By Don Leypoldt
Photo © Roger Crowley
Sometimes a writer spins a beautiful story by expertly crafting words and phrases.
And sometimes a subject is so compelling that the story writes itself. All a smart writer should do is get out of the subject’s way.
As a broadcaster alone, Jim Kaat might be that compelling of a subject. Currently working for the MLB Network as a studio analyst, Kaat has been behind a microphone for nearly 30 years. He has won seven Sports Emmys, hosted ESPN’s Baseball Tonight during the 1994 season and worked for Good Morning America as their chief sports correspondent.
Yet Kaat the broadcaster is like Winston Churchill as a painter. Yes, Kaat is very good at it but there are other things on his resume that are far more impressive. Such as Kaat’s playing in the Majors for 25 seasons. Such as Kaat’s starting more games than all but 16 pitchers in the history of baseball, winning 283 of them. Such as the 6’4” southpaw’s earning more Gold Gloves (16) than legendary leathermen Ozzie Smith, Pudge Rodriguez and Luis Aparicio.
Kaat made Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra go a combined 0-for-5 in his third career game, and he retired Ryne Sandberg a month before his final outing. A three-time All-Star, Kaat was the oldest player in the American League in 1979…and he played four more Big League seasons after that!
With that kind of staying power, with that extensive life in baseball, it is best to let Jim Kaat speak for himself.
And speak he did. On July 30th, Kaat was the guest of the Vermont Mountaineers. He addressed the team, threw out the first pitch and did a couple of innings of play-by-play. The Kaats have a summer home in Vermont; the Mountaineers were privileged to host their neighbor with such a distinguished baseball background.
The man nicknamed “Kitty” arguably has had nine baseball lives. He graciously took time out to speak to NECBL.com about each one.
Life 1. As a young baseball fan and player. Kaat hails from Zeeland, MI- just minutes from Lake Michigan- and attended nearby Hope College.
“My Dad was pretty prophetic. He followed baseball so closely- we would get the Sporting News every Monday and it would take all week to read it since there were so many Minor Leagues with all of their stats. He said then that as he saw a few more college players come into baseball that someday colleges would be the feeding ground for the Big Leagues instead of the Minor Leagues. That’s true now but in my day, in ’57, the quickest way to the Big Leagues was signing and going through the Minor Leagues. Other than a USC or Arizona State or the Florida schools, there weren’t that many high profile Division I programs that were producing Big League players.
“I was fortunate that I got signed out of college, but I was a little guy. I got turned down for a Tiger tryout and rightly so. I was only 5’9” and they didn’t want to look at pitchers under 6’0”. Then between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I grew a great deal. I was kind of gangly and I still wasn’t a hard thrower. I learned to pitch before I picked up any speed. Then I got a tryout with the Washington Senators in ’57. That was my first opportunity to sign and that is who I signed with.”
Life 2. As a Washington Senator and Minnesota Twin between 1959-1973. In 1965, Kaat led the American League in starts and posted a 2.83 ERA for the eventual pennant winners. The next season, Kaat led the AL with 25 wins and lowered his ERA even further. He still ranks second in Washington/Minnesota franchise history in wins and fourth in strikeouts. Walter Johnson ranks first- not bad company.
“We were a relatively young team with the Twins. When you thought ‘World Series’, everyone thought ‘Yankees’ and we ended their streak in ’65. When you get there, there is all of the attention. The first time there, you’re so caught up getting tickets for family and there is all of the off-field activity. Not as much as there is today, but compared to the regular season there was for us. I don’t think we took the World Series games as intensely as we did the regular season. I think we all felt that way with the Twins. Once we lost to the Dodgers, our feeling was ‘Well, that’s too bad but we have a good team and we’ll be back.’ We never did.
“Individual memories…I had a great win over Robin Roberts that I never forgot in August of 1961. We went 11 innings. I was hitting in the 11th with a man on first with one out. They thought I was bunting. I was new to the League and they didn’t know I was a decent hitter for a pitcher. I hit a triple and then Vic Power squeezed me in. I went in the bottom of the 11th and won the game 3-1. Robin would kid me about it years later. ‘You lucky S.O.B!’ he said. ‘I’d have thrown you a curveball if I had known you were hitting!’ Games like that were memorable to me individually.”
