Obituary: Don Sutton (1945-2021)

RIP to Don Sutton, a 300-game winner and member of the Hall of Fame as a pitcher and a beloved broadcaster in the second half of his baseball career. His son Darren announced that Sutton died in his sleep on January 19. He was 75 years old. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Sutton died in his home in Santo Mirage, Calif., and had been battling cancer. Sutton pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1966-1980, 1988), Houston Astros (1981-1982), Milwaukee Brewers (1982-1984), Oakland Athletics (1985) and California Angels (1985-1987).

“Don Sutton’s brilliance on the field, and his lasting commitment to the game that he so loved, carried through to his time as a Member of the Hall of Fame,” Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. “I know how much he treasured his moments in Cooperstown, just as we treasured our special moments with him. We share our deepest condolences with his wife, Mary, and his family.”

Donald Howard Sutton was born in Clio, Ala., on April 2, 1945. His parents were sharecroppers in Alabama before moving to Florida. Sutton grew up in the town of Molino, Fla., and the seeds of his future baseball success were planted in the sixth grade. That’s when a schoolteacher named Henry Roper — a former Giants minor-leaguer — taught a young Sutton how to throw a curveball. He carried that lesson into Tate High School in Pensacola. He was a tailback on the football team, but baseball was where he showed real promise. As a freshman in high school, he was already pitching for the Pensacola All-Stars in the Colt League. Along with being a good student at Tate — he was a class officer and a member of the Beta Club — he was also a pretty lights-out pitcher who finished his high school career with a 21-7 record.

Sutton, center, signs his first contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Looking on are scout Leon Hamilton, left, and father Howard Sutton. Source: Pensacola News Journal, September 13, 1964.

In 1964, Sutton went to Gulf Coast Junior College in Panama City and went 5-4 as a pitcher with 130 strikeouts in 90 innings. He also pitched for the Sioux Falls Packers in the Basin League, a summer league for college students (Clyde Wright was also on the team), and led a team from Wyoming, Mich., to the national semipro baseball tournament in Wichita. He was named to the all-tournament team. Along the way, he also found time to sign his first professional contract with the Dodgers in September 1964, with a bonus in excess of $25,000.

“We are very happy to have a player with the ability of Sutton in our organization,” said Leon Hamilton, the scout who signed him. “We have followed him since he was in high school, and we feel he is definitely a major league prospect.”

Sutton reported to the Dodgers training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., in the spring of 1965. He didn’t make the team and spent his only full season in the minor leagues, winning 23 games between Class-A Santa Barbara and AA Albuquerque. He spent most of September with the Dodgers. He didn’t actually appear in a game, but he worked out under the watchful eyes of veterans Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen. They helped him work out a few flaws, like the fact that his facial expressions on the mound were giving away his pitches.

“Men like Koufax and Drysdale are ready and willing to help a young player coming up if you’ll only show them you want to play ball,” he said. “They have taught me how to get a variety of pitches from one basic pitch and this really helps when you’re facing major-league opposition.”

Sutton spent the offseason attending Mississippi College, working on credits to get a business degree. He also had a six-month stint in the U.S. Army, one of several he would have to take in the early part of his career.

The 21-year-old Sutton made the 1966 Dodgers team and filled out the four-man rotation behind the aforementioned Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen. He held his own, with a 12-12 record and 2.99 ERA in 35 starts and 2 relief outings. He completed 6 games and threw 2 shutouts while working 225-2/3 innings pitched. Sutton would throw 200-plus innings every season from 1966 until 1986, aside from the strike-shortened season of 1981. The 12 wins were a Dodger record for a rookie at the time, and he was named the Sporting News National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year.

Sutton contributed to a bit of baseball history on April 23, 1966, in his third major-league start. He pitched excellent ball against the Cubs but lost 2-0, and one of those runs was the first career home run he allowed in the majors. It was hit by a Canadian reliever named Ferguson Jenkins, whom the Cubs had just acquired from Philadelphia. It was Jenkins’ first career home run, too.

“I struck him out with a fastball the first time,” Sutton explained after the game. “So I tried it again and boom, out she went.”

While not blessed with a blazing fastball, Sutton had a good curve and was able to strike out 209 batters in 1966, good for second on the Dodgers’ staff behind Koufax. He also walked 52 batters for a fine 2.1 walks per 9 innings. He would keep that ratio under 3 walks until his final season in the majors.

“I’m not outstanding in any department,” Sutton said in his rookie season. “I’ve always had good control. From the first day I stepped out to pitch Little League ball I could throw strikes. They tell me that’s half the battle, and I hope so, because I know I can get the ball over the plate.”

