By Glen Sparks
The Minnesota Twins gave a 40-year-old, self-made ballplayer his first chance at managing in the majors in 1969.
What did the Twins expect from Billy Martin? He relied on modest tools and battled in every game as a player. The tough guy from Berkeley, Calif., hit .257 over 11 big-league seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees. He knocked 64 career home runs and drove in 75 runs in 1953. Martin played in five World Series while in the Bronx (batting .333, 33-for-99) and made a shoestring catch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the ’52 Series.
Once, he fought Red Sox shortstop Jimmy Piersall underneath the grandstand at Fenway Park. He also duked it out with catcher Clint Courtney of the St. Louis Browns. The word got around: Billy Martin, who did some boxing as a teenager, liked to brawl.
New York shipped Billy out of town midway through the 1957 campaign. Or, about a month after that famous incident at the Copacabana night club in Manhattan. It was Martin’s 29th birthday. He, along with teammate Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, decided to celebrate. The evening turned into a mess. Bauer, for instance, slugged a patron.
Yankee brass blamed Martin for being a bad influence. The team shipped him to the Kansas City A’s, a perennial loser. Over his final 4 ½ years in the majors, Martin played on six teams. He drank and fought and got fined and suspended.
Martin did some scouting and minor-league managing after his playing career ended in 1961. He served as skipper of the Twins’ Triple-A team in Denver before getting the major-league gig. Martin ended up managing five different squads and did five tours as the Yankees skipper. He won five division titles, two pennants and one World Series. Then, there was all that other stuff … Once, he battled it out with a marshmallow salesman.
This is a brief rundown of Billy Martin the manager, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere:
Minnesota Twins (1969): Martin’s squad compiled an admirable 97-65 mark in the skipper’s rookie season, 17 games better than in ’68. The Twins finished in first place after sinking to seventh the previous year. Hamon Killebrew pounded 49 home runs; Tony Oliva slugged 24. Rod Carew hit .332 and won the first of his seven batting titles. Jim Perry (20-6, 2.82 ERA) and Dave Boswell (20-12, 3.23) led the pitching staff.
The Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in three games in the playoffs. Martin started Bob Miller, 5-5 during the regular season, in the final game. Owner Calvin Griffith asked Martin why he would do such a thing. “Because I’m the manager,” Billy replied. Griffith fired him.
Detroit Tigers (1971-73): Detroit, fresh off a 79-83 campaign, hired Martin in the fall of 1971. The new skipper led his squad to 91 victories and to second place in the American League East. The next year, Detroit dropped to 86 wins but still won the division. Veterans like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich led Detroit on the field.
Once again, Martin lost in the playoffs. This team, the Oakland A’s beat him. In Game 2, Bert Campaneris, angry at being hit by a pitch, flung his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Martin practically came out his underwear trying to get to Campy.
Detroit fired Martin on Sept. 2, 1973. The team was 71-63, but Billy was wearing out his welcome, as he would so often do. He already had gotten himself arrested during a public disturbance at spring training. Later in the season, he told reporters that he wanted his pitchers to throw spitballs. He also ripped management, the commissioner and everyone else in the newspapers. Billy was great ink.
Texas Rangers (1973-75): Well, it didn’t take Billy long to find a job. The Rangers nabbed him before the season was up. Martin guided the team to a 9-14 mark in the closing weeks (Texas ended up 57-105 after going 54-100 in 72.). Even better, Texas improved to 84-76 in ’74, good for second place in the A.L. West. Young outfielder Jeff Burroughs hit 25 homers, drove in 118 and hit .301 to win the A.L. MVP award. Future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins won 25 games.
Expectations were high going into ’75. The Rangers, though, struggled. On July 20, with the team 44-51, team owner Brad Corbett fired Martin.
New York Yankees I (1975-78): Once again, Martin didn’t stay out of work for long. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Billy on Aug. 1. The skipper would be going back to his baseball roots. His team went 30-26 to close the season.
The Yankees won the pennant in 1976 and met the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Cincy swept the Yankees in four games. Billy didn’t even have to watch the final out from the dugout. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming tossed him out in the ninth inning after Martin threw a baseball at home-plate ump Bill Deegan.