Kaat averaged walking just 2.2 batters per 9 innings over the course of his career, twice boasting the lowest walk rate in the American League.
“We were taught, no matter who the hitter is, don’t be afraid of contact. The worst thing you could do is walk a hitter. They were good hitters but you were encouraged to make them put it in play and I think that is the reason control isn’t quite as good today. Maybe because of the small size of the ballparks and the strength of the hitters, pitchers seem to be much more fearful of pitching to contact than we were.”
Life 3. As a Chicago White Sock, 1973-1975. Kaat posted consecutive 20-win/sub 3.15 ERA seasons as a “washed up” pitcher on the South Side.
“The Twins thought I was pretty much done, and they put me on waivers in ’73. I was coming back from a broken wrist in ’72 and it was taking me a little while to find my form again but I went over to Chicago, got reunited with Johnny Sain as a pitching coach and I had two 20-game seasons. Individually, that was very satisfying when people think you’re done and you get to play for seven or eight more years.”
Life 4. As a Philadelphia Phillie, 1976-1979. From 1976 to 1978, Kaat made 86 starts for a Phillies’ ball club that won three straight National League East titles. These years also helped him segue to his post-baseball career.
“I got into broadcasting when, during my playing days, when there was a rain delay they usually called a player into the booth to tell stories. Doing that with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, I had different TV producers tell me that I could get into this.” Kalas and Ashburn were the Phillies’ longtime broadcasters, both of whom are inducted in Cooperstown.
Kaat was also teammates with another greybeard- Pete Rose- for part of the 1979 season. When listing some of his most memorable moments, Kaat replied, “Coaching for Pete Rose when he broke Ty Cobb’s hit record in ’85. Being his pitching coach and being a part of that.”
Life 5. As a St. Louis Cardinal, 1980-1983. Shifting to the bullpen, Kaat appeared in 176 games over four seasons for the Redbirds, posting a 3.82 ERA. In his 24th season in Major League Baseball, 1982, Kaat could finally call himself a World Champion.
“I found out watching the Orioles and Indians playoffs in 1997 that if the Orioles had won, it would have been Cal Ripken’s first World Series appearance in 14 years. The trivia question was: Who holds the record for the longest time between World Series appearances? And I said to the TV, ‘I think I’m the answer to that question.’ It was 17 years before I finally got back. We won in seven games and I was just a part time player, a reliever, but I was much more prepared and I passed that on to our younger players: that it’s exciting, and you get caught up in the off-the-field stuff but you’ve got to make your goal to not just be in the World Series, but to win it. I was much more prepared for the actual on-the-field game than I was the first time. When Bruce Sutter threw that last strike by Gorman Thomas, that was a big thrill.”
Kaat’s playing career finally ended in July 1983, after an astonishing 25 seasons in the Majors: “In my particular case, I think it was because I was left handed, had decent control and was willing to go to the bullpen,” is how Kaat credited his longevity. “I enjoyed starting but Whitey Herzog saw value having me as a reliever in St. Louis and it turned out to be a good decision, being a part of a World Series team. In my last five or six years, I was a lefty-lefty specialist. I honestly felt I could have come back for several more years but youth and economics: most of the time they want to bring in a young player and replace an older player. I didn’t want to keep jumping around and hanging on. I went into broadcasting after that. But I think what enabled me to stick around that long was being left-handed and being able to throw strikes.
“I think in those days, before a lot of the video and formal instruction, we developed our own motions. They weren’t fundamentally perfect but we were able to repeat them. I developed a motion as a youngster and I was able to repeat that because I threw a lot. Today’s pitchers pitch just a certain amount of pitches and then they rest. They ice down. I’m not a big fan of that.”
Life 6. As arguably the best fielding pitcher in the history of the game. Kaat won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves.
