Remembering Durable Don Sutton (1945-2021), the Ultimate Compiler

Don Sutton did not have the flash of Sandy Koufax, or the intimidating presence of Don Drysdale. He lacked the overpowering fastball of Nolan Ryan, and didn’t fill his mantel with Cy Young awards the way that Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton did. He never won a World Series or threw a no-hitter. Yet Sutton earned a spot in the Hall of Fame alongside those more celebrated hurlers just the same. He was one of the most durable pitchers in baseball history, as dependable as a Swiss watch.

Alas, durability does not confer immortality. Sutton died on Monday at the age of 75, after a long battle with cancer. Son Daron Sutton, a former pitcher and broadcaster in his own right, shared the news on Twitter on Tuesday:

Sutton is already the second Hall of Famer to pass away in 2021. His former manager, Tommy Lasorda, died on January 7. Both deaths follow a year in which a record seven Hall of Famers died. Friends, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.

In a career that spanned 23 years and was bookended by stints with the Dodgers (1966-80, ’88), with detours to the Astros (’81-82), Brewers (’82-84), A’s (’85), and Angels (’85-87), Sutton started 756 games, more than any pitcher besides Young or Ryan. The wiry, frizzy-haired righty listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds not only avoided the Disabled List until his final season at age 43, he never missed a turn due to injury or illness until a sore elbow sidelined him after his penultimate start in the summer of 1988. Upon retiring, he went on to a successful second career as a broadcaster, primarily with the Braves.

Like Lasorda, Sutton occupied a special place in this young Dodger fan’s life. I was nine years old and riding in the way-back of my family’s maroon-and-faux-wood-panel Chevy Caprice station wagon on a road trip to California on August 10, 1979 when my father conjured up a radio broadcast of the Dodgers game. It was my introduction to the golden voice of Vin Scully, who shared booth duties with Jerry Doggett, calling Sutton’s franchise record-setting 50th shutout, a 9-0 victory over the Giants fueled by a Derrel Thomas grand slam and Mickey Hatcher’s first career homer. You could look it up. Thereafter, no matter where he roamed, I always rooted for Sutton, and grew to love the wit and brutal honesty that accompanied his workmanlike approach and made him eminently quotable, during and after his career.

“Comparing me to Sandy Koufax is like comparing Earl Scheib to Michelangelo,” he once said after surpassing his former teammate on some franchise record list.

Sutton’s signature pitch was his knuckle curve. Lacking the long fingers of Koufax, Sutton raised his index finger and dug its tip into the ball, which “appear[ed] to dive for the ground like a crashing airplane,” to use the description of the Los Angeles Times‘ Jim Murray. Yet he didn’t lean on the pitch too heavily, working with a fastball, slider, changeup, and modified screwball. “I don’t think too many pitchers have mastered as many pitches as he has,” said Walter Alston, who managed Sutton for the first 11 seasons of his major league career.

Using that broad arsenal — and eventually, an assortment of scuffed or otherwise doctored balls — Sutton may not have been the most dominant pitcher, but he was the ultimate compiler. In addition to that staggering start total, he threw more innings (5,282.1) than all but six pitchers, annually reaching the 200-inning thresholds from 1966 to ’86 except for the strike-shortened 1981 season, when he was on pace for 234 innings. Along with Seaver and Phil Niekro, both of whom passed away in late 2020, he’s one of 10 pitchers to attain the dual milestones of 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, ranking 14th in the former category and seventh in the latter:

Pitchers with 300 Wins and 3,000 Strikeouts
Pitcher Years IP W SO
Nolan Ryan 1966-1993 5386.0 324 5714
Randy Johnson 1988-2009 4135.1 303 4875
Roger Clemens 1984-2007 4916.2 354 4672
Steve Carlton 1965-1988 5217.2 329 4136
Tom Seaver 1967-1986 4783.0 311 3640
Don Sutton 1966-1988 5282.1 324 3574
Gaylord Perry 1962-1983 5350.0 314 3534
Walter Johnson 1907-1927 5914.1 417 3509
Greg Maddux 1986-2008 5008.1 355 3371
Phil Niekro 1964-1987 5404.0 318 3342
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Additionally, Sutton ranks fifth in home runs allowed (472), seventh in losses (256), 10th in shutouts (58), and 14th in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (85.9) among pitchers, though he’s just 32nd in Baseball-Reference’s version (68.3). He holds numerous Dodgers’ franchise records, including those for starts (533), innings (3,816.1), strikeouts (2,696), wins (233), and shutouts (52), only some of which Clayton Kershaw will be able to claim no matter how long he pitches. Not only did he rank among his league’s top 10 in strikeouts 14 times, his impeccable control placed him among the top 10 in strikeout-to-walk ratio 16 times, and among the top five 10 times, including three league leads.