New York signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent before the 1977 campaign, won 100 games in the regular season and knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Steinbrenner, a.k.a. The Boss, gave Billy a fat bonus and a new car. Everything looked good until midway through ’78. Martin uttered his famous quote on Jackson and George: “One’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other’s convicted (George, who pleaded guilty in 1974 to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign).” Martin resigned July 24. … (Billy kept a mustache for much of his managerial career. He looked a bit like cartoon villain Snidely Whiplash, famed nemesis of Dudley Do-Right.)
New York Yankees II (1979): Well, why stay mad? Steinbrenner hired Billy to right the ship after the Yanks got off to a slow start in ’79. Billy led the team to a 55-40 mark. New York finished 89-71 overall, good but not good enough to make the playoffs. Steinbrenner fired him at the end of the year. (This was the year that Billy clobbered the marshmallow salesman during a bar brawl. The guy, Joseph Cooper, required 15 stiches to close up his injury.)
Oakland A’s (1980-82): Billy, who grew up near Oakland, was going home. Charlie Finley, one of baseball’s most eccentric owners (orange baseballs, a mechanical rabbit that would pop up near home plate and deliver new baseballs to the umpire, etc.) hired him to lead a team filled with talented pitchers like Mike Norris, Brian Langford and Matt Keough. The three combined for 72 complete games in 1980; Oakland finished second at 83-79.
The next year, the split season of 1981, Oakland made the playoffs but got bounced out by the Yankees. Once again, the A’s starters threw a ton of complete games. Following a disappointing 1982 season (68-94, fifth place in the A.L. West), Billy got the boot. The biggest criticism? He burned out those starting pitchers.
New York Yankees III (1983): The third time is a charm, right? Well, sorta. The Yanks did manage to go 91-71. The problem was, that was only good for third place in the division. This was the year of the infamous pine-tar game, by the way. The Kansas City Royals’ George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium to give K.C. the lead. Or, so everyone though. Martin, a stickler for details, knew that Brett liked to lather up the bat with pine-tar, even more so than the rules allowed. The umps agreed, took the runs off the board, and Brett—as the video shows—went berserk. (Baseball later overruled the umps.) Anyway, Steinbrenner canned Martin about a week before Christmas this time.
New York Yankees IV (1985): This is when it got funny. George fired team icon Yogi Berra 16 games into the season and hired Billy. The Yanks got into a groove and went 91-54 under the new/old skipper. They were only 6-10 under Berra, though, and missed the playoffs. This time, Steinbrenner cut Martin loose on Oct. 27, a few days before Halloween. Things were getting scary.
New York Yankees V (1988): This is when it got farcical. Martin replaced Lou Piniella as skipper nearly 100 games into the season, went 40-28 and got fired. Most people didn’t care at this point. It was getting silly.
There was no Billy Martin VI. Martin died Dec. 25, 1989, in a one-vehicle accident in Fenton, N.Y. He was 61 years old. The man who once dubbed himself “the proudest Yankee of them all” is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., not far from the greatest Yankee of them all, Babe Ruth.
By Glen Sparks
Rod Carew was dead.
His died on a warm Sunday afternoon in September, just off the first tee at Cresta Verde Golf Course in southern California.
His heart blew up. He had just smacked a drive right down the middle. Suddenly, his chest burned, and his hands went cold. Alone, he struggled to the clubhouse. Paramedics rushed to the scene.
The Hall of Famer’s heart quit beating two times, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He had 100 percent blockage in one of his main arteries. He had suffered a major heart attack, one cryptically called “a widow maker.”
Paramedics brought Carew back to life. He survived. One of the greatest hitters ever made it through another battle.
First-Ballot Hall of Famer
Eric and Olga Carew were traveling aboard a train on Oct. 1, 1945, in the Panama Canal Zone. They sat in the rear part of the train, the section reserved for “colored” passengers. Olga, expecting a child, went into labor as the train chugged along.
The conductor, when he learned what was going on, hurried to find a doctor. Luckily, Dr. Rodney Cline had booked passage. Thus the baby boy was christened Rodney Cline Carew.
