Obituary: Bruce Sutter (1953-2022)

RIP to Bruce Sutter, a Hall of Fame pitcher and one of the pioneering relievers who made the role of closer so important. He died on Thursday, October 13, in hospice in Cartersville, Ga. He was 69 years old and had recently been diagnosed with cancer, according to statements from his family. Sutter played for the Chicago Cubs (1976-80), St. Louis Cardinals (1981-84) and Atlanta Braves (1985-86, 1988).

“I am deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Bruce Sutter, whose career was an incredible baseball success story,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement. “Bruce will be remembered as one of the best pitchers in the histories of two of our most historic franchises. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my condolences to Bruce’s family, his friends and his fans in Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta and throughout our game.”

Bruce Sutter as a high school standout athlete. Source: The Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA), August 7, 1968.

Howard Bruce Sutter was born in Lancaster, Pa., on January 8, 1953. His father Howard was known as a pretty good amateur pitcher in his day, and Bruce reportedly learned how to throw a ball before he could even walk. His baseball teams were winning championships with him as a pitcher as early as 1963. He was also a quarterback for a Donegal team in a Red Roses midget football league. He kept up with both sports as he entered Donegal High School in Mount Joy. He also played on the basketball team and was one of the starters when Donegal won a district championship in 1969. Baseball, though, remained his top sport. In various summer league tournaments in 1968, Sutter won 9 games, including a no-hitter and a 1-hitter, he struck out 105 batters in 84 innings and walked just 18. He also batted .321, which was the highest average on the team. He threw a 3-hit shutout to lead Mount Joy to the New Era Tournament championship that summer, picking up 12 strikeouts and driving in a run in the 7-0 win.

Sutter graduated from Donegal in 1970. He led the baseball team to the county championship and was named to the Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster) All-Star team, with a 6-2 record. He was drafted by the Washington Senators in the 21st Round of the June Amateur Draft but elected to attend Old Dominion College in Norfolk, Va., instead. As it turned out, he didn’t care for college and went back to Pennsylvania. He found a day job at a printing company and pitched for an American Legion team and an amateur club called Hippey’s Raiders. Cubs scout Ralph DiLullo happened to see Sutter pitch at one of those off-the-beaten-path games, and he recommended that the Cubs sign him.

Sutter made his professional debut with the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast Cubs in 1972, but he lasted just 5 scoreless innings in 2 appearances before a pinched nerve ended his season. Sutter ended up requiring elbow surgery, but he was afraid to tell the Cubs about it and possibly get released, so he paid for the surgery himself and hid it from the team until the following spring. He returned to baseball in 1973 with the Class-A Quincy Cubs of the Midwest League, and he didn’t impress that much, honestly. He had a 3-3 record with 5 saves in 40 games, all out of the bullpen, and his 4.13 ERA wasn’t dazzling. However, there is a good explanation for it — Sutter was in the middle of a pitching evolution.

The elbow surgery allowed Sutter to pitch, but it didn’t leave him with much of a fastball. That was a problem for a pitcher who was used to blowing the fastball by batters in high school. However, Sutter came under the tutelage of Fred Martin, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s who was a minor-league pitching instructor. He taught Sutter how to throw a split-fingered fastball, and the young pitcher worked hard to perfect it. By the time he returned to baseball in 1974, he was a vastly different pitcher than he had been, and he was on the fast track to the majors.

The new and improved Bruce Sutter finished the 1974 campaign with a 1.38 ERA between Midland and Key West. He allowed 48 hits in 65 innings, struck out 64 batters and walked only 19. He had just 3 saves, and he even started a couple of games, one for each team. Those would be the only starts of his professional pitching career. “I was a little reluctant,” Sutter said of the Cubs decision to convert him to a reliever, “but I really didn’t care where I pitched as long as I pitched.”

