Wouldn’t it be nice to have the photo of a local baseball legend in time for the opening of the Major League Baseball season?
A great idea, but Tribune photographer and lab technician Nick Lucero could not have anticipated the magnitude of the task he set for himself.
Roughly 4,500 negative sleeves later, as hope dimmed, he found the one Cal Poly baseball player he was looking for in the archives, Osborne Earl “Ozzie” Smith.
A photo of the only Hall of Fame player to have called the Central Coast home was maddeningly elusive. Lucero searched through a dozen boxes of negatives from four photographers to find a handful of images, some of which have never been published until today.
The images were found in what was literally the last hope location, the alumni game before Smith reported for his first season as a professional baseball player. In the alumni game Smith wore number 15, but during his days as a student he wore number 3, which was later retired. The photos were by Tony Hertz.
Lucero picks up the story from here:
What Major League Baseball team would be interested in a 5-foot 9--inch, 145-pound, little-known, nonscholarship player?
It was 1974 and Osbourne Smith was out to prove his doubters wrong.
Yet, Osbourne was delegated to the position of bench-warmer for the majority of his freshman season. He began to question his time at Cal Poly and even thought about quitting baseball altogether.
Then a rare window of opportunity opened when Cal Poly’s starting shortstop, Gary Knuckles, suffered a leg injury. This could be considered one of the luckiest injuries ever to occur at a Cal Poly baseball game. Sorry, Gary.
Smith jumped at the opportunity to play shortstop for the Mustangs, and he never looked back.
During his sophomore year he made the All-Conference team. He hit only .230, but he made up for it as a defensive powerhouse, with an impressive .945 fielding percentage.
Osbourne’s junior year was a defining year for him — he started to use his bat and glove as if they were magic wands.
Osbourne was transforming into Ozzie. He dramatically improved his entire game, finishing the season with a .308 batting average, fielding .964 and setting a school record with 44 stolen bases.
These accomplishments earned Ozzie All-Conference and All-District honors and began to draw the attention of major league scouts, as the Detroit Tigers expressed interest in him.
Ozzie declined the Tigers $10,000 signing bonus offer and returned for his senior season to Cal Poly, where he broke or tied seven records, was named All-Conference, All-District and All-American, hit .307, fielded .955 and helped his Mustangs earn a berth to the NCAA Division II West Regionals, adding an exclamation point to his illustrious Cal Poly career.
Ozzie still holds records for most career stolen bases (110) and at-bats (754) and twice stole 44 bases in a single season.
It was now 1977 and Ozzie was no longer a scrawny, nonscholarship baseball player. He was a 5-foot 10-inch, 155 pound terror on the base paths and defensive powerhouse, drafted by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round.
Yet Ozzie didn’t fit the mold of the Padres system, so in 1982 he was traded to St. Louis, where he helped the Cardinals win a World Series championship and ultimately established himself as one of the greatest shortstops ever to play the game. The Wizard of Oz was born.
So Osbourne, Ozzie, The Wizard of Oz, whatever you want to be called, you may be elusive enough to avoid being tagged out and to stop nearly every ball that crossed your path, but you weren’t elusive enough for this photo lab-tech.
So what else might The Tribune’s archive hold for us? Well, football season starts in the fall, and if I do recall, didn’t John Madden play football for the Mustangs?