Eric Carew reportedly drank too much. Rod Carew has said that his troubled dad beat him many times. At 14, Rod Carew left Panama with his mom, three sisters and brother for New York City. Eric stayed in Panama.
Rodney, or Cline as many people called him, didn’t play baseball at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan. Instead, he played with the New York Cavaliers, a semi-pro club.
A scout for the Minnesota Twins liked the way Carew peppered the ball all over the field. He arranged a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Carew passed. The Twins signed him for $400 a month, plus a $5,000 signing bonus, on June 24, 1964.
Carew made the big club out of spring training in 1967. He went on to hit .292 that season. He made the American League All-Star team and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Following a down season in 1968 (He still made the All-Star team, but he hit what would be a career-low, .273), the left-handed hitting infielder batted better than .300 for the next 15 years.
He won seven batting titles during his 19-year career and famously made a run at .400 in 1977, settling at .388 and cover shots for Sports Illustrated and Time. He also led the league in hits (239), runs (128), triples (16), on-base percentage (.449) and OPS (1.019). Never a true power hitter, Carew tied for his career-high in home runs that season (14) and drove in a career-high 100 runs. Not surprisingly, writers voted him the A.L. MVP.
Carew stood up to bat like a cat ready to strike. A wad of chewing tobacco bulged out of one cheek. Carew hit from a pronounced open stance and smacked pitches with a magical bat.
Over his 12 seasons in the Twin Cities, Carew hit .334. Following the 1978 season, he took his magical bat to California. In seven seasons as an Angel, he batted .314 and made six more All-Star teams.
Carew retired after the 1985 season. He hit .328 lifetime and collected 3,053 hits. The 18-time All-Star also stole 353 career bases (including seven steals of home in 1969). He easily made the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1991, with 90.5 percent of the vote.
“Have a Safe Journey”
Following retirement, Carew settled into retirement in Orange County, Calif. He did some coaching, both for the Angels and, later, the Milwaukee Brewers. In September 1995, Carew’s 18-year-old daughter Michelle was told that she had a rare form of leukemia. She needed a blood-marrow donor. Michelle’s two sisters were matches for each another, but not for Michelle.
Carew, a private man, went public. Could someone please help? Carew’s pleas went nationwide. The registry rolls for bone-marrow transplants increased by 500,000 that first year, according to a SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) article. Tragically, no match was found for Michelle Carew. She died April 17, 1996.
“All we did is we told her we love her, that we’re all here, and I just told her to have a safe journey,” Carew said, according to a New York Times article.
A few years before, Carew went through a cancer scare of his own. Doctors found and removed a cancerous growth from the inside of his cheek, a result of chewing tobacco. Carew’s teeth and gums were also a mess. He needed more than $100,000 of dental work to get his mouth back into shape, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Carew now lives with—and because of—a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) that sits inside his chest. The LVAD pumps blood because his heart muscle cannot. Doctors installed the device during a six-hour procedure at a San Diego hospital, according to an article in the Orange County Register. He can still play golf, travel, and, yes, go to spring training.
He feels better every day, he told columnist Marcia C. Smith at the Register. He is mending nicely thanks to the devotion of his second wife, Rhonda, and the care he has received at five California hospitals.
On Jan. 30, Carew, who turned 70 years old Oct. 1, attended TwinsFest at Target Field in Minneapolis. The Twins, behind skipper Paul Molitor and young, talented players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, hope to make a racket in the A.L. Central this season. One of their biggest cheerleaders will be Rod Carew.
Yes, of course, he’ll be at the Twins’ spring training facility in Ft. Myers, Fla., he told the fans at TwinsFest, according to an article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. He’ll drive fellow Twins great Tony Oliva to the ballpark every morning.
“Oh, I’m going to be at spring training,” he told the Press.
Hall of Fame Weekend
Baseball began giving out the Commissioner’s Award in 1971. It honored one player each year for his hard work in the community. The Commissioner’s Award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award after the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder died while on a mercy mission to Nicaragua on Dec. 30, 1972.
Carew won the Award in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. Now, the man who also did so much to raise awareness for leukemia research 20 years ago plans to do the same for heart-attack prevention. The first Twin Cities Heart Walk is scheduled for May 14 at Target Field. This event is part of a year-long Heart of 29 campaign. (Carew won uniform No. 29 as a player.)