Sutter returned to Midland in 1975, and manager Doc Edwards gave him the majority of the save opportunities. He earned 13 saves in 41 games and had an ERA of 2.15. He moved up to the Wichita Aeros in 1976, but his stay in Triple-A was limited to 7 games before he was brought to the majors by the Cubs. Sutter made his major-league debut on May 9, 1976; he worked the ninth inning when the Reds were destroying the Cubs 14-2. He gave up singles to the first two batters he faced, Joel Youngblood and Doug Flynn. He later walked George Foster to load the bases, but he got out of the inning unscathed. His first save came on May 23 against Pittsburgh. He retired Bob Robertson, Rennie Stennett and Richie Hebner on fly balls to close out a 6-5 Cubs win. Sutter picked up a couple of saves in his first month with the Cubs, but manager Jim Marshall didn’t just hand him the role of closer. Eight different pitchers recorded saves with the Cubs in 1976. Sutter got 10 of the team’s 33 total saves, one ahead of Darold Knowles for the team lead. He appeared in 52 games, usually working the final two or three innings of a game. He had a 6-3 record and struck out 73 batters in 83-1/3 innings. With his mastery of the splitter, he had established himself as a top reliever and a potential building block for a successful team. (He and others often referred to his signature pitch as a forkball, though Sutter didn’t grip the ball like a true forkball.)

Source: The Miami Herald, June 28, 1977

Herman Franks took over the reins as manager of the Cubs in 1977, and he put Sutter in the role of the closer. The 1970s version of a closer, that is. Sutter, like Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage or Sparky Lyle, often came into the game in the seventh or eighth inning to get the save. It wasn’t a 1-inning job. Of Sutter’s 31 saves in 1977, only 11 were an inning or fewer. He threw 107-1/3 innings in 62 games and logged a 1.34 ERA to go with his 7-3 record. He struck out a career-best 129 batters, and he recorded a strikeout in 39 consecutive appearances — a record until Brewers reliever Corey Knebel broke it in 2017. Sutter was named to the All-Star Team for the first of six times, and he finished in the Top 10 in the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award voting. All of that success came in spite of missing nearly a month with a partially torn muscle under his arm.

The Cubs flirted with first place for part of the season before settling to an 81-81 record. Sutter had plenty of opportunities to show off his splitter/forkball in save opportunities, and he made even the best hitters look foolish. At the last moment, the pitch would fall off the table, but Sutter had enough control to make it fade to the left or right as well. If a batter tried to lay off the pitch, Sutter’s elbow had healed well enough that he could fire a conventional fastball past them.

“Never saw a ball explode like his,” Johnny Bench told The Chicago Tribune. “I bunted. I couldn’t hit what he was throwing, so I figured maybe I could bunt it.” Cubs catcher George Mitterwald remembered Sutter striking out Expos slugger Andre Dawson on three straight pitches. “He went away from the plate shaking his head, swearing,” Mitterwald said. “I swear, he missed those three pitches by so much, you add it up and it totals my height.”

Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Sutter had a fan in Cubs pitching coach Barney Schultz. “It’s just a case of being the perfect man for the perfect pitch,” he explained. “[Sutter] has the ideal physical makeup, the perfect snap, the perfect delivery. Another pitcher with as much ability could work all year on the same pitch and not be close to as effective.”

As with any closer, there were concerns that Sutter was overworked. He experienced some tendonitis in 1976 when Marshall used him too regularly, and he had a few blown saves in his breakthrough 1977 season too. He was philosophical about the live-or-die role of a closer. “Heck, if it weren’t for the forkball, I’d be back home right now working on those printing presses. That wouldn’t be as much fun as this. Not nearly as much fun,” he said.

Sutter’s 31 saves in 1977 were second in the NL to Rollie Fingers’ 35. The Cubs closer fell to fourth in the NL with 27 in 1978, but then he led the NL in saves for each of the next four seasons. His 37 saves in 1979 were tops in the majors and tied the National League record that had been set by Fingers the previous year. His 2.22 ERA was fourth-best among all NL relievers, and he allowed just 67 hits in 101-1/3 innings. Franks, getting used to the concept of a modern closer, tried to limit Sutter to games where the Cubs were winning or had a chance to win, so the reliever was constantly working in high-pressure situations. Sutter also picked up the win in the 1979 All-Star Game, throwing the final 2 shutout innings in a 7-6 National League win. It was actually the second straight win for the reliever, as Sutter was the winning pitcher in the 1978 contest as well.