Beyond the numbers, Sutton was a relentless and reliable competitor, fierce but at the same time quite even-keeled. Baseball “was not an emotional experience,” he said in 1991. “It was a job that I wanted to keep getting better and better at.”

Sutton’s honesty sometimes got him into trouble, most notably in 1978, when he told the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell, “All you hear about on our team is Steve Garvey, the All-American boy. Well, the best player on this team for the last two years — and we all know it — is Reggie Smith. Reggie doesn’t go out and publicize himself. … Reggie’s not a façade or a Madison Avenue image. He’s a real person.” The remarks led to a clubhouse brawl with Garvey, as well as a tearful apology in a press conference.

Sutton was often at odds with Lasorda, whose emotionally-driven style stood in stark contrast to his own. At the time when the pitcher-turned-third-base-coach was Alston’s heir apparent, Sutton told a reporter that he’d pick former teammate Jeff Torborg to manage instead. When Lasorda was in charge, Sutton, who was raised as an evangelical Christian, said, “I’m leery of Tommy. I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

But while the pair had their difficulties together, Lasorda expressed great respect for his righty, saying, “When you gave him the ball, you knew one thing. Your pitcher was going to give you everything he had.”

Donald Howard Sutton was born on April 2, 1945 in Clio, Alabama, a town with a population of less than 1,000 people at the time. His parents were teenage sharecroppers, with father Howard just 18 years old, and mother Lillian 15 at the time of his birth. Howard, who left school with just a seventh-grade education, imparted his work ethic on the oldest of his three children by farming all day and going to night school to work towards his high school diploma, which he eventually attained in his 40s, allowing him to move into construction.

When Don was five, his family moved to a farm outside of Pensacola, Florida. He grew up listening to baseball on the radio, and from the time he started playing at age six, gravitated towards pitching. “When I would hear some of the things that were said, when Whitey Ford was crafty, I wanted to figure out what crafty was,” Sutton said during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1998. “When I heard an announcer say that Dick Donovan would brush his mother off the plate to win a game — I didn’t go that far but I did want to pitch inside. When somebody said Camilo Pascual had a 12-to-6 curveball, I literally got out a clock to figure out how to throw a 12-to-6 curveball. Growing up and listening to baseball, I wanted to be Robin Roberts.”

At age 11, Sutton discovered that his sixth-grade teacher, Henry Roper, had pitched in the Giants organization. “I hounded him until he taught me some things,” Sutton told told Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite. “He got me throwing breaking balls when I was behind the hitter. All young hitters are looking for the fastball then. It was a break with convention.”

By that point, Sutton considered himself to be a professional in training to reach the majors. When he wasn’t playing or working on the farm, he would jog and then throw against a straw mat in the garage. At Tate High School, he initially played football and basketball as well as baseball, but narrowed his focus to the diamond after his sophomore year. As a junior in 1962, his 13-inning, 11-strikeout two-hitter against West Palm Beach Florida Hills helped give Tate the Class A state championship.

Despite his high school success, Sutton drew no professional interest upon graduating. He enrolled at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, where his 130 strikeouts in 90 innings yielded an invitation to play in the amateur Basin League against top collegiate players in the country. He gained even wider exposure by making the all-tournament team (alongside Seaver) at the National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Scouts from at least nine major league teams showed interest. Impressed by the Dodgers’ reputation for developing pitchers, Sutton signed with them in September 1964, the year before the amateur draft was instituted. He received a $15,000 bonus plus stipends for college.

The 20-year-old Sutton began his professional career at A-level Santa Barbara, but soon moved up to Double-A Albuquerque. Between the two stops, he went 23-7 with a 2.35 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 249 innings while completing 24 out of 31 starts, an unthinkable workload for a pitcher of that age today. Though he joined the Dodgers in September, he did not actually pitch.

At the Dodgers’ big league camp the next year, with the team fresh off its third championship in seven seasons, Sutton’s pitching grabbed Alston’s attention, particularly as Koufax and Drysdale engaged in their joint holdout, which lasted until mid-March. Expecting to be sent down, Sutton made the team, and debuted at Dodger Stadium on April 14, in the season’s third game, after Claude Osteen and Koufax had started the first two. Facing the Astros, Sutton notched his first strikeout in the first inning against future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan but gave up an unearned run via a sacrifice fly by Jimmy Wynn. He held the Astros scoreless for the next six frames, but faltered in the eighth, when a Sonny Jackson single and a game-tying RBI double by Wynn chased him; he took the loss when Ron Perranoski gave up a three-run homer to Rusty Staub.

