Obituary: Mark Littell (1953-2022)

RIP to Mark Littell, a Missouri native who ended up as a closer for both of his state’s teams before an elbow injury ended his career. He died on September 5 at the age of 69, from complications related to heart surgery. Littell, who was an author, coach and inventor after his playing career, played for the Kansas City Royals (1973, 1975-77) and St. Louis Cardinals (1978-82).

Mark Alan Littell was born in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on January 17, 1953. He grew up in Gideon, located in the “Bootheel” area of Missouri. Unlike many other future ballplayers, a career baseball didn’t look like a sure thing, or even a likely possibility, for Littell. As a child, he didn’t get much of a chance to play catch with his father Alan, who had a badly injured arm from his service in the Korean War. He was even cut during tryouts for a travel team in Gideon. But, as he told the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame (he was a 2016 inductee), the setbacks didn’t make him give up.

“I didn’t make the travel ball team so I worked a little bit harder,” Littell said. “So when I made the team the next year, everybody knew I had a good arm.”

At Gideon High School and Legion ball during the summer, Littell continued to develop as a ballplayer. Gideon was a small school — about 200 students, according to Littell — but it reached the state tournament in baseball. “We only had 47 in my graduating class. We always had enough guys out for baseball, though,” he said. In his senior year of 1971, he struck out 127 batters in 69-2/3 innings. Frequently, he was throwing to his younger brother Eric, who was a catcher for Gideon High. They both joined a Legion ballclub in Blytheville, Ark., during the summer. In Mark’s pitching debut, he struck out 24 batters while throwing a 1-hitter. Littell’s outstanding pitching drew the attention of several scouts, including scouting supervisor Gary Blaylock of the Kansas City Royals. When the Royals drafted Littell in the 12th Round of the 1971 June Amateur Draft, Blaylock signed him to a five-figure contract. Then they both departed to Billings, Montana, for the Royals’ Rookie-Level team in the Pioneer League. Blaylock was the manager, and Littell was part of the starting rotation.

Littell showed plenty of promise as a starter in the Royals’ minor leagues. He was 5-1 for the Billings Mustangs in 1971 and fanned 69 batters in 87 innings. He was a 10-game winner for Waterloo of the Class-A Midwest League the following season with a 3.47 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 153 innings. The 19-year-old right-hander was given a chance to face major leaguers in an exhibition game on June 22, 1972. He was brought from Waterloo as the Royals faced the Braves, and he entered the game in the fourth inning. He walked three batters in his first inning of work, but he struck out Orlando Cepeda on four pitches and got out of the jam with just a run scored. He threw a total of 4 innings and allowed the one run on 3 hits and 4 walks. He struck out 6. “When the bases were loaded in the fourth, I knew I had to keep my cool,” he said after the game. “I knew what I had to do.”

Royals manager Bob Lemon was impressed. “He looks like he’s got a big league arm. He’s got the pitches and the poise. He challenged them,” Lemon commented. “He was nervous in the first inning but then he settled down. He just needs experience. He has a good future ahead of him.”

Littell, thanks to his time spent in small towns in Missouri, was given the nickname of “Country” as soon as he reached the pros. He was pitching for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in 1973 — with a 9-2 record and 2.40 ERA — when manager Harry Malmberg made the announcement. “Hey everybody, drinks are on ‘Country’ tonight… “You’ve movin’ up, Country.” The Royals had traded pitcher Mike Jackson to Cleveland on June 8, creating an opportunity for Littell to make the majors. He was 20 years old and, at the time, the youngest player ever on the Royals’ major-league roster. (Bret Saberhagen topped him in 1984 by debuting just before his 20th birthday.)

The Kansas City Royals honored Mark Littell after his passing. Source:

Littell made his first start against the Baltimore Orioles on June 14, 1973. He pitched 6-1/3 innings and allowed 1 run — a solo homer by Tommy Davis. He walked 2 and struck out 2 while allowing 7 hits. He was knocked out of the first inning in his next start but then picked up his first major-league win against the Rangers on June 24. It wasn’t a pretty performance, as he allowed 6 hits and 4 runs in 5-1/3 innings, but it was enough in a 10-6 win. Littell was returned to the minors in early July and was recalled in September. All total, he had 7 starts and one relief appearance, and was 1-3 with a 5.68 ERA. He was wilder than usual, with 23 walks against 16 strikeouts. He spent all of 1974 in Omaha after battling some arm injuries.