The 2016 Hall of Fame induction is set for Sunday, July 24. Rod Carew plans to be there.
(You can read more about Carew at his web site.)
Harmon Killebrew didn’t just hit baseballs. He punished them for getting too close. Killebrew blasted 573 home runs into orbit during a 22-year career.
He mashed the first of those homers on June 24, 1955, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Detroit Tigers starter Billy Hoeft served up the pitch. Killebrew, a 19-year-old rookie, deposited it into the bleachers, the highlight of the day for the Senators, who lost 18-7. (Sign of the times: Detroit starter Hoeft gave up 12 hits and seven runs and still went the distance.) Only 4,188 fans “filled” the stands at Griffith for this Friday tussle.
“Killer” eventually led the American League in home runs six times, topping out at 49 in 1964 and 1969. The slugger stood a few inches shy of 6-feet tall but relied on forearms that would have made a lumberjack envious.
Pitchers started getting twitchy when Killebrew stood in the on-deck circle. His bat was simply a launch vehicle. Baltimore Orioles Manager Paul Richards said, “Killebrew can the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” He once hit a pitch over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in little Payette, Idaho, near the Oregon state line. His dad, Harmon Clayton Sr., went out for football at little Milliken College in Decatur, Ill, and encouraged his sons to play hard. Here is one great story:
Harmon and his brother were messing around in the yard with Dad. Katherine Killebrew took one look at the beat-up lawn and said, “You’re ruining the grass.” The game went on. Pops Killebrew simply said to his wife, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”
Payette High School never had an athlete like Harmon Killebrew Jr. The youngster earned 12 varsity letters and was signed by the Washington Senators, thanks to a tip from U.S. Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho. (It could not have been a hard sell. Killebrew was batting .847 for a local semi-pro team.)
Four days later, Killebrew made his debut with the Senators. He pinch-ran for Clyde Vollmer. Killebrew was six days shy of turning 18. Over the next few years, the muscular prospect with a compact, but powerful, right-handed swing, sat mostly on the Washington bench as a bonus baby. Only later did he get to punish young, impressionable minor-league pitchers.
Finally, in 1959, Killer played in his first full Major League season. He promptly led the A.L. with 42 home runs. He also made the All-Star team, something he would do another 11 times in his career.
The Washington Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961. Killebrew took his home-run swing with him. From 1961-64, he belted 188 balls out of the park.
He also led the league in RBI three times. And, despite a pedestrian .256 career batting average, Killebrew retired with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to a good eye and careful pitching. He topped A.L. batters in intentional walks three times.
The baseball writers elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame in 1984. His No. 3 is retired by the Minnesota Twins, of course, and a street at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., bears his name. One rumor is that the MLB logo is modeled after Killebrew
Killer now stands at No. 11 on the all-time home run list. He is tied with Rogers Hornsby at 38th on the RBI list (1,584) and is 15th on the all-time walks list (1,559). He also is Idaho’s all-time home run champ by far, 502 ahead of Vance Law.
Known for his kind heart, Killebrew organized the Danny Thomson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of a Twins teammate who died of leukemia. The tournament still goes on every year in Sun Valley, Idaho, and benefits cancer research efforts.
Killebrew spent time as a broadcaster for a few years after retiring, worked as a coach and nearly died from infections after suffering a collapsed lung and damaged esophagus in 1990. He died in hospice care of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.
“I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.” – Harmon Killebrew
By Glen Sparks
Jim Kaat almost made it into the Hall of Fame. Or, maybe he wasn’t that close after all.
The former pitcher needed 12 votes among the 16 members of the Golden Era committee; he got 10. Kaat was a near miss, right? He came up just two votes short. But, as he notes in his recent blog post, it’s a bit more complicated than that. (You can read my original post about Kaat and his Hall of Fame qualifications.)