Sutter became just the third reliever to win the Cy Young Award in 1979, following the footsteps of Mike Marshall in 1974 and Sparky Lyle in 1977. Sutter narrowly beat out Astros pitchers Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard, who finished second and third respectively, for the honor, and he was legitimately shocked to have beaten out the 21-game winner Niekro. Sutter credited his success to new Cub Dick Tidrow, who joined the Cubs in the second half and ate up enough relief innings that Franks was able to keep Sutter in reserve for close games. “Dick really took some of the pressure and workload off of me during the second half of the season,” Sutter said.

There were two problems brewing. The first was that Sutter was one of the game’s premier closers for a team that seldom had games to save. The Cubs were an 80-82 team in 1979 and fell to last place in the NL East in 1980, with 98 losses. The second problem was that the Cubs were cheap and wanted to pay Sutter $350,000 for 1980. He took the team to arbitration and won his case, getting a salary of $700,000. He still wasn’t happy about the lowballed offer or the amount he won. “I’ll admit $700,000 is an awful lot of money, but if I got out there and get hurt, my family and I can’t live the rest of our lives on it.”

That comment and the fact that a pitcher — even worse, a reliever! — was making $700,000 gave every sportswriter in the country a chance to bang out a few easy columns complaining about overpaid athletes. “Even in an era of $1.30 for a gallon of gas, $1.98 for a gallon of milk and $36 for a gallon of Jack Daniel’s, paying a baseball pitcher $2,310.23 per out seems a little steep,” wrote Richard Kucner of the Baltimore News American. “No athlete is worth that kind of money. In any sport. Our values have become totally warped. And it’s long past time to clasp a ceiling on all of this lunacy,” wrote Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even Mike Royko, then of the Chicago Tribune and the city’s most widely read columnist, got his shots in.

“What Sutter doesn’t seem to realize, as he crabs to the press about his dirty deal, is that there are millions of Two Bits Wallys out there… Most of them will work 20 or 30 years, or maybe a lifetime, without earning as much as Bruce Sutter will receive for one year of pitching baseballs. I’m not saying Sutter isn’t worth what he’s paid. If somebody is willing to pay him that much, he’s worth it. All I’m saying to Sutter is this. Take the money, kid. Then please shut up about it.”

Cubs fans still supported Sutter, even after the press had their field day. The Wrigley Field fans welcomed him warmly as he picked up 3 saves and a win during the team’s first homestand. “I really wanted it to work out like this,” Sutter said after earning the save in the Cubs home opener on April 17, 1980. “I wanted to go out and show that I can do it. I didn’t know what to expect. But the crowd reaction was good. Now it’s all over with. Let’s go ahead and play baseball and cut out all the garbage.”

Sutter again led NL relievers with 28 saves to go with his 5-8 record and 2.64 ERA, but the writing was on the wall. The Cubs were in the final, penny-pinching years of the Wrigley Era, and Sutter, who had the gall to seek a salary befitting a reigning Cy Young Award winner, was not going to be kept around. The Cubs shipped him to the St. Louis Cardinals on December 9, 1980, getting back first baseman/outfielder Leon Durham, third baseman Ken Reitz and, as a player to be named later, infielder Ty Waller. It wasn’t quite on the level of a Brock-for-Broglio deal, as Durham at least had some very productive seasons in Chicago. But it was another case of the Cardinals coming out way ahead in a trade with the Cubs, because this deal helped bring them a World Series championship.

St. Louis immediately gave Sutter a 4-year, $3.5 million contract. General manager Whitey Herzog was asked if Sutter was the best relief pitcher in baseball, and he immediately answered, “In history!” Though Sutter spent more of his career with Chicago, he will be best remembered in a Cardinals uniform, thanks in part to the big, bushy beard he grew as a Cardinal. It’s his signature look and is the version of Sutter that is on his Cooperstown plaque. With his finances and facial hair just how he wanted them, Sutter went to work.

Though the 1981 season was shortened by the players’ strike, Sutter still saved 25 games to lead the NL. His third save of the season came against the Cubs; he threw 2 perfect innings on April 20 in a 6-1 win. He felt “not a twinge of excitement” about beating his old team. “When I got to the mound, no. I just went about my job: To beat them before they beat me. Now I’ll take a couple of my old friends on the Cubs out for a beer.”

