Befitting the longest and in some ways most complex pitching career in the history of the Dodgers, Don Sutton has the longest chapter in Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition. For someone who was a Hall of Famer without much doubt, Sutton was almost chronically underestimated in his value.
In tribute to Sutton, who has died at the age of 75, here is that chapter:
With Don Sutton, the conversation rarely telescopes into a single game or even a single season.
His career defines his legacy, and a question defines his career: does Sutton deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
Much of the evidence favors him, validating his 1998 election to Cooperstown, where he resides with more than 75 pitchers inducted since the announcement of the first Hall class in 1936. In the shorthand of wins above replacement, Sutton’s 68.8 ranked 30th in the history of baseball’s pitchers, 24th since 1901, and ninth across the three decades in which he pitched, the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Some counter that Sutton was less than the sum of his achievements obtained over a 23-year career. Sutton was a lunch-pail man—a dedicated, reliable one—but a VP rather than a president much of the time. His 3.26 career ERA (108 ERA+) flattens in the horizon. His perennial quest for a 20-win season, 11 years in the making and 12 years without being repeated, implicitly portrayed him a wannabe. He had a 3.34 ERA in 10 playoff games for the Dodgers, averaging more than seven innings per start, but never pitched for a World Series champion. Five one-hitters, but never a no-hitter. Sutton himself spoke humbly at times, once saying that “comparing me to Sandy Koufax is like comparing Earl Scheib to Michelangelo.”
Sutton had spectacular games, outlandish streaks, and wonderful years, but the longer he pitched, the hazier the memory of them became, until all that seemingly remained was a curly haired vet with, yawn, 324 wins, 58 shutouts, 3,574 strikeouts, and (as if it weren’t an achievement in itself) 5,282⅓ innings.
Since 1901, Sutton ranked in the top 10 in each of those categories. If he took his time, in the end, Sutton was elite.
“Don Sutton should unquestionably be elected to the Hall of Fame,” wrote Bill James in 1994, at the outset of Sutton’s eligibility. “Yes, I know Sutton didn’t ‘seem like’ a Hall of Fame pitcher to many of you…The facts are, however, that there is no pitcher with a record remotely comparable to Sutton’s who is not in the Hall of Fame, [and] there are many pitchers with much worse records than Sutton who are in the Hall of Fame. So if you don’t elect Sutton, then in effect he blocks the door.”
The 6-foot-1 right-hander ranked third in big-league history in games started, behind only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan, and seventh in innings pitched. In all his seasons, he averaged seven innings per start, never landing on the disabled list until he was 43 years old.
“I think it’s fair to say of baseball history, never missing a start is extraordinary,” says Eric Enders. “Even compared to his peer group, which was the most durable group of starters in baseball history, even among those guys Sutton was the most durable, so that’s really impressive.”
Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote that Sutton’s delayed election to the Hall was “one of baseball’s most ludicrous injustices.” In an insightful pop quiz, Murray Chass of the New York Times once asked 16 MLB general managers which pitcher they would rather have for his entire career: Koufax or Sutton?
“As intriguing as they all found the exercise, the outcome was just as intriguing because the general managers were clearly divided,” Chass wrote. “Eight selected Koufax, six chose Sutton, and two said they could not decide…Those who chose Sutton generally said pitching is so fragile that it would be difficult to turn down the chance to get a pitcher who could last 23 years and win consistently, if not spectacularly.”
On the mound, Sutton mixed his offerings like a master bartender. “I don’t think too many pitchers have mastered as many pitches as he has,” said his first manager, Walter Alston.
“He has such a variety of pitches that he’s never dependent on just one,” noted Ryan, the Hall of Famer and all-time MLB strikeout leader who was Sutton’s teammate in 1981–82 with the Astros. “He has the versatility to adjust. A two-pitch pitcher like me can have problems if one of them—with me, the curve—isn’t getting over. Don can just go to something else.”