The 1966 Dodgers won the NL pennant but were swept by Baltimore in the World Series. Sutton didn’t see any postseason action. The Dodgers fell all the way to last place in 1967, as Koufax was forced into an early retirement. Sutton went 11-15 with a 3.95 ERA as the starters tried to fill that void.

Sutton made a small adjustment to his pitching routine in 1967 — he eliminated the spitball. Sutton was a very religious man who saw that his place in baseball made him a role model. He didn’t drink or smoke for fear that someone might fall into a bad habit because of him. “I feel I should be able to get by with what the Lord has given me,” Sutton explained. “A fastball, a curveball, a slider and a changeup.”

Later on, he would gain notoriety for adding a couple other pitches to his repertoire, using what the local hardware store provided. We’ll get to that.

Even without the spitter, Sutton still had his curveball, and he was unafraid to use it in any situation. He fanned Jim Pagliaroni on a full count with it, and the catcher supposedly threw his bat and helmet into the dugout in disgust. “The count is 3-2 and the kid throws the snake,” Pagliaroni roared. “Don’t they take kids out behind the woodshed no more?”

Sutton was called away for another six-month military stay in 1968, and he came back to spring training too late to make the starting rotation. He opened the season in AAA Spokane, which was the last time he’d appear in the minor leagues for two decades. The Dodgers’ struggles after their World Series loss continued for several seasons, and Sutton had three straight losing seasons as a result. After back-to-back 11-15 seasons in 1967 and ’68, he won 17 games and lost 18 in 1969. Sutton would finish over .500 for the next eight straight seasons, and that stretch represents some of the finest pitching of his career. He was selected to four All-Star teams and was a Top-Five Cy Young Award finalist for five straight seasons.

Sutton went 15-13 in 1970 but had a 4.08 ERA, having given up a league-high 118 earned runs, as well as 38 homers. He then won 17 games in 1971, dropping his ERA to 2.54 and his home runs allowed to a mere 10. He said it was the first year he was able to stay consistent all season. He also reduced his reliance on the curve, which added to his arm strength.

Sutton’s 1972 campaign was one of the best in a Hall of Fame career. He had a 19-9 record with a 2.08 ERA, striking out 207 batters in 272-2/3 innings. He gave up just 186 hits, and his 0.913 WHIP led the NL. Sutton also threw a league-leading 9 shutouts, which broke the Dodgers record, set by Drysdale, of shutouts by a right-handed pitcher in a season. The pitcher appeared in his first All-Star Game and allowed a single to Reggie Jackson before retiring the next six batters.

Sutton won 18 games in 1973, earned another All-Star nod and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting for the second straight season. For all his success, two things hadn’t happened yet. One, he hadn’t won 20 games in a season, though he’d come close. Two, the Dodgers had been stuck in second place and hadn’t returned to the postseason. Los Angeles finally broke through to secure the NL pennant in 1974. The team was in first place for virtually the entire season, and Sutton helped secure the West Division crown by winning 7 of 8 starts in September, finishing with a 19-9 record. Sutton won 2 games in the NL Championship Series against Pittsburgh. He allowed just 1 run in 17 innings, with that 1 run being a solo home run by Willie Stargell in a 12-1 Dodgers blowout. He won Game Two of the World Series against Oakland, beating Vida Blue in a 3-2 contest. He also started Game Seven and received a no-decision in an eventual 3-2 win for the A’s.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The Dodgers dropped to second place again in 1975, and Sutton dropped to 16 wins. He had to endure some controversy, as other managers in the National League became certain that Sutton was doing something to the baseball. Pirates’ skipper Danny Murtaugh had Sutton’s gloved checked for pine tar in the 1974 NLCS, and Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson was convinced that Sutton was using sandpaper in 1975. Anderson pointed to a number of balls that were thrown out of play, and they all had a similar-looking mark on them. Reds catcher Johnny Bench claimed that Sutton struck him out with a doctored ball in a key 1974 game that cost the Reds a shot at the playoffs.

“I… thought he’s come up with a helluva curve,” Bench said, “but it was that pitch. I know. I’ve caught some spitballs. Heck, Jim Maloney used to throw it.”

Sutton, despite his clean-cut image, could deliver some criticism when he wanted. “Sparky complains more than anyone in the league. He did a lot of whining. I hope he at least gets me a Black & Decker commercial out of all this. You know, they make all the sandpaper.” He ended up treating the accusations as a joke. When umpires would come out to the mound to inspect his glove, they would sometimes find notes that read “Nothing here” or “Getting warmer.”

