did the very best I could,” Smith said. “I don’t think I’ve ever cheated anybody.”[4]

Uncertain of what their 41-year-old shortstop would be capable of following surgery, the Cardinals traded for 26-year-old Royce Clayton. Manager Tony La Russa announced that there would be an open competition for the starting job in spring training, and when the regular season arrived he declared Clayton the winner. Smith disagreed, establishing friction between the two men that would last long after Smith’s career ended.

“Everyone is entitled to do things his own way, and I’m sure that Ozzie had good reasons why he wanted the remainder of the ’96 season to be a kind of farewell tour for himself,” La Russa wrote in 2012.[5]

Willie McGee, however, noted that a farewell tour was exactly what Smith deserved.

“It’s a good move, considering the type of person he is and what he’s done for the game,” McGee said. “He can get his just due. It would have been a sin if he had not announced it until the last minute and couldn’t be recognized in every city for what he has done.”[6]

Though Smith may not have been La Russa’s favorite player, he remained an icon among fans and teammates.

“He’s like a big brother to me,” said Brian Jordan, noting that when you think of St. Louis, you think of Ozzie. “He’s taught me a lot on and off the field. I look up to him. I almost want to be like him. He’s a Hall of Famer, as a player and as a person. It’s been an honor to play with him.”[7]

Backup outfielder Mark Sweeney echoed Jordan’s sentiments.

“I feel very lucky to even have had the chance to meet him and be around him, but he’s more of a friend than a teammate,” Sweeney said. “He’s an incredible person. He lends most of his time to other people. He’s special not for his talent, because his talent speaks for itself. He’s special as a person.”[8]

Opponents and former teammates alike shared their appreciation.

“I’ll be proud to tell my grandkids that I played next to him,” said Todd Zeile. “Even at the tail end of his career, he did things that were amazing at shortstop. It was the little things that were most amazing.”[9]

Luis Alicea, who played alongside Smith for six seasons, said, “The best way I can describe Ozzie is that he’s a guy with a lot of God-given talent but he’s been able to keep those tools very, very sharp with a great work ethic.”[10]

Expos manager Felipe Alou put it in even simpler terms: “I never saw anybody better,” he said.[11]

In 2002, Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He retired with 2,460 career hits and 580 stolen bases.

“It’s been a storybook career,” Smith said. “I never dreamed when I came in that I would be able to achieve some of the things I’ve achieved. Hopefully, I’ve left my mark.”[12]


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie calls it quits,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie calls it quits,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[3] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie calls it quits,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[5] Tony La Russa, One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season, William Morrow, Kindle Android version retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 284.

[6] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[7] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[8] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[9] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[10] Mike Eisenbath, “Praise Thrown Smith’s Way By Admiring Mates,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

[11] “The legend of Oz,” Montreal Gazette, June 21, 1996.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Ozzie calls it quits,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 20, 1996.

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