Kaat is a big fan of horse racing, he explains. So, he understands something about narrowing the field. At least three of the committee members had very little chance of voting him into Cooperstown, he writes. All three were Golden Era members who never saw Kaat play or did not see him in his prime. (Kaat doesn’t call out the three by name, but he does drop some biographical hints. You can make a decent guess that the trio consisted of Elias Sports Bureau executive Steve Hirdt, writer Tracy Ringolsby and Royals owner David Glass.)
If that was the case, he needed 12 of the remaining 13 votes to go his way, or 92 percent. He got 77 percent (10 of 13), or just more than the 75 percent required for induction.
Kaat makes a few other solid points in his post. And, let me add that he does not come across as bitter at all. He thanks his friends and fans for their support. Also, he wasn’t exactly sweating out the suspense at home, waiting for a call from the Hall of Fame. He was sitting in a chair at the dentist’s office.
Anyway, Kaat suggests that the Golden Era committee—a group put together to look at players and executives who made their mark in baseball from 1947 to 1972—be made up of people who actually saw the nominated players perform. … I support this up to a point. Committee members should know about the superstars and the bench jockeys of the era, yes. Whether they know them by living through that time or by studying the game’s history is less important. And we’re going to need baseball historians—not eyewitnesses—to right any wrongs from a previous era.
Kaat also supports reconvening the committee if a particular player falls a vote or two short. Maybe point that out and call for a re-vote. … I like this idea. Look, you can’t put together a committee and torture the members by forcing them to watch reruns of The Golden Girls until someone gets 12 votes. You can, however, keep the debate going if a candidate has strong support.
The induction process is hard. You have 16 committee members, and each member has a maximum of four votes. So, that’s 64 votes to go around. So, yes, it’s hard, it’s supposed to be hard, and every player had his chance on the first go-round of voting, some of them for 15 years.
Hard, yes. Should it be nearly impossible, though? The Golden Era committee met one other time, in 2010 (with a different set of committee members). That time, of the 10 candidates, only Ron Santo got it. So, the committee is 1 for 20.
Why not bump up the size of the committee from 16 to 24 or 32? That would make it difficult for just a few committee members to hold up a player from induction. Also, change the maximum number of votes that each committee member can cast from four to six. That would increase the maximum number of votes from 64 to 96, maybe loosening up things a bit. Really, why even go through the bother of nominating players for the ballot, debating their merit and then voting “yea” or “neh” if “neh” always rules the day?
Kaat was a bulldog of a pitcher. He threw a ton of innings (4,530.1), and he won a lot of games (283). Did he take the ball when his arm was sore, when a pitcher from today’s game might beg off from a start? I bet he did. Did he play in an era when a good rubdown was all a trainer could offer? I think so. Will Kaat get another chance at going into the Hall of Fame? I hope so.
By Glen Sparks
If only his knee hadn’t hurt so bad.
The pitchers, he could handle. Every year during his prime, Tony Oliva began his assault on fastballs and breaking balls in spring training. He kept it up throughout the summer and into the start of a chilly fall. No, the men on the mound–lefties, righties, starters, relievers–were never the problem.
That right knee did in Oliva. He had surgery on the knee in 1966 and again the following year. In 1971, he tore it up something fierce, hauling in a line drive hit by the A’s Joe Rudi. The pain never went away. On July 5, 1972, doctors removed 100 pieces of cartilage from one banged-up knee.
Rod Carew, the Hall of Fame infielder, wrote about Oliva in his book Carew, “I roomed with a guy with bad knees for years and used to listen to his cry like a baby at night. I’d be asleep and sometimes I’d hear Tony moaning and groaning. … He’d get up during the night and go down to get ice, wandering all over the hotel trying to find ice to put on his knee.”
We’ll find out Monday if Oliva can overcome his tortured knee. He is one of the 10 Golden Era candidates being considered for the Hall of Fame. Like everyone else on the ballot, he needs 75 percent of the vote to get in.
Give Oliva two healthy knees for his entire career, and he might already be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Oliva played 15 years in the big leagues, all of them with the Minnesota Twins. He batted .304 (.353 on-base percentage, 476 slugging percentage, .830 OPS and 131 OPS+) and hit 220 home runs. He drove in 947 runs. Oliva led the American League in hits five times, doubles four times and runs scored once. The Cuban-born ballplayer won three batting titles.
