By Hal McCoy
UNSOLICITED OBSERVATIONS from The Man Cave, shaking my head in despair as a Heavenly Hall of Fame pitching rotation has been filled: Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro. . .and now Don Sutton, gone this week at age 75.
—Don Sutton was seated at his clubhouse dressing stall in the late 1970s when I walked in, fresh from having my hair turned into a curly perm.
Sutton looked at me and said, “Hey, that looks good. I think I’m going to get one of those.”
And he did. I outgrew mine. Sutton never did. He continued to wear his hair in a curly perm, long after he retired as a pitcher and became a broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves.
It was the only time in my 48-year baseball-writing career that a major league player ever copied anything I did. And it couldn’t have come from a better man.
Sutton was one of the most genuine, amiable, media-friendly player I ever encountered. He was incisive and brutally
honest. Ask a straight forward question, get an honest straight forward answer.
What kind of guy was he? Here is one story, as told by Lisa Niehaus Saxon, a pioneer female baseball writer and a darn good one.
She covered the Angels and one day a player accosted her in the clubhouse, “Yelling that he wished me dead and wished that the team bus would run over my body.” She went to the Milwaukee County Stadium press box, wrote her story, then went back to the hotel, wondering what t0 do about visiting the clubhouse the next day.
She need not worry. When she arrived, manager Gene Mauch told her everything was fine. Lisa found out that Sutton and fellow teammate/pitcher Tommy John (another totally class act) told Mauch what happened, told him the player was completely out of line. She had no more problems.
Early in his career, Sutton was overshadowed by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, but he more than emerged during his 23 years in the majors. He won 324 games with 58 shutouts. He was as durable as antique furniture, the only pitcher in MLB history to pitch 200 or more innings 20 times.
Then there is the career-long accusations that Sutton cut and/or scuffed up the baseballs, perhaps with a thumb tack in his glove or a razor blade taped around a finger.
Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson was adamant about it and did everything to draw attention to it. He had people with binoculars and cameras aimed at Sutton.
One day with Sutton on the mound, Anderson grabbed two scuffed baseballs and took them to the umpire.
“I remember that game,” Sutton said years later. “Sparky brought two balls up to the plate and the umpire said, ‘Sparky, you say you have all these baseballs. Where are they? You’ve been bringing the same two baseballs up here the last five innings.’”
Undaunted, during another game in Dodger Stadium with Sutton on the mound, Anderson collected every baseball that was thrown out. He collected a dozen balls, all scuffed or cut in the same spot, put them in a box and sent them to the commissioner’s office.
And what happened? Nothing.
Former Reds manager Lou Piniella often tells a tale about Sutton and scuffballs.
It was when Piniella managed the New York Yankees and Sutton was pitching for the Angels. The Yankee broadcasters spotted a band-aid on Sutton’s finger and he appeared to rub the baseball on it. And continued to set down the Bronx Bombers.
The broadcasters informed Yankees owner George Steinbrenner about what they thought Sutton was doing. Steinbrenner called Piniella in the dugout and said:
“Can’t you see what Sutton is doing? Our broadcasters see it. I see it. The fans see it. Everybody in the damn ball park but you can see it. Now go complain to the umpires.”
Piniella took a deep breath and said, “George, do you know who taught Sutton all that stuff? It was Tommy John and he is out there pitching for us. How can I complain?”
Everybody tried to catch Sutton in the act. Only once was he thrown out of a game for suspected ball doctoring.
One time an umpire went to the mound to check Sutton’s glove. All he found was a note tucked inside the glove that read, “You’re getting closer, but it’s not there.”
Sutton, an accomplished quipster, pitched for the Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, Athletics and Angels and said, “I am the most loyal player money can buy.”
For sure, each one of those teams got its money’s worth.