COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Thirty-three years after his career appeared to be over before it barely had begun, Bruce Sutter will receive the ultimate tribute - induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When he's enshrined Sunday, Sutter will become the first honoree whose name never appeared on a starting lineup card. And, as implausible as it might seem, the former ace reliever can thank an injury to his pitching arm for his good fortune.
Signed as a free agent by the Chicago Cubs and desperate to make it to the major leagues, prior to the start of the 1973 minor league season Sutter scheduled - and paid for with his bonus money - surgery on his right arm for a pinched nerve incurred while trying to learn how to throw a slider.
"I didn't think they would pay for the operation," said Sutter, who hurt his arm after only two minor league games. "I thought if I told them I was hurt, I was gone."
He was unable to keep the operation a secret for long. Fred Martin, the Cubs' roving minor league pitching instructor, spotted the big scar on Sutter's elbow, then forever changed his life by teaching him to throw the split-fingered fastball.
Developed by right-hander Roger Craig before he retired from the Phillies in 1966, the "splitter" is a variation of the forkball that "Bullet" Joe Bush popularized during his journeyman career from 1912-28 and Pittsburgh reliever Elroy Face took to new heights in the late 1950s and early 1960s in winning 22 straight games.
The splitter is thrown with the ball held between the index and middle fingers, and the thumb, placed underneath, pushes the ball out upon release, creating a vicious forward spin.
"It came to me easy, but it took a long time to learn how to control it," Sutter said. "I could throw pretty hard. I might strike out 16 guys, but I might walk 10. I mean, I was wild. I wouldn't be here without that pitch. My other stuff was A ball, Double-A at best. The split-finger made it equal."
Not once he mastered it.
Give the bearded guy they dubbed "The Undertaker" a big edge there. Sutter's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't splitter looked like an ordinary fastball - until it reached home plate. Then it plunged precipitously through the strike zone out of harm's way, leaving bewildered batters flailing at nothing but air.
"He used it like nobody else was ever able to use it. He brought an air of confidence," said Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, Sutter's former teammate on the St. Louis Cardinals. "When he came in, the game was over. He was that good."
Howard Bruce Sutter was born Jan. 8, 1953, in Lancaster, Pa., and started playing the game when he was 5. He also played football and basketball in high school, graduated at age 17, and after attending less than a year of college began playing semipro baseball.
He was drafted by the Washington Senators in the 21st round of the 1970 amateur draft, but never signed. Cubs scout Ralph DiLullo eventually signed him with a $500 bonus the next August, Sutter met Martin, and three years after learning that pitch at Quincy, Ill., in the Midwest League, Sutter was pitching in Wrigley Field.
In 1976, he registered six wins and 10 saves and a 2.70 earned-run average in 52 appearances, and his career took off. The next season he assumed the role of closer for the Cubs and finished with 31 saves and a 1.34 ERA, and in 1978 registered 27 saves.
Sutter was even better the next season, winning the NL Cy Young Award, posting a National League record-tying 37 saves and also was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game for the second straight year. But when he won an arbitration award of $700,000 after the season, the Cubs, who had Lee Smith waiting for his chance, traded him to St. Louis after the 1980 season.
Sutter signed a four-year contract worth an estimated $3.5 million with the Cardinals, making him the highest-paid reliever in the game. And he rewarded their generosity in spades. He averaged almost 32 saves a year and led the league three times, establishing a league-record 45 in 1984, and keyed the Cards' 1982 World Series triumph over Milwaukee, their first title since 1967.
Sutter, who pitched the final two innings of Game 7, ended it by striking out Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas - with a straight fastball up.
And, unlike relievers today, Sutter often pitched two innings or more for his saves, averaging just over 100 innings per year from 1977-84.
"It was amazing to me how good he was," former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said.
Amazing, indeed. For the most part, he threw just that one pitch, everybody knew it and nobody could hit it.
"I feel like a pioneer with the split-fingered fastball. I was the first one to really throw it pretty much 100 percent of the time," Sutter said. "It was a pitch that I had to have. If I didn't have it, I wouldn't have been in the big leagues. It didn't really change the game, but it did change how pitchers were going to get hitters out."
Sutter, just the fourth relief pitcher to be inducted, left the Cardinals after the 1984 season and signed a six-year, $10 million free-agent deal with Atlanta. But after posting 23 saves in 58 games and a 4.48 ERA in his first season with the Braves, a rotator cuff injury relegated him to mediocrity and more than his share of boos when he was able to pitch but unable to live up to his reputation.
