Sutter pays visit to Hall of Fame
2006 electee prepares for July induction in Cooperstown
It isn't often that a young player who starts out in semi-pro ball before signing his first pro contract and then badly injures his arm after two Minor League appearances eventually makes the Hall of Fame.
Yet, that is all part of the unusual resume for 2006 electee Bruce Sutter, who visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Tuesday as part of the preparation for his official induction on July 30.
Sutter's unlikely Hall of Fame journey continued Tuesday morning, as he took a private tour of the Hall of Fame Gallery and Museum. The tour is part of an orientation process that Hall officials first instituted for newly elected members in the mid-1990s. For the 53-year-old Sutter, this was his fourth trip to the Hall of Fame.
"I've never seen it like I saw it today," said Sutter, who previously visited Cooperstown with his son, a former pitcher in the New York-Penn League. "I mean, there was so much to see, the history of it all, with [Hall of Fame chief curator Ted Spencer] explaining to me all of these things. When you're a player, you go back a few years, but this takes it back to the very beginning. I mean, it's special to see all of that."
Sutter was especially intrigued by the Hall's records room, where the accomplishments of one pitcher in particular stood out.
"You think about some of the records that those guys set a long time ago that might never be broken," Sutter said. "You see Cy Young's win total. They talk about the home run records and the hits and the RBIs, but that 511, I don't think ever's going to be reached. That one, it's pretty safe."
When Sutter is officially inducted on July 30, he will become only the fourth relief pitcher to be so honored, joining the likes of Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. (Unlike the previous three, Sutter never started a single game in the Major Leagues.) Sutter would like to see another pitcher from his era, Rich "Goose" Gossage, become the fifth reliever in Cooperstown.
"In my mind, yes, he should be in," Sutter said without hesitation. "He was intimidating, pitched on the big stage here in New York. A great pitcher, absolutely."
Although Sutter's induction plaque won't be unveiled until July 30, his presence at the Hall of Fame will be felt sooner. He has agreed to loan several artifacts from his career to the Hall for an exhibit that will open this summer. Standing in the Hall of Fame's plaque gallery Tuesday morning, the gray-bearded Sutter opened a box containing a wide range of game-used memorabilia: his Cardinals cap from the 1984 season when he led the National League with a career-high 45 saves; the glove -- the only one -- that he used during his 12-year big-league career; and the road jersey he wore with the Cubs in 1979, when he won the Cy Young Award.
"It's amazing that this stuff used to fit me," said the thick-bodied Sutter, who once had to cut the bottom of his Cubs jersey because it actually ran too large.
As a youngster who hailed from the state of Pennsylvania, Sutter said he became a fan of neither the Phillies nor the Pirates, but a team from another state.
"I grew up in Pennsylvania, but it was actually closer to go to Baltimore's [Memorial] Stadium than it was to go to Philly or Pittsburgh. I liked Frank and Brooks [Robinson], Jim Gentile, and they had Wally Bunker and Mike Cuellar. Boog Powell, Don Buford, Paul Blair, I mean all those guys. They had quite a team."
Within the next three months, Sutter will join the Robinsons -- along with former Orioles ace Jim Palmer -- in the Hall of Fame fraternity. Sutter will enter the Hall largely on the strength of his split-fingered fastball. Although several media outlets have proclaimed that Sutter actually invented the splitter, that's really not the case.
The pitch, along with the closely related forkball, was thrown decades earlier by other Major League and Minor League players, just not with the same level of success or fanfare. Still, Sutter did play a vital role in the evolution of what would become "the pitch of the 80s."
After playing for a semi-pro team called "Hippey's Raiders," Sutter hurt his elbow in 1972 as a rookie in the Chicago Cubs' organization. He arranged for a hometown doctor to perform surgery so as to keep the injury quiet.
Fearful that throwing a curve ball or slider might aggravate his surgically repaired arm, Sutter realized that he needed to find another pitch to complement his 85-mph fastball.
In 1973, a pitching coach with the Cubs, Fred Martin, noticed Sutter's unusually large hands and fingers, and made a suggestion.
"At that time, there was one pitching coach for the whole Minor Leagues," Sutter said. "They didn't have one at each level, like they do today. So Fred would come around, and we'd see him maybe once a month. He'd always tell stories and we liked being around him. I didn't want to throw a slider, and he showed me how to hold this pitch -- the splitter. I would not be here without that pitch. My other pitches were A-ball, Double-A, at best."
So while Sutter did not actually invent the splitter, he and Martin did make some modifications with the way he gripped the pitch, making it a more devastating delivery than was featured by earlier moundsmen. By the 1980s, the split-fingered fastball had become the fashionable pitch of many starters and relievers, thanks in large part to Sutter's late-inning dominance with the Cubs and Cardinals.
While there have been some reasonable facsimiles among his successors, no one has quite been able to throw the splitter with as much movement and precipitous drop as Sutter did. And that's as good a reason as any as to why Sutter will be making another visit to upstate New York in late July. With regard to that next journey -- trip No. 5 --to Cooperstown, Sutter gave a sneak peak to the contents of his induction speech, which he has already written.
"I was a short reliever," said Sutter, "so it will be a short speech."
Bruce Markusen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.