However he did it, Sutton won 20 games for the only time in his career in 1976. He finished the season with a 21-10 record, and the 21st win came on the same day that long-time Dodgers manager Walt Alston announced his retirement. Sutton was sorry to see him go, despite the fact that they had clashed several times over the previous years.

“He’s the only man I know who’s more stubborn than I am,” Sutton said of Alston. “For me, that was the best thing that could have happened. I respond to that sort of thing, an honest relationship, not a lot of slapping on the back. If Walt ever told me something, I always found it to be true.”

Of course, Alston’s replacement was Tommy Lasorda, who specialized in slapping backs and giving hugs. Sutton initially was cool to the hiring. “I think the Man upstairs likes some Dodgers, some Phillies and some guys on all the other teams. That ‘Big Dodger in the Sky’ isn’t my style,” he said.

Sutton couldn’t argue with the success, as Lasorda’s Dodgers went to the World Series in 1977 and ’78, though they lost twice to the New York Yankees. Sutton won 14 and 15 games, respectively, further entrenching himself in the Dodgers’ record book in most pitching categories. He picked up a win against the Yankees in the 1977 Series but was knocked around in the 1978 postseason. He lost twice to the Yankees and ended with a 7.20 ERA in the Series. It was a very un-Sutton performance, as he was typically a dependable pitcher in clutch games.

Sutton had an all-around difficult 1978. He was ejected from a game in July by umpire Doug Harvey for doctoring baseballs. Sutton threatened to sue Harvey for defamation. Later in August, Sutton criticized teammate Steve Garvey in a newspaper article, saying Garvey was more worried about his “Madison Avenue image” and that Reggie Smith was the team’s real MVP. Garvey confronted Sutton in the Dodgers locker room, which led to a fistfight between the two players. Sutton delivered a televised apology days later to settle the matter.

Sutton’s pitching record fell to 12-15 in 1979. Any thoughts that he was washed up were removed in 1980 when he rebounded with a 13-5 record and a 2.20 ERA that was best in baseball. The Dodgers chose to let him become a free agent, which at the time was a convoluted format that bears nothing to today’s free agency. Sutton was chosen by 10 teams in a “re-entry draft,” and those teams were able to bid on his services. Despite strong bids from the Braves and Yankees, Sutton chose a four-year deal with the Houston Astros.

Sutton wanted to pitch for a World Series winner, and he thought the Astros were the best team. For a while, it looked like a great choice. Sutton won 11 games in a strike-shortened season. The Astros finished in third place in the first half of the season, and Sutton was just 4-7. However, Houston raced to first place in the second half, and Sutton won 7 of 8 decisions with an ERA under 2.00. However, his season came to an end on October 2 against the Dodgers, of all teams. Sutton broke his kneecap on a pitch from Jerry Teuss. The man who famously never missed starts was lost for the playoffs, and the Astros lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Sutton, who turned 37 in 1982, was still very effective, picking up 13 wins for the Astros. Houston, on the other hand, fell to fifth place, and Sutton was traded for the first time in his career on August 30 to the Milwaukee Brewers. Houston got back Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino and Mike Madden in the deal. Sutton won 4 times for Milwaukee in 7 starts as the Brewers finished first in the AL East. Sutton’s final win of the season — his 17th overall — came on the last day of the season against second-place Baltimore. He allowed just 2 runs over 8 innings while the Brew Crew knocked Jim Palmer out of the game in the fifth inning for a 10-2 win and a postseason berth. He won his only start in the ALCS against the California Angels, but he allowed 9 earned runs in 2 starts against the Cardinals in the World Series, losing Game Six by a score of 13-1.

A still-effective Sutton marched toward a couple of big pitching milestones. The first of which, his 3,000th strikeout, came on June 24, 1983. Cleveland’s Alan Bannister was the unlucky victim, and he was one of 8 Indian batters who went down on strikes in the 6-2 loss to Milwaukee.

“At my age, 3,500 is out of reach, so this was a milestone for me and I wanted to clinch it,” Sutton said afterwards. “I wanted it very much, not just for myself, but for the catchers and others who have helped me along the way.”

The last accomplishment was 300 wins, and it would take Sutton a couple more years and a couple more teams to get there. After leaving the Brewers at the end of the 1984 season, Sutton signed with the Oakland A’s. If fate had been a little different, Sutton might have started his career in Oakland. A’s scout Whitey Herzog was eager to sign Sutton in college, and owner Charlie Finley was willing to pony up the money for it. The only problem was, Sutton didn’t have a good nickname. Finley had players like Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom; Sutton’s nickname was “Elmer,” a reference to the Burt Lancaster movie (and Sinclair Lewis novel) Elmer Gantry. That just didn’t have enough zing for the A’s boss, and the deal never happened.