Sutter missed the last five months of the 1986 season, all of 1987 with rotator cuff problems. and made a comeback the next year with 14 saves in 38 appearances. In March 1989, a complete rotator cuff tear was detected in his right shoulder, and at age 35 he retired with 300 saves, at the time an NL record, in 12 seasons.
Perhaps because his career was much shorter than Hall of Fame relievers Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley, and the end of his career was fraught with injury, Sutter was passed over a dozen times before his election this year.
One can only wonder why. Sutter was no less important because he paved the way for the star closers of today, such as Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees. Rivera, who also relies almost exclusively on one pitch (a cut fastball), usually throws only one inning, just registered his 400th save and likely will have his plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame some day, probably not far from Sutter's.
"It takes a while (to change voters' mentality)," Sutter said. "When you're voting for the Hall of Fame, you're comparing starting pitchers to relief pitchers. Well, statistically, we're never going to compare to the innings and strikeouts they rack up.
"To me, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm were the first relief pitchers to get in," Sutter said. "Yes, they both started some games, but they were known primarily as relief pitchers. For me, I don't see any significance about it (never starting a game).
"All it does is show the sign of when the roles started changing. I don't think I'm setting the way for anybody. Relief pitchers are starting to get recognized. You've got to have them. Without a closer, you're not going to win."
Sutter will share the dais with J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Tracy Ringolsby, current national columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, and Ford C. Frick Award winner Gene Elston, former broadcast voice of Houston baseball.
It promises to be an emotional day. A 17-person class of players and executives from baseball's segregated past also will be inducted, and Sutter's wife, Jayme, is facing surgery in two weeks to remove a cancerous kidney.
Sutter will finish the festivities, and like all of his major league appearances, he promised to make it brief.
"It's just special," he said. "You play the game and you hope you get remembered, and this makes sure I'll always be remembered."
A look at the honorees to be inducted Sunday into the Baseball Hall of Fame:
HOWARD BRUCE SUTTER: Born Jan. 8, 1953, in Lancaster, Pa....drafted by the Washington Senators in the 21st round of the 1970 amateur draft, but did not sign.... signed with the Chicago Cubs as a free agent in 1971.... made major league debut May 9, 1976, won six games and saved 10 more in 52 appearances with the Cubs, striking out 7.9 batters for every nine innings of work.... in 1977 had 31 saves, posted a 1.34 ERA in 62 appearances, worked 107.3 innings and struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings.... had 27 saves in 64 appearances in 1978.... in 1979, made 62 appearances and had an NL record-tying 37 saves in 101.3 innings and won NL Cy Young Award.... from 1977-84 was baseball's dominant relief pitcher, collecting the win or save in four straight All-Star games and compiling 250 of his 300 career saves.... traded in December 1980 by the Cubs to the St. Louis Cardinals.... after posting 25 saves in 48 appearances in his first year in St. Louis, had 36 saves in 70 games in 1982 and led Cards to their first World Series title in 15 years, striking out Gorman Thomas for the final out in Game 7 for his second save in four appearances.... granted free agency in November 1984 and signed in December with the Atlanta Braves.... saved 25 games in 1985 but was hit harder than ever before in his career, notching just 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings and posting a 4.48 earned-run average... had offseason surgery but hurt his rotator cuff in 1986 and appeared in only 16 games.... missed all of 1987 due to shoulder problems.... worked 38 games and had 14 saves in 1988.... pitched last major league game on Sept. 9, 1988, and retired with a 68-71 record, 2.83 ERA, and 300 saves, at the time the third-best total in major league history and an NL record.
TRACY RINGOLSBY: Recipient of J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually for meritorious contributions to baseball writing... born in Cheyenne, Wyo., the 54-year-old Ringolsby has covered baseball for 30 seasons, 28 as a beat reporter and the last two as a national writer... began covering baseball for United Press International in Kansas City in 1976 and also worked at the Long Beach Press Telegram, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Kansas City Star, and Dallas Morning News before joining the Rocky Mountain News in 1992.... has published a column in every issue of Baseball America, which he helped found in 1981.... was one of the first writers to concentrate on scouting and player development, which enabled him to provide more depth to his coverage.... also was at the forefront of labor coverage dating to December 1975, when he was in the federal courtroom in Kansas City for the opening day of testimony in the Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally case that resulted in players ultimately gaining free agency.... was chair of five chapters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, including its national president in 1986.