Little rejoined the Royals in August of 1975. His first start for them was a painful one. He allowed 5 runs in 3 innings in a loss to Cleveland on August 21, but the painful part came courtesy of a liner off his left foot by George Hendrick. One inning later, Rico Carty hit him in the right foot by a line drive. “I better work on my footwork,” Littell said. Royals manager Whitey Herzog gave the rookie a couple of other starts and 4 relief outings. His last game of 1975 was a complete game against Texas in which he allowed 2 runs and struck out 10 — and lost, 3-1. His record fell to 1-2 with the Royals, but the good game dropped his ERA to 3.70.

Source: Southern Illinoisan, July 21, 1978.

Herzog had plans for Littell as a big part of the Royals’ 1976 pitching staff. However, it would be as a closer, or at last half of a closing tandem. It wasn’t what the young pitcher wanted, as he had been a starting pitcher all his life. “But Whitey says he needs me in the pen and so that means that’s the way it’s going to be — for now,” Littell said in July. While he wasn’t thrilled with the role, he was brilliant at it. He appeared in 60 games and had an 8-4 record with 16 saves, as well as a 2.08 ERA. The 16 saves may seem like a low mark by modern standards, but it was good enough for fifth place in the AL. Lefty Steve Mingori also got late-inning opportunities and saved 10 games. The role of today’s closer is much different from the same role in 1976. Littell threw 104 innings; only 5 of his saves involved an inning of work or less. More frequently, he threw 2 or 3 innings to close out the ballgame. Opposing batters hit just .188 against him, and only one — Detroit’s Pedro Garcia on July 10 — hit a home run.

Littell received a handful of MVP votes for his performance in 1976, and he was named Royals Pitcher of the Year. Kansas City finished first in the AL West with 90 wins and faced the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. Littell made 3 appearances, but the most infamous one was the deciding Game Five on October 14. He relieved Andy Hassler in the bottom of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first. He got out of that inning and threw a 1-2-3 eighth, including a strikeout of 1976 MVP Thurman Munson. Then the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the ninth, Chris Chambliss, hit Littell’s first pitch for a series-ending home run, giving the Yankees the AL pennant.

Littell shook off any notion that he would go down in history as the next Ralph Branca, who allowed the famous 1951 postseason home run to Bobby Thomson. “I don’t care what they say. I’ll be around. They’ll have other things to remember.” His manager Herzog defended him, as did teammate George Brett. “I would hate to have Mark spend the whole winter thinking it was his fault. He’s a super pitcher with a great future,” Herzog said. “Mark Littell will pitch until he’s 42. He’ll bounce back from this thing. We all will,” Brett added.

Littell remained part of a closer by committee with the Royals in 1977, along with Mingori and Doug Bird. But he became a popular reliever among the fans. When he entered games at Kauffman Stadium (Royals Stadium at the time), the loudspeakers would play John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” He may be one of the first closers to come out to his own entrance music, which gained prominence thanks to Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman and is almost mandatory now in the Edwin Diaz/”Narco” era. Littell picked up 12 of the Royals’ league-leading 42 saves and added 8 wins against 4 losses. His first win came after throwing 4 hitless innings against the Yankees on April 11, proving that the playoff loss in 1976 didn’t affect him. He wasn’t quite as unhittable as he was in ’19’76, but he raised his strikeout total to 106 in 104-2/3 innings. Herzog gave him a few spot starts toward the end of the season, as the Royals’ starting rotation began to struggle. Little won 2 of the 5 starts and pitched deep into the game in two of the others, providing a needed boost to get the team back into the playoffs. He no-hit the Red Sox for 5 innings in one start before having to leave the game with a rib injury. The Royals lost to the Yankees again in the ALCS. Littell again pitched well but found himself on the mound when the Yankees took the go-ahead lead in the final playoff game. However, the damage was done by relievers Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura, who allowed three straight baserunners and let the Yankees tie the game at 3 in the top of the ninth inning. Littell gave up a sacrifice fly to Willie Randolph to bring in the go-ahead run, and then third baseman Brett threw a ground ball past first base to bring in an insurance run, making the score 5-3.

Mark Littell wrote several books about his life and numerous adventures, both in and out of baseball.

The Royals traded Littell and catcher Buck Martinez to the St. Louis Cardinals on December 9, 1977, getting closer Al Hrabosky in return. Hrabosky, aka “The Mad Hungarian,” once had been one of the top closers in baseball but had been stuck in Cardinals manager Vern Rapp’s doghouse with his antics. Kansas City wanted a left-handed arm in the bullpen to complement Bird, and the Cardinals wanted a proven closer who wouldn’t be a problem. “[W]e have acquired one of the best young pitchers in baseball — a real stopper,” said Cardinals president August “Gussie” Busch. “We are delighted to have Mark Littell on our team.”