Despite the defeat, Sutton was in the majors to stay. He collected his first win in a rematch at the Astrodome four days later, threw a five-hit, 10-strikeout complete game in which he struck out Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Torre on April 27, recorded his first shutout against the Phillies on May 11, and spun a two-hit shutout against the Reds on August 16. “Little D” (to Drysdale’s “Big D”) drew raves for his stuff, his command, and his poise. It wasn’t as easy as Sutton made it look.

“Drysdale would pitch on Friday and knock down six batters and hit three and win, 2-0,” Sutton said at the press conference following his election to the Hall of Fame in January 1998. “Koufax would pitch on Saturday and give up one hit, a broken-bat single, and win, 1-0. And then I took the mound, and I was facing nine angry men who wanted to get even. It was scary.”

Despite a pulled muscle in his right forearm limiting him to 14.1 innings after September 1 — not that he stopped taking the ball, particularly as Osteen, Koufax, and Drysdale had all left games with injuries on consecutive days ahead of him — Sutton finished the season 12-12 with a 2.99 ERA (110 ERA+) in 35 starts totaling 225.2 innings, striking out 209, good for seventh in the league. The Dodgers won the pennant, but Sutton stayed on the sidelines during the World Series as the Orioles swept the Dodgers.

The 30-year-old Koufax abruptly retired in November while the rest of the team was touring Japan, and the Dodgers’ fortunes took a turn for the worse. Sutton’s, too, perhaps due to his heavy workloads. He went 11-15 with a 3.95 ERA (78 ERA+) in 1967, and began the ’68 season shaking off the rust at Triple-A Spokane following a six-month Army Reserve commitment, though he still returned in time to go 11-15 with a 2.60 ERA (106 ERA+ in the “Year of the Pitcher”) and 162 strikeouts in 207.2 innings. He was back to shouldering heavy workloads in 1969 and ’70, totaling 553.2 innings in those two seasons and topping 200 strikeouts in each, but due to inconsistencies with his curve and fastball, he was slightly worse than average, ERA-wise, and particularly gopher-prone; his 38 homers allowed in 1970 would be his last time above 30 until ’86.

Thanks to an adjustment suggested by longtime pitching coach Red Adams, who examined film of his 1966 season, Sutton regained consistency with his curve, and he continued to hone a screwball/changeup he had begun developing during a 1968 detour to the bullpen. The 26-year-old righty broke through in 1971, going 17-12 with a 2.54 ERA (127 ERA+) and pitching brilliantly down the stretch, with a 1.75 ERA in 12 starts and one relief appearance in August and September. Despite his efforts, which included a 2-1 complete game win on the final day of the season, the Dodgers fell a game short of their first NL West title.

Sutton was even better in 1972, going 19-9 with a 2.08 ERA and a career-high 6.6 WAR (both third in the league); he made his first All-Star team, and finished in a four-way tie for fifth in the Cy Young voting (Carlton won). That season kicked off the best stretch of his career; from 1972-77, he averaged 261 innings with a 2.80 ERA (124 ERA+) and 4.2 WAR. He received Cy Young consideration in all of those years except the last, though the highest he finished was third in 1976, when he went 21-10 with a 3.06 ERA but took a back seat to the Padres’ Randy Jones and the Mets’ Jerry Koosman, both of whom had lower ERAs and similar won-loss records. He parlayed that strong season — the Dodgers’ first full one using a five-man rotation — into a four-year, $1 million contract. He made four All-Star teams in that span, and was the MVP of the 1977 game, when he started and threw three scoreless innings while yielding just one hit and one walk and striking out four.

More importantly, Sutton helped the Dodgers to a pair of NL West flags and pennants in that span. He was brilliant in the 1974 NLCS, shutting out the Pirates on four hits in the opener and allowing one run in eight innings in the Game 4 clincher on three days of rest. Facing the two-time defending champion A’s and Vida Blue in Game 2 of the World Series, again on short rest, he allowed two runs over eight innings and 137 pitches while striking out nine in a winning effort, evening the series. With the Dodgers down three games to one, he made his third straight start on short rest for Game 5; he pitched respectably, allowing two runs in five innings, but Joe Rudi’s seventh-inning home run off super-reliever Mike Marshall, that year’s NL Cy Young winner, proved to be the series clincher.