GENE ELSTON: Winner of Ford C. Frick Award, presented annually for major contributions to baseball broadcasting... in 1941 broke into radio in his hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa, doing general staff announcing and high school basketball play-by-play.... after serving in the Navy during World War II returned home and worked for several small radio stations before making his debut in 1946 with the minor league Waterloo White Hawks... in 1954 earned his first broadcasting assignment in the major leagues as the No. 2 radio man for the Chicago Cubs.... from 1958-60 teamed with Bob Feller for Mutual Radio's Game of the Day, which aired on over 350 stations nationwide.... was lead voice of Houston baseball from 1962-86....hosted CBS Radio's Game of the Week from 1987-95.... hosted CBS Radio postseason games from 1995-97.... called 11 major league no-hitters.... elected to the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
The following inductees were selected by a special committee on Negro Leagues and the pre-Negro League:
Negro Leagues Players (7)
Ray Brown: Born Feb. 23, 1908, in Alger, Ohio. Died Feb. 8, 1965, in Dayton, Ohio. Batted right. Threw right. A starting pitcher from 1931-1945, pitching exclusively for the Homestead Grays starting in 1932 and helping the team win eight Negro National League pennants in nine years from 1937-1945. Ranks second in career winning percentage (.704), fifth in wins (105) and ninth in shutouts (13). Had a 3.20 career ERA.
Willard Brown: Born June 26, 1915, in Shreveport, La. Died Aug. 4, 1996, in Houston. Batted right. Threw right. Played 15 seasons in the Negro Leagues, five seasons in the minors, and 10 seasons in Puerto Rico. In the Negro Leagues, had a.351 career batting average, an on-base average of.374, and a.576 slugging average. Played on five pennant-winning teams (1937, 1939-1942, 1946 Kansas City Monarchs) and one world championship team (1942 Kansas City Monarchs). Brown was the only member of the new Hall class who played in the majors. An outfielder, he hit.179 with one home run in 21 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1947.
Andy Cooper: Born April 24, 1898, in Waco, Texas. Died June 3, 1941, in Waco. Batted right. Threw left. Pitched 19 of 22 seasons in the Negro Leagues, including nine years with the Detroit Stars and 10 with the Monarchs. Had more than 10 wins seven times, had a 116-57 career record and was the Negro National League career saves leader with 29.
Biz Mackey: Born July 27, 1897, in Eagle Pass, Texas. Died Sept. 22, 1965, in Los Angeles. Batted both. Threw right. Caught 24 seasons between 1920-47, primarily with the Hilldale Giants, Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles, Indianapolis ABCs and Baltimore/Washington Elite Giants. Also made brief appearances with the Baltimore Black Sox and Homestead Grays. Had.329 career average, batting.418 with Indianapolis in 1922 and.413 with Hilldale in 1923 and.426 with Hilldale in 1930. Sixth in career RBIs with 412 and seventh in total bases with 1,389. Managed the Newark Eagles in 1946 when they won the Negro League World Series.
Mule Suttles: Born March 31, 1900, in Blocton, Ala. Died July 9, 1966, in Newark, N.J. A first baseman/outfielder who had a.327 career average for the Newark Eagles, Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons and other teams. Played in 1921 and from 1923-44, hitting.300 or higher 13 times. Managed the Newark Eagles at the end of his playing career.
Cristobal Torriente: Born Nov. 16, 1893, in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Died April 11, 1938, in New York. Batted left. Threw left. An outfielder who spent 17 seasons in black baseball with the Cuban Stars (West), All Nations, Chicago American Giants, Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, and the Cleveland Cubs. Had.339 career average in the Negro Leagues, including a.432 average in 1920. Hit.300 or higher eight times and 11th among Negro Leaguers career RBIs with 309.
Jud Wilson: Born Feb. 28, 1894, in Remington, Va. Died June 24, 1963, in Washington, D.C. Batted Left. Threw right. Played from 1922-1945 with the Baltimore Black Sox (nine years), Homestead Grays (seven years), Pittsburgh Crawfords and Philadelphia Stars (eight years). Started as a third baseman, then moved to first. Had.351 career batting average, among the top five in Negro Leagues history,.421 on-base percentage and.507 slugging percentage. Hit.300 or higher 16 times, including his first 14 seasons, and hit.400 or higher four times.
Pre-Negro Leagues Players (5)
Frank Grant: Born Aug. 1, 1865, in Pittsfield, Mass. Died May 27, 1937, in New York. Starting in 1886, Grant played six consecutive seasons in organized baseball. Primarily a second baseman, he began with Meriden (Conn.) of the Eastern League, then joined the International League's Buffalo Bisons, where he stayed until 1888. In 1889 and 1891 he played for all-Black teams in the minor leagues, and in 1890 he starred for the Harrisburg Ponies of the Pennsylvania State League and the Atlantic Association (Double-A). He the IL in 1887 with 11 homers and 49 extra-base hits.