His torrid hitting lasted eight seasons. He was the first Cuban player named Rookie of the Year (1964) and the first player, Latin or otherwise, to win a batting title in his first two seasons. Phil Elderkin of Christian Science Monitor wrote an article about Oliva for Baseball Digest. He began the article this way: “Watching Tony Oliva hit a baseball is like hearing Caruso sing, Paderewski play the piano, or Heifetz draw a string across a bow.”
Besides winning the Rookie of the Year Award in ’64, Oliva also finished second in the MVP voting. He was MVP runner-up in 1965 and 1970. Finally, Oliva played on eight All-Star teams (1964-71) and finished with 43.0 WAR points, with highs of 7.0 in 1970 and 6.8 in 1964.
Bill James rated Oliva as the No. 21 right-fielder of all-time in his Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2003. He is ranked just a few spots behind Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (No. 19) and ahead of players like Dwight Evans (No. 22) and Roger Maris (No. 28), who sometimes get mentioned in a decent Hall of Fame debate.
James wrote several pages about Oliva in his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Most telling, in James’ opinion, except for a healthy Frank Robinson (a first-ballot Hall of Fame) “I think (Oliva) was clearly the American League’s best right fielder, when healthy, from 1964 through 1971.”
If it weren’t for that balky right knee…
Oliva retired following the 1975 season, helped in part those last few seasons by the designated hitter rule. He has worked for decades as a coach and in community relations for the Twins. One of the players he helped develop was Kirby Puckett, whose stats are similar to Oliva’s. Puckett was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, in his first year of eligibility. Here is a look at Kirby’s stats:
Batting Average: .318
On-base percentage: .360
Slugging percentage: .477
Home runs: 207
Kirby was selected to 10 All-Star teams. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1984 and finished in the top three in the MVP voting three times. He also won six Gold Gloves and, maybe most importantly, was the most prominent player on two World Series champion teams.
Of course, as mentioned, Oliva finished second in the MVP race in 1965, a year the Twins won the pennant and lost to the Dodgers in the World Series. He also put up big years in 1969 and ’70 when the Twins won division titles.
In his 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Oliva enjoyed decent, but not overwhelming, support. He received at least 30 percent of the vote a dozen times with a high of 47.3 percent in 1988.
The Twins unveiled a Tony Oliva statue at Target Field on April 8, 2011. Minnesota fans still cheer for one of the popular players in team history. A dozen fans started the VoteTonyO campaign in 2011 with the goal of getting Oliva into the Hall of Fame. They have written thousands of letters to Cooperstown inductees, making a pitch for their favorite right-fielder.
“Tony Oliva means so much to baseball, to his fans, to people everywhere,” according to the web site. “Every child he makes smile, every hand he shakes, every photo he poses for, and every autograph he signs brings joy to someone’s life.”
By Glen Sparks
Jim Kaat won 283 games in his career, four fewer than Bert Blyleven and 13 more than Burleigh Grimes.
He pitched for parts of 25 seasons, won 25 games in 1966, and retired with 16 Gold Glove awards.
Does that make the 6-foot-5-inch left-hander from Zeeland, Mich., a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out Dec. 8.
A group called the Golden Era committee looked at nine ballplayers and one executive who may be worthy of the Hall of Fame, but who may have slipped through the cracks during their regular run of eligibility: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bob Howsam, Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant, Gil Hodges and Maury Wills. Howsam is the executive in the group.
Any nominee who wins at least 75 percent of the vote will get into Cooperstown. The Golden Era Committee consists of Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Pat Gillick, Ferguson Jenkins, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith and Don Sutton; executives Jim Frey, David Glass, Roland Hemond and Bob Watson; and veteran media members Steve Hirdt, Dick Kaegel, Phil Pepe and Tracy Ringolsby. So, a nominee needs at least 12 votes.
In my Nov. 13 post, I linked to an article by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz that offers a great Hall of Fame case for former Cardinal third baseman Ken Boyer. This is the first of my posts about the remaining Golden Era candidates.
The Hall of Famer I am comparing Kaat with is Sutton. That seems like a fair match. Kaat pitched from 1959-1983. Sutton pitched from 1966-1988. The point here is to see how Kaat’s stats measure up with a player already enshrined in Cooperstown.