Despite a rocky beginning to his relationship with Lasorda as manager, Sutton followed up a very good 1977 season with a strong showing in the postseason. In Game 2 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he scattered nine hits but yielded just one run while his teammates pounded Jim Lonborg. In the World Series opener against the Yankees, he and opposite number Don Gullett carried a 2-2 tie into the eighth inning, but after issuing a leadoff walk to Willie Randolph, Sutton served up a go-ahead double to Thurman Munson; the Dodgers tied the game in the ninth but lost in 12. In Game 5, with the Dodgers down three games to one, he went the distance in a 10-4 victory, again scattering nine hits; the win sent the series back to the Bronx, where Reggie Jackson sealed the victory with his three-homer game.

Sutton slipped into league-average-ish mediocrity in both 1978 — when he was a dreadful 0-3 with a 7.13 ERA in the postseason, including losses in Games 3 and 6 in the World Series agains the Yankees — and ’79. He had his share of distractions in the former season. In search of his 200th career victory on July 14, 1978, he was ejected in the seventh inning by future Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey, who found three similarly scuffed baseballs. After being ejected, Sutton returned to the field to hand Harvey a note, claiming his intent to sue. He managed to avoid a 10-day suspension, and wore a t-shirt that said “NOT GUILTY” under his uniform during his next start, a complete-game six-hit win over the Pirates during which he further called attention to the matter by examining balls on the mound “like a geologist inspecting a series of fascinating rocks,” as the Los Angeles Times‘ Scott Ostler reported.

On August 20 came the brawl with Garvey, whose right eye he bloodied. Afterwards, he offered an emotional public apology in which he accepted the blame, saying, “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a human being and a Christian, to be right. If it were, then there would not have been an article in which I would offend any of my teammates.” Even so, Sutton heard the boos from fans, who largely took Garvey’s side, and he later admitted that the response unnerved him.

In 1979, though the Dodgers’ first half sunk them from contention, Sutton hit some milestones, surpassing Drysdale for a trio of franchise records with win number 210 on May 20 opposite Seaver and the Reds; strikeout number 2,487 on August 5 against the Giants; and the aforementioned shutout number 50 five days later in a rematch against the Giants. With the Dodgers missing out on the playoffs, he worked as a color commentator for NBC alongside Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek; already, he was laying the groundwork for a second career, and talk of eventually moving into broadcasting would usually surface in the context of his contract situations. Speaking of which, in the final year of his deal with the Dodgers, Sutton was late to spring training, and the subject of trade rumors, including one with the Yankees, who quite understandably were unwilling to include prospect Dave Righetti, who would win 1981 AL Rookie of the Year honors, in a proposed deal.

In any event, Sutton eventually showed up and turned in a stellar season, going 13-5 with an NL-best 2.20 ERA in 212.1 innings in the context of a neck-and-neck NL West race with the Astros. On October 3, with the Dodgers facing elimination after slipping to three games back with three to play, he pitched eight innings of two-run ball against Houston, but gave up the go-ahead run in his final frame; the Dodgers won in 10 to keep hope alive. They won the next day to trim the lead to a single game heading into the final day of the season. After the Dodgers rallied from down 3-1 with one run in the seventh and two in the eighth, closer Steve Howe put runners on first and third with two outs in the ninth. Lasorda called upon Sutton to make his first relief appearance of the year, and he needed just two pitches to retire Denny Walling on a groundout, earning a save and forcing a Game 163 tiebreaker; alas, the Dodgers lost that one.

The 35-year-old Sutton entered the offseason seeking a five-year, $4 million deal. The Dodgers, who had spent lavishly and poorly in free agency the year before (including on Dave Goltz, who laid an egg in that Game 163 start) but who had Fernando Valenzuela waiting in the wings, only offered two years at $1 million, and when he didn’t accept, they effectively renounced their negotiating rights (a decidedly anti-player aspect of free agency in those days). Three weeks later, the Astros outbid the Yankees, signing Sutton to three-year, $2.85 million deal with an option for a fourth year, that after adding Ryan via free agency the year before.

“I believe in loyalty,” Sutton quipped at a banquet in Tucson, Arizona, a few weeks later. “I’m the most loyal pitcher money can buy.”