Sutton won 13 games for the A’s before departing in another deadline trade. This time, he went to the California Angels on September 10, 1985, for two minor-leaguers. He picked up enough strikeouts over the rest of the season to top the 100-K mark for the 20th time in his career, establishing a new major-league record. That 300th win came on June 18, 1986, versus the Texas Rangers. He allowed just 3 hits before departing in the ninth inning with a 5-1 lead to a loud ovation from the Angels fans.

“I’ve been trying legally… and illegally… to get here for years,” Sutton quipped after the game.

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

At the age of 41, Sutton wasn’t quite finished in baseball. He stayed with the Angels through the 1987 season, bringing his career win total to 321. His ERA for the 1987 season soared to 4.70, but Sutton had one last accomplishment to reach: winning a World Series. He signed a one-year deal to return to the Dodgers for the 1988 season. He had the right team — the Dodgers defeated the Oakland A’s to become World Champions that year. However, his ability to avoid injuries finally caught up with him.

Through the end of June, Sutton pitched fairly well, winning 3 games while losing 5 and usually working into the sixth inning. He was put on the disabled list for a sore elbow and missed more than a month of the season. After a brief rehab at Class-A Bakersfield, Sutton returned to pitch against the Cincinnati Reds on August 9, 1988. He allowed 6 runs (5 earned) in 7 innings of work, striking out 5 and allowing a couple of home runs. He took the 6-0 loss in what ended up as his last major-league game. The Dodgers released him a day later.

“It’s not a wake, it’s a change in direction,” Sutton said. The Dodgers told him they were moving in a different direction with the pitching staff, and the pitcher that was recalled from the minors to take his place was rookie Ramon Martinez, who was 20 years old and kicking off the start of a very successful Dodger career of his own.

In his 23-year career, Sutton had a record of 324-256 and a 3.26 ERA. He appeared in 774 games and made 756 starts, which is third all-time behind Cy Young and Nolan Ryan. He completed 178 games and threw 58 shutouts (10th all-time). He struck out 3,574 batters, which is good for 7th all-time. He averaged 2.3 walks per 9 innings throughout his career and had a WHIP of 1.142. According to Baseball Reference, Sutton is worth 66.7 Wins Above Replacement. He is the Dodgers career leader in wins, shutouts, games started, strikeouts and innings pitched.

Sutton became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1994, and he was inducted on his fifth year in 1998. Some writers had a bias against “accumulators,” of players who reach significant milestones by having extraordinarily long careers. What that distinction leaves out is that Sutton was good for his 23 seasons, even if he won 20 games in a season just one time. Why penalize him because he was effective into his early 40s? Even if you discount his last two average seasons, he still has 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.

During Sutton’s pitching career, Sutton’s quick wit and baseball knowledge made him a lock for a future career in broadcasting. He made some guest appearances in the announcer’s booth as a player starting with the 1979 NLCS and handled himself well. He joined the Atlanta Braves broadcasting team in 1989, working alongside luminaries like Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren. His expert knowledge of the game and strategy made him an invaluable part of a very heralded group of broadcasters. Sutton was behind the mic until 2006. He was let go during a shake-up of the Braves’ broadcast and spent two years with the Washington Nationals. He returned to the Braves as a radio announcer in 2009 and stayed there until 2018.

Per the Atlanta Braves: “In addition to his role on baseball broadcasts, he served as a course reporter on TBS’ professional golf coverage, working the Hawaiian Open, PGA Championship and PGA Grand Slams of Golf, as well as TNT’s coverage of the Sarazen World Open Championship. His network broadcasting experience included pre- and postgame analysis for NBC’s 1987 League Championship Series Coverage.

“Sutton’s 28 years in the Braves broadcast booth led to his induction into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame in 2015. He is one of five broadcasters to receive the honor.”

Sutton broke his leg in 2019, canceling what would have been a reduced workload. Unfortunately, it meant that he missed a thrilling Braves team that finished first in the NL East.

“It’s driving me nuts not to be there,” he told AJC reporter Tim Tucker in 2019. “It’s been nearly 60 years that I’ve been going to the park every day in the summer.”

During his layoff, he expressed gratitude to the well-wishers who missed hearing him on the radio.

“The nicest thing that has been said is, ‘We miss you.’ The best thing I can say is, ‘Not nearly as much as I miss being there.'”

For more information: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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