The Cubs got a measure of revenge on April 29 by handing Sutter his first blown save of the season. Durham hit a 2-run homer off him to make the second game of a doubleheader a 2-2 tie, called due to darkness. But the hiccups were few and far between for Sutter’s first season as a Cardinal. He made it back to the All-Star Game and recorded the save in a 5-4 NL win, pitching a scoreless ninth inning. It was his second consecutive save in an All-Star Game. He struck out Toronto pitcher Dave Stieb in the ninth inning, who had to bat for himself because AL manager Jim Frey ran out of position players. Sutter didn’t even know who he was facing. “I just looked up and saw a Toronto uniform and figured it was an outfielder or something,” he said.

The Cardinals had the best overall record in the NL East in 1981 but didn’t reach the postseason, because they finished in second place in each of the shortened season’s halves. The team would not be denied in 1982. The Cardinals won 92 games to finish first, swept the Braves in the NL Championship Series and beat the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games to win the World Series. With 36 saves and 9 additional wins, Sutter was the key part of a bullpen that included excellent years from Doug Bair, Jeff Lahti and Jim Kaat. Sutter was a massive advantage to the Cards in the postseason.

In the 3-game sweep of the Braves in the NLCS, Sutter pitched 4-1/3 innings without allowing a baserunner. He picked up a win and a save. Sutter played a huge role in three of the Cardinals’ four World Series wins. He entered Game Two in the seventh inning with the score tied, which was a rarity; manager Herzog preferred to use Sutter only with a lead. However, the ace closer held the Brewers scoreless for 2-1/3 innings, and the Cardinals manufactured the go-ahead run against relievers Bob McClure and Pete Ladd. Sutter threw another 2-1/3 innings in Game Three to earn a save in the 6-2 game, though he was touched for a 2-run homer by Cecil Cooper. Finally, Sutter game into Game Seven in the top of the eighth inning, after Joaquin Andujar had pitched the Cardinals to a 4-3 lead. Sutter faced the best of the Brewers’ hitters — Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Cooper, Ted Simmons, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas — and didn’t allow a single ball to leave the infield. Meanwhile, the Cardinals added a couple of insurance runs to make the final score 6-3. Sutter also pitched in a Cardinals loss in Game Five, giving up a couple of runs in an inning, so his World Series ERA was a high 4.70. However, when games were on the line, Sutter was masterful.

“This was the big one, and I was going to be a hero or a goat,” Sutter said after Game Seven. “But I wanted to be the one out there pitching. That’s been my job all year long.”

The only glove that Bruce Sutter ever used in the major leagues can be found at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Source: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Sutter was, for the first time in his career, off his game in 1983. His ERA rose to 4.23, he lost 10 games, he threw fewer than 100 innings, and he saved only 21. He had a tender elbow in June but didn’t go on the injured list and denied that he had any physical issues. He returned to form in 1984, reaching career highs with 71 appearances, 45 saves and 122-2/3 innings pitched. The 45 saves tied a single-season record set by Dan Quisenberry in 1983. Sutter’s ERA was 1.54, and his ERA+ was 227. He allowed just 9 home runs, and two of them happened to come in the same game — June 23, 1984, against the Chicago Cubs. It’s the Sandberg Game, and it’s one of the most memorable moments in Chicago Cubs history. Cubs rising star Ryne Sandberg hit two game-tying home runs off Sutter to mount an incredible, 11-10 comeback win. The game helped make Sandberg a national star and established the Cubs as a legitimately good team, but it wouldn’t have meant as much if those home runs had come against random relievers. No, it was the fact that Sandberg’s heroics came against Bruce Sutter that made the moment so memorable.

Sutter became a free agent after the 1984 season, though it wasn’t free agency in the modern-day sense. Free agents were put into a convoluted “re-entry draft,” which determined which teams “won” the rights to offer contracts to select free agents. Sutter had six teams vying for his services, as well as the Cardinals. Ultimately, he signed a multi-year deal with the Atlanta Braves. The 31-year-old pitcher was given a 6-year contract worth $9.1 million, with much of the money deferred. How much was deferred? According to this Yardbarker article, the Braves paid Sutter $1.12 million every year through 2021 and gave him a final balloon payment of $9.1 million this year, for a total of more than $47 million

Technically, the 2022 Braves paid Bruce Sutter more than they paid Spencer Strider, Austin Riley, Michael Harris III and William Contreras. Combined.