Sutton pitched well during the strike-shortened 1981 season, posting a 2.61 ERA (126 ERA+) in 158.2 innings and helping the Astros to the NL West’s second-half title by throwing two shutouts and a complete-game two-hitter while allowing just one earned run and 16 baserunners in a 34-inning stretch. But in his final start on October 2 against the Dodgers, who had secured the NL West’s first-half title, Sutton was hit on the right knee while attempting to bunt a Jerry Reuss pitch. A fractured kneecap ended his season, leaving the Astros to wonder what might have been as they lost a five-game Division Series to the Dodgers.

Around this time, Sutton’s notoriety for scuffing, sandpapering, or otherwise loading up baseballs continued to grow. He told Boswell, “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it. The only fun I get now is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find when they search me. I have a bet with [PGA golfer] Gary McCord that if I’m searched on national TV, I’ll strip to my undershirt and jock.” Accused of applying a foreign substance to baseballs, he told Fimrite, “Not true at all. Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States of America.”

After the 1981 season, Sutton talked his way into trouble by telling the Los Angeles Times‘ Ross Newhan that he would like to finish his career on the West Coast rather than live in Texas, though he didn’t consider signing with the Astros to be a mistake. The comments understandably caused a stir, and his season began with boos, but subsided when he went on a seven-game winning streak and then continued to pitch well. On August 30, the sub-.500 Astros traded him to the Brewers, who were vying to win their first division title in franchise history, for three players to be named later (outfielder Kevin Bass and pitchers Frank DiPino and Mike Madden).

The bold move by owner Bud Selig and general manager Harry Dalton paid off, as Sutton went 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in seven starts. The last of those wins came on the final day of the season in Baltimore. Matched up against future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer with the Orioles and Brewers tied for the AL East lead at 94-67, Sutton allowed two runs over eight innings while “Harvey’s Wallbangers” homered three times off Palmer (two by Robin Yount) and pounded out 10 runs. Not until later did it surface that Sutton had come to town ailing and had suffered an allergic reaction to an antibiotic injection administered by the Orioles’ team doctor on the morning of the game.

In the ALCS, with the Brewers down two games to none, Sutton helped stave off elimination with a 7.2-inning, three-run effort. The Brewers came back to take the best-of-five series and claim their first pennant. Sutton could not muster similar magic in the World Series against the Cardinals, however, losing starts in Games 2 and 6; his team lost in seven.

Sticking around Milwaukee, Sutton was a bit below-average in 1983 as the team went 87-75 but nonetheless still finished fifth in a competitive AL East, and above-average in ’84, as the Brewers slipped to 67-94. On June 24, 1983 he made Cleveland’s Alan Bannister his 3,000th strikeout victim, becoming the eighth pitcher to reach the plateau, and the sixth in as many seasons after Perry, Ryan, Seaver, Carlton, and Fergie Jenkins.

Sutton loved the blue-collar ethos of Milwaukee as well as pitching in County Stadium, so he was particularly disappointed that the Brewers, after picking up a $500,000 option following the 1984 season, traded him to the A’s in a four-player deal in December. He mulled retirement, and held out for part of spring training while hoping to be dealt to a Southern California team. His family urged him to reconsider, mindful that he had a shot at 300 wins and a berth in the Hall of Fame (he was at 280 at the time).

Sutton relented, and worked his way back from a 7.58 ERA over his first eight starts by posting a 2.74 mark over his next 21 turns, racking up 13 wins. On September 10, 1985, the A’s obliged him with a trade to the Angels — who were battling the Royals for the AL West title — for two players to be named later, even though he would be ineligible to pitch in the postseason because he was acquired after August 31. He won his first two decisions, but had his ups and downs thereafter. On October 3, with the Angels and Royals tied heading into the season’s 159th game, the Royals cuffed him for three homers and four runs in five innings. The Angels lost that one, part of a season-ending 5-8 skid that left them a game behind Kansas City.

Even so, Sutton was where he wanted to be, and the feeling with the Angels was mutual. The going-on-41-year-old, now five wins shy of 300, re-signed via a one-year-plus option deal. He started slowly, going 0-3 with a 9.12 ERA through his first five starts, but gradually came around. He notched win number 299 via a two-hit shutout of the White Sox opposite Seaver on June 9, and nine days later threw a three-hit, one-run complete game to claim his milestone. He finished the year with very respectable numbers (15-11, 3.74 ERA, 116 ERA+ in 207 innings) while helping the Angels win the AL West.

In the ALCS against the Red Sox, the Angels took a two-games-to-one lead before calling upon Sutton for Game 4. He allowed just one run over 6.1 innings, but left trailing 1-0 as his teammates failed to break through against Roger Clemens until the eighth inning. California won in 11 to move within one win of their first pennant ever.