“In my era, you were a baseball player who just happened to be a pitcher. You had to learn to hit, run, bunt and throw because that is what you did in playground ball. What really helped my fielding was…Bobby Shantz was my hero as a young kid. My Dad for some reason was a Philadelphia A’s fan. Because I was a little guy and left handed, I began to read about Bobby Shantz. I’ve since come to know Bobby, and that is quite a thrill, and he was a great fielder. I remember listening to Bob Ellison, the Chicago radio announcer, when I was a kid. When Bobby pitched he would describe his motion and how he would hop toward the hitter on the balls of his feet and was ready to move left or right. I practiced that a great deal in my backyard. My first year in Spring Training, the pitching coach remarked to me, ‘Kid, you look just like Bobby Shantz.’ I think we mimic our heroes and I picked up some very valuable habits from following Bobby.” (Note: Shantz, the 1952 American League MVP, also won eight Gold Gloves)
Life 7. As a Distinguished Broadcaster. From 1988 to 2006, Kaat broadcast for either the Twins or the Yankees. He took one year off to host Baseball Tonight. Kaat has worked both the Olympics and the College World Series.
“During the strike of ’81, Home Team Sports televised Minor League games. Producer Jody Shapiro called me and asked if I would like to do some Triple-A games with Ralph Kiner and Warner Fusselle. That’s when I started doing games, then ESPN hired me to do the College World Series.
“I got good advice from Don Drysdale, Joe Garigiola and Jack Buck about a number of things and the material thing was ‘Don’t try to sound like you’re Walter Cronkite, like you’re a news anchor.’ Your voice may not be of that quality, but people are going to listen to you because of what you say about what happens on the field.
“I always try to do a telecast as if there were three fans at a game- one that might be there for the first time, one who is a lukewarm fan and the other is a very avid fan. It’s my goal to give something to each of those fans that they didn’t know before and help them to enjoy and understand the game. That’s my advice to anyone trying to get into the business. It is different for a non-player trying to become a play by play guy but I too would say to them, the game is always the thing. It’s not your style or your slogans or if you come up with a signature home run call. The thing that fans will appreciate more than anything is that you are a minimalist. If it’s an exciting game, the fans will enjoy it. If it is a blow out, you trying to put your signature voice on the game is not going to make it anymore enjoyable to fans. As announcers, the more we understand that the better off we’ll be.”
Life 8. As a Vermonter. Kaat is not the first Big League legend to visit the Mountaineers. Phillie Hall of Famer Robin Roberts was an honorary director with Vermont; Kaat called Roberts “a hero of mine” and he has recently finished Roberts’ book.
“We love Vermont. My wife and I are making that our summer home. It’s such a nice, peaceful, civilized lifestyle. I enjoyed seeing the Mountaineers. It reminded me a little bit of my first year in professional baseball when I played in Superior, NE in the Nebraska State League. It was pro, but it was also just a two-month summer league full of rookies who had just signed their contracts.
“Brian Gallagher did a real nice job arranging the hotel. I spoke to them about my career, the influence my Dad had and some of the encouraging people I had in my career. I tried to communicate to them that no matter how highly regarded you are, you have to have some breaks along the way and have people believe in you. They had some questions and they really loosened up when I came out to the ballpark to throw out the first pitch. I was hanging around the dugout talking to manager John Russo. The players were then asking me more specific baseball questions like how I gripped the ball- about pitching in particular. It was a fun time and worthwhile experience.
“That’s why it’s good to have leagues like the NECBL. I understand there are 300 summer league teams that play in wooden bat leagues, and that’s a good thing for hitters and pitchers. Hitters need to learn to hit with the wood bat and pitchers need to learn to pitch against hitters using the wood bat.”
Life 9. As a 73-year baseball fan
“Maybe more than most, I really enjoyed my entire career because I was such a baseball fan as a kid. My first World Series was 1945. I can still name the starting lineup of the Philadelphia Athletics of the late 40s/early 50s so I’ve always had a great appreciation for the history of the game. Getting to face a guy like Ted Williams was such a thrill for me. Looking back on my career and thinking ‘Wow, from the time I was seven years old to now at age 73, I’ve been able to enjoy professional baseball at the Big League level for all of these years, in one capacity or another.’ That entire body of work, I’m very grateful for.”