Pete Hill: Born Oct. 12, 1880, in Pittsburgh. Died Nov. 26, 1951, in Buffalo, N.Y. A top power hitter, his playing career began in 1899 with the Pittsburgh Keystones and extended through 1926. He played with many of the top pre-1920 teams, including the Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants. Hill managed near the end of his career with the Milwaukee Bears.
Jose Mendez: Born March 19, 1887, in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba. Died Oct. 31, 1928, in Havana. Played from 1908-26 and managed the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League from 1920-26. A right-handed pitcher, he barnstormed with the Cuban Stars in 1909 and twice had 11-game winning streaks, while reportedly compiling a 44-2 record against all levels of competition. In Cuban winter competition in November 1908, he had 25-inning scoreless streak against the Cincinnati Reds, including a one-hit shutout (a ninth-inning single by Miller Huggins). Was 76-28 from 1908-20 in Cuban competition and in 1939 was elected to the inaugural class in the Cuban Hall of Fame.
Louis Santop: Born Jan. 17, 1890, in Tyler, Texas. Died Jan. 22, 1942, in Philadelphia. A 6-foot-4 power hitter who played from 1909-26, was the starting catcher for the Philadelphia Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants and Hilldale Daisies. In 1917 in a three-game series against a major league All-Star team, Santop had six hits off Chief Bender and Bullet Joe Bush. Had.324 Negro Leagues batting average at the end of his career.
Ben Taylor: Born July 1, 1888, in Anderson, S.C. Died Jan. 24, 1953, in Baltimore. A pitcher who converted to first base, he played from 1908-1929. He spent nine years with the Indianapolis ABCs starting in 1914, interrupted when he served in 1919 as manager of the New York Bacharach Giants. Known as "Old Reliable" for sure hands and clutch hitting. Was a manager, coach and umpire through the early 1940s.
Negro League Executives (4)
Effa Manley: Born March 27, 1897, in Philadelphia. Died April 16, 1981, in Los Angeles. Co-owned the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe, handling scheduling, travel, payroll, promotions and contracts from 1936-1947. Active in the civil rights movement, she used the team to promote an Anti-Lynching Day at Ruppert Stadium In Newark, N.J. The Eagles, whose players included Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby, won the Negro Leagues World Series in 1946. She co-authored a book in 1973 on black baseball.
Alex Pompez: Born May 14, 1890, in Key West, Fla. Died March 14, 1974, in New York. Was an owner and league executive from 1916-50, then became a scout and director of international scouting for the New York and San Francisco Giants. He signed the Negro National League's first Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, and Panamanian players. The roster of talent he introduced to the Negro and major leagues included future Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda, Martin Dihigo, Juan Marichal, and Willie McCovey.
Cum Posey: Born June 20, 1890, in Homestand, Pa. Died March 28, 1946, in Pittsburgh. He was principal owner of the Homestead Grays during a baseball career from 1911-46 in which he was a player, manager, owner and club official. He played for the semipro Grays in 1911 and took control of the team in 1920. Accused of raiding other teams, he had 11 of 18 Negro Leagues Hall of Famers prior to this election playing for him.
J.L. Wilkinson: Born May 14, 1878, in Algona, Iowa. Died Aug. 21, 1964, in Kansas City, Mo. Wilkinson, who was white, was principal owner of the Kansas City Monarchs from 1920-48, who won the Negro National League in 1923, 1924, 1926 and 1929, and the Negro American League from 1937-42 and in 1946. The Monarchs won the Negro World Series in 1924 and 1942. Among his players were Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard, Cool Papa Bell, Bill Foster, Satchel Paige, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes and Willie Wells.
Pre Negro Leagues Executive (1)
Sol White: Born June 12, 1868, in Bellaire, Ohio. Died Aug. 26, 1955, in Central Islip, N.Y. An infielder who played from 1887 until the early 1900s, he was with all-black teams in the official minor leagues from 1889-1891, batting.324 or higher each season. He co-founded the Philadelphia Giants in 1902 and co-owned, managed and played for his team for eight years. He wrote "Sol White's History of Colored Baseball," published in 1907, the first history of black baseball. He managed through 1926 and also wrote about baseball for newspapers that included the Cleveland Advocate, the Amsterdam News, the New York Age and the Pittsburgh Courier.