The 1985 Braves had an All-Star closer, but they just didn’t have a talented enough team to get Sutter a lead in the late innings. The team lost 96 games, and the pitching staff’s 4.19 ERA was the worst in the National League. Sutter, now 32 years old, struggled as well, with a 4.48 ERA and a low 23 saves. Batters hit .267 against him — almost 40 points higher than his career opponent batting average — and he allowed 13 home runs in 88-1/3 innings.

Sutter couldn’t explain the struggles and insisted he was physically fine. “I made one bad pitch, and it goes over the fence,” he said after allowing a home run to the Dodgers’ Terry Whitfield, costing the Braves a win. “There’s nothing I can work on or try to correct. Some things are just going to happen.”

After the ’85 season, Sutter acknowledged some pain in his right shoulder, and an examination revealed an entrapment, or a condition that cut off blood flow, according to a Miami Herald article from March 13, 1986. Sutter underwent surgery and rehabbed all winter, determined to reestablish himself as a premier closer. “I want to prove to people that Ted Turner did not sign another bum steer,” Sutter said.

Sutter made it through 16 games in 1986 with mixed results. He had a 4.48 ERA, along with 2 wins and 3 saves. Manager Chuck Tanner used him sparingly as the pitcher continued his recovery from his shoulder surgery, so Sutter never pitched two days in a row or warmed up unless he was definitely going into the game. Gene Garber and Paul Assenmacher picked up the slack as far as save opportunities went, creating a “closer by committee” situation. A further exam of Sutter’s right shoulder revealed the worst news — a partial tear of his rotator cuff that necessitated a second surgery. Sutter rehabbed at his home in Kennesaw, Ga., while missing the rest of the 1986 and all of the 1987 season. Sutter didn’t blame the Braves for the injury but admitted he probably tried to come back too soon from his first operation. He took extra care this time around in attempt to be back to normal in 1988. “I might come back next spring and get the ball up to the plate with nothing on it. In that case, I guess it’s over,” he said in April 1987. “But I’m giving myself every opportunity to make it. I’m not quitting. They’ll have to run me off.”

When Sutter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, Ozzie Smith and Johnny Bench honored him by bringing beards of their own. Source: Chicago Tribune, July 31, 2006.

Sutter returned to the Braves in 1988 with an inauspicious debut. He entered the ninth inning of the Opening Day game against the Cubs with the Braves leading 9-7, and he quickly gave up 2 runs. The Cubs won 10-9 in 13 innings. Sutter came back with some good performances after that blown save and ended up as the team leader with 14 saves. The 106-loss Braves were a last place team, and Sutter went through an awful stretch in July and August where he blew four straight save opportunities. His final save of the year came in his final game, on September 9 against San Diego. He threw a 1-2-3 ninth inning of a 5-4 win, striking out Roberto Alomar to end the game. It was the 300th and final save of Sutter’s career. In spring training in 1989, doctors discovered he had completely torn his rotator cuff and needed a third shoulder surgery. He remained on the disabled list for the entire season but retired, officially, in November of ’89.

Over 12 seasons, Sutter appeared in 661 games, with a 68-71 record and 300 saves. He had a 2.83 ERA and an ERA+ of 136. In 1,042 innings of work, Sutter struck out 861 batters, and opponents hit just .230 off him. Baseball Reference credits Sutter with 24.0 Wins Above Replacement. On the career saves list, he is tied with Jason Isringhausen for 30th place. The closest active pitcher as of this writing is Mark Melancon with 262. When Sutter retired, he was third on the list, behind only Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage. He became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1994 and was finally inducted in 2006, with 76.9% of the vote. He became the first pitcher ever inducted into the Hall without ever making a single start in his career. His uniform number, 42, was retired by the Cardinals — before the number was retired by Major League Baseball for its connection to Jackie Robinson.

Sutter spent some time working as a minor-league coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, on a volunteer basis. He also got to focus on outdoor activities like fishing and hunting. Sutter and his wife, Jayme, helped to build a beautiful baseball complex for Harrison High School in Kennesaw, where his youngest sons played ball. “I’ve been fortunate, there’s no doubt about that,” he said in 1997, “and my family’s been great through it all. They lived through me while I was playing. Now I enjoy being here for them.”

Sutter is survived by his wife, Jayme, and sons Josh, Chad and Ben.

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