Alas, the Angels never clinched. They were one strike away in Game 5 when closer Donnie Moore served up a two-run homer to Dave Henderson, who then hit a game-winning homer off Moore in the 11th inning. The Red Sox handily won Games 6 and 7, pounding starter John Candelaria for seven unearned runs before Sutton arrived to spin 3.1 innings in long relief.

That was the last time Sutton pitched in a postseason. He returned to the Angels for 1987 but a September slump ballooned his ERA to 4.70, and he fell 8.1 innings short of 200. Nonetheless, Dodgers general manager Fred Claire was interested enough in his services that he signed a one-year, $325,000-plus-incentives deal with his original team, though he joked, “There’s only so much left in the tank. You can only back up third base so many times.” Lasorda, for his part, welcomed him back.

Sutton didn’t embarrass himself, but at 43, he no longer had the stamina to pitch deep into games. Over a six-start stretch, he posted a 3.23 ERA but averaged barely five innings a turn; the Dodgers went 0-6 in those games, scoring a total of 16 runs. In late June, he landed on the DL for the first time with an elbow sprain. While he threw seven innings in his return six weeks later, the Dodgers released him to make room for rookie Ramon Martinez. A week later they would trade lineup staple Pedro Guerrero to the Cardinals for John Tudor, and they would go on to win the World Series without Sutton, upsetting the A’s with Orel Hershiser leading the way.

Two days after Sutton was released, his mother was killed in a car accident while his father was driving. She was 59.

Though Sutton had expressed interest in pursuing a front office position as the end of his playing days approached, he was even more keen on broadcasting. In 1989, he split his time between the Dodgers’ telecasts on Z Channel and Braves telecasts on TBS, and joined the latter full-time the following year. He took to the role, working alongside Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson Sr., and Pete Van Wieren through the Braves’ long run atop the NL East — even working through a battle with kidney cancer in 2002-03 — before a shakeup at Turner Broadcasting led to his ouster following the 2006 season.

“I’ve come to love broadcasting,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker in 2007. “I don’t like anything more than I liked being a pitcher; getting the ball and going [to the mound every fifth day] was the biggest charge. But four days out of five, broadcasting is more fun.”

Drawing interest from several teams, Sutton wound up working for the Nationals for two years before rejoining the Braves’ radio broadcasts, a job he continued in until a fractured femur prevented him from working in 2019. The pandemic kept him away this past year.

Meanwhile, Sutton became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1994, but absurdly enough, it took him five years to gain entry despite his staggering numbers. He received just 56.8% of the vote in his first year and 57.4% in his second as Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt were the BBWAA’s sole honorees in those years. The writers pitched a shutout in 1996, with Niekro, who had been on the ballot for a year longer, leading the pack with 68.3%; Sutton came in at 63.8%. Niekro was elected in 1997, while Sutton missed by nine votes, coming in at 73.2%. Finally, in his fifth year of eligibility, he received 81.6%.

Sutton had kept the slog in perspective. At the aforementioned press conference the day after the results were announced, he was asked about having said the previous year, “The vote didn’t mean a thing. With no offense to the Hall of Fame or anyone who holds a key to it, it just wasn’t that big a deal.” While acknowledging the accuracy of his response, he admitted that his attention had been focused on his family, as his second wife, Mary, had given birth to a two-pound daughter who was 16 weeks premature, and had been given “one chance in a hundred” to live.

“The most important thing in the world for us then was the health of our baby,” said Sutton. “It didn’t matter to me then if every ballot for the Hall of Fame came up zeros for me. Election to the Hall of Fame was just a byproduct of my job. Baseball was only a part of my life. It wasn’t my life. And Jackie was fighting for her life.”

Thankfully, Jackie pulled through, and was on hand when Sutton was inducted that summer. As he gave a memorable and eloquent 17-minute speech, the camera cut to shots of his daughter playing in her mother’s lap.

“You can have a dream, and if you’re willing to work for it, it can come true, and you can earn a dream coming true,” Sutton said near the end of his speech. “With apologies to Lou Gehrig, I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I have everything in life I’ve ever wanted.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

RIP Sutton. And now, also Hank Aaron.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

Just a brutal, brutal last few months for the baseball world.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

Terrible, particularly for the Braves. The Braves have 32 people in their team Hall of Fame and 3 have died in the past month, including the last 2 of their inaugural class (Mathews, Niekro, Spahn, and Aaron).