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Beating the Odds

How Much of Making the Hall of Fame Is Pure Chance?

The recent election that put Harold Baines and Lee Smith into baseball’s Hall of Fame sparked more dispute than an umpire’s mistake.
Baines, in particular, is seen by critics as a good player who does not deserve to be enshrined with the sport’s immortals. And Tony La Russa, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, dismissed Baines’ critics with a terse shot of profanity. It made for colorful TV, especially in a week in which the sport’s annual Winter Meetings failed to produce much in the way of news.
But leaving aside the question of qualifications, what if we instead were to ask, “How much does pure chance have to do with achieving greatness?” How much can brief but significant events explain those two perplexing groups:
1. Draft flops — those who are chosen high but who never make it?
2. Hidden gems who emerge as stars?
Smith belongs to neither group. He was a highly regarded prospect, making it big after being taken in the second round of the 1975 amateur draft. But his life had its share of pure chance. First, baseball was not on young Smith’s radar screen. But, according to a Society of Baseball Research article by Neal Poloncarz, “One day in his junior year of high school, as he walked across the outfield of a softball field during practice, a ball rolled to his feet, beyond the outfielders. Lee picked it up and heaved it to home plate. After the softball coach witnessed this, Smith was switched from the softball team to the baseball team.”
That episode alone did not put Smith on a track to baseball. Tall and sturdy, he could have chosen basketball, and indeed planned to play at Northwestern State in Louisiana. After a chat with Joe Adcock, a former player, Smith turned pro in baseball.
Four years into his career, Smith was still in the minor leagues. Randy Hundley, minor-league pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs, suggested he become a relief pitcher. It turned out to be fateful advice, but Smith didn’t see it that way. He took it as a demotion, and returned to basketball.
That’s when Billy Williams, a Cubs great, paid Smith a visit and persuaded him to give baseball another try. Back in baseball, Smith got advice from, among others, future Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, and noted pitching coach Billy Connors.
What if Smith had never wandered across that outfield during softball practice? What if he had ignored the ball at his feet instead of hurling it to home plate, or rolled it back in? What if the softball coach had not seen his prodigious throw? What if Adcock had told Smith to go to college and pursue basketball? What if Randy Hundley had never made Smith into a reliever? Or if Billy Williams had never bothered to come to Smith’s house?
The constant thread in Smith’s young life, of course, was his enormous strength and undeniable talent. But lots of people have that, and never go anywhere. But fate put the right people in Smith’s path, and he was smart enough to seek out and receive advice.


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