Littell wasn’t phased by changing leagues. “If the umpires do call more low strikes and few higher ones in the National, I will really keep my slider down. I’ve just enough faith in my fastball to run it up and in on a batter,” he said. Unfortunately, he was moving from a playoff team to one that lost 93 games in 1978. Rapp lost his job 17 games into the season and was replaced by Ken Boyer. Littell’s first win came on May 10, when he shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers for 6 innings in a 6-5 victory. He finished the game strong, striking out Vic Davalillo, Dusty Baker and Bill Russell in the ninth inning. However, he didn’t register a save until June 8, and he’d already lost 6 decisions by then, including both ends of a doubleheader against the Giants. Littell settled down with a strong second half, ending the year with a 4-8 record, a team-leading 11 saves and a 2.79 ERA.

The Cardinals improved to 86 wins in 1979, and Littell was outstanding. He won a career-best 9 games, including winning both games of a doubleheader against the Phillies, and earned 13 saves. In 82-1/3 innings pitched, he allowed 60 hits for a 1.202 WHIP, and he struck out 67 batters. His ERA of 2.19 led the staff, and his ERA+ was a career-high 175. Sadly, it was also the last season where he was truly healthy. He pitched in 14 games for the Cardinals in 1980 but had just 2 saves and a 9.28 ERA. He was placed on the disabled list in June with elbow problems and needed season-ending surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

“I could tell something was wrong, and it wasn’t getting better,” he said of his lost season. “The arm didn’t feel right when I was warming up. Instead of helping the team, I was hindering it in late innings. I told Kenny [Boyer] that I thought a doctor better open it up and take a look.”

Littell returned in the strike-shortened 1981 season and had a serviceable year (1-3 record, 2 saves, 4.39 ERA in 28 games), but the elbow operation — the second of his career — had sapped much of his velocity. He was reunited with GM/manager Whitey Herzog, but the team had traded for Bruce Sutter, which eliminated most save opportunities for Littell. The pitcher made history again when he gave up career hit No. 3,631 to Pete Rose, breaking Stan Musial’s National League record for hits. “I’m getting famous in the wrong way,” Littell remarked. “Now that’s two trivia questions.” On the bright side, he managed the only two base hits of his batting career. Littell returned to the Cardinals in 1982 but was ineffective as a middle reliever. He was designated for assignment on June 26 with a 5.23 ERA in 16 games. The move marked the end of his major-league career. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series that year, so Littell at least played on a championship team, even if his baseball career was over by then.

In his 9-year career in the majors, Littell had a 32-31 record and 56 saves. He pitched in 316 games, with 19 starts. He had a career 3.32 ERA and 1.353 WHIP, with 466 strikeouts in 532 innings. Baseball Reference credits him with 6.5 Wins Above Replacement.

Littell visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018. Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Littell had a varied post-playing career life. He ran youth baseball camps and worked in sales. He was a minor-league pitching coach for the Padres, Brewers, Royals and Dodgers organizations and also coached in Australia and the Dominican Republic. Littell got one final win in the minor leagues in 1994, when the 41-year-old pitching coach of the Stockton Ports joined the active roster for one game. Thanks to a number of extra-inning games that had depleted the team’s pitching ranks, he threw a scoreless inning against Central Valley and ended up with the win when the Ports staged a ninth-inning rally. “I was glad to actually get the ball across the plate. I tried to show our younger pitchers that the old man can still get the ball across the plate,” he said.

Littell wrote three books about his life and adventures: On the Eighth Day, God Made Baseball, Country Boy Conveniently Wild and What’s Up Ramrod? He also took an interest in refining some player’s equipment that hadn’t seen much innovation: the protective cup. Littell developed the NuttyBuddy, which was designed to be a more comfortable cup that players would be willing to wear. The idea came from his days as a pitching coach. “I asked my pitchers, how many of you guys don’t wear cups? And half of them raised their hand,” he told the Associated Press. “So I went off on a little mild tirade at the time.”

As CEO of NuttyBuddy Inc., Littell also took on the persona of “Captain Ramrod” and subjected himself to a series of goofy videos that showed the durability of the NuttyBuddy. Take a fastball from a pitching machine to the groin? Attempt bull riding at the age of 60? With his personality, he was game for anything. He was even willing to take his challenge directly to the competition. “Let’s get the CEO of every cup company,” he said. “You put your cup on, and I’ll put my cup on, and we’ll see who’s left standing.”

Littell is survived by his wife, Sanna.

For more information: Kansas City Star

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