Sutton, who took the mound for the Dodges and five other teams, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, in his fifth year on the ballot, with 81.6 percent of the vote. This also makes Sutton a good comp for Kaat. He was not a slam-dunk Hall of Fame choice like Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton.
Here we go with the first round of Kaat and Sutton by the numbers:
287-237, 544 Pct.
3.45 ERA (108 ERA+)
898 games, 625 games started
324-256, .559 Pct.
3.26 ERA (108 ERA+)
774 Games, 756 games started
So, Sutton wins in every category except for complete games, and Kaat only wins there by two. They have the same ERA+ despite Sutton’s lower career ERA. This is mostly because Sutton played so long at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Sutton has big advantages in innings pitched (748), strikeouts (1,013) and shutouts (27).
You’ll notice that Kaat had plenty of games as non-starter. From 1979 until he retired after the 1983 season, Kaat appeared in 223 games. He only started 19 times.
Now, let’s look at one more round of stats:
Sutton has a decent-sized edge here, too, and a big 23.4 advantage in WAR. On Kaat: How many Hall of Fame pitchers gave up more than a hit per inning? There can’t be many.
Just a few more notes: Kaat made three All-Star teams. Sutton made four. Kaat finished just once in the Top 5 in Cy Young voting, while Sutton finished fives times in the top five.
In the postseason, Kaat went 1-3 with a 4.01 ERA. Sutton went 6-4 with a 3.68 ERA.
Kaat does beat out Sutton in a few areas. Only Greg Maddux, for instance, has more Gold Gloves as a pitcher (18). Sutton did not win any Gold Gloves.
Kaat finished fifth in the MVP voting in 1966, a year he went 25-13 with the Twins. He threw 304.2 innings and 19 complete games. Sutton’s best MVP finish was 22nd in 1976, the year won a career-high 21 games.
When you think of Kaat, what team comes to mind? He played 15 seasons and won 190 games with the Twins. Interestingly, he was with the White Sox when he put together his two finest WAR seasons, at ages 35 and 36. He had WARs of 7.1 (1974) and 7.8 (1975), fifth- and fourth-best in the A.L., respectively. Sutton’s best WAR years were 1972 (6.6) and 1980 (6.3).
Quick note on hitting. Sutton batted .144 in his career with 0 home runs and 64 RBI. He holds baseball’s all-time record for most at-bats (1,354) without a homer. He did hit 15 doubles and one triple. Plus, he had 136 sacrifice bunts. He stole a base. Kaat batted .185 with 16 homers and 106 RBI. He also hit 44 doubles, 5 triples and went five for six in stolen base attempts. He had 34 sacrifice bunts. (None of the preceding paragraph means anything when it comes to Hall of Fame voting for pitchers.)
Of course, when people talk about Jim Kaat as a Hall of Fame candidate, the name “Tommy John” invariably comes up. Here is a quick look at T.J. and how he stacks up with Kaat. (Tommy John is not in the Hall of Fame, although you probably know all about the famous elbow surgery that bears his name.)
288-231, 555 Pct. Tommy John gets the edge.
3.34 ERA (111 ERA+) T.J.
760 Games, 700 Starts T.J. had more starts.
162 complete games Kaat
46 shutouts T.J.
4,710.1 IP T.J.
1,259 BB Kaat had fewer.
2,245 K Kaat
1.283 WHIP Kaat
9.1 H/P T.J.
2.4 BB/9 Kaat
1.78 BB/K T.J.
62.3 WAR T.J.
Summing it up
Kaat gets lost a bit in any debate about outstanding pitchers of the 1960s and ‘70s. He put up good numbers in an era when guys like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer were putting up bigger numbers and winning the awards.
“Kitty” Kaat, as he was known, certainly stacks up with that next rung of Hall of Fame pitchers: Sutton, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, etc., especially if you look at his top few seasons. He was a workhorse throughout much of his career (nine seasons of double-digit complete games) and became a lefty relief specialist toward the end. I think he has a good chance of making it to the Hall.
Just one question, though:
If Kaat goes in, doesn’t Tommy John have to go in, too?