Unlike many hurlers who lead with their heater, Sutton cast his fastball in a beguiling supporting role. Asked to compare himself to Astros flamethrower J.R. Richard, Sutton said, “We all know what he can do with his stuff. He’s tremendous. What I’d like to see is what he could do with my stuff.”
The star of Sutton’s ensemble was his curveball—an “incredible curveball,” teammate Charlie Hough emphasizes. “He crimps his index finger atop the ball,” wrote Jim Murray, “which makes the ball appear to dive for the ground like a crashing airplane. He can throw this malicious mischief for a strike.” But Sutton learned not to lean on it too heavily.
“This goes back to Red Adams,” Tommy John says. “Don had a great curveball, outstanding curveball, and Red kept telling him, ‘You’ll be a better pitcher when you use your fastball more.’ And when Don started using his fastball and getting guys out with his fastball, it made his already outstanding curveball even better. And then he came up with a little cutter that he could throw in on lefties. Don was an outstanding pitcher and outstanding competitor.”
Yet for all his steadfast ability, Sutton’s personality and presence in Los Angeles revealed themselves to be as complicated as his pitching repertoire. Longer than any other Dodger pitcher, he was the centerpiece of serious trade talks. Several times, newspapers reported his departure as imminent. These weren’t just wild rumors—often, Dodger executives and Sutton himself openly discussed the possibility of him leaving town. He frequently wondered aloud if the grass were greener elsewhere, either playing for another team or moving onto another profession, namely broadcasting. In practically the same breath, he unabashedly admitted how much he valued his rising place in the Dodger record books. He could be charming and unnerving in the same conversation.
“He’s very complex,” Adams said.
Sprinkled on top of this restlessness were ceaseless accusations from opponents of doctoring the baseball, nicking it up, sanding it down—allegations Sutton simultaneously resented and encouraged.
“I’ll never say what I do or don’t do to the ball,” he said. “If they think I’m cutting it up, fine. It gives them one more thing to worry about.”
Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite related how umpires reached into Sutton’s uniform pockets in pursuit of incriminating evidence, recovering notes that read NOT HERE or YOU’RE GETTING WARMER.
Accused of moistening the baseball with a “foreign substance,” Sutton zippily denied it.
“Not true at all,” he said. “Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States of America.”
Amid all his internal and external contradictions, there was no mistaking Sutton’s singular desire to succeed.
Born in Clio, Alabama, on April 2, 1945 (the same date as future teammates Mike Kekich and Reggie Smith), Sutton was the son of teenage sharecroppers and fiercely proud of their influence on him. “God gave him the curveball, but Dad gave him the work ethic,” Murray wrote.
“He married at 17 and had only a seventh-grade education, but he’d work on the farm all day and then go to night school,” Sutton said of his father. “He finally got his high school diploma and things opened up for him. He was an excellent carpenter, and he went to work for a construction company…I think you can see that the work ethic was ingrained in me a long time ago. That’s why I feel comfortable working at my profession the year round. I am never not in training.”
As opposed to his heroes Koufax and Don Drysdale, the young Sutton didn’t stumble into pitching. “Sutton considered himself to be a professional ballplayer by age 11,” Fimrite wrote.
“My mother used to worry about my imaginary friends ’cause I would be out in the yard playing ball,” Sutton said. “She worried because she didn’t know a Mickey, or a Whitey, or a Yogi, or a Moose, or an Elston, but I played with them every day.
“Other kids my age were playing for fun. I was playing to get to the big leagues. It was all just training for me. Everything was a stepping-stone. I don’t know that I ever had a childhood.”
Sketch an outline of a boy with this level of determination and focus, then color it with the will to seek an education and the precociousness to improvise when necessary.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Sutton said. “Every time I’ve needed somebody, they’ve always been there. My sixth-grade teacher, Henry Roper, pitched in the Giants organization. I hounded him until he taught me some things. 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.
“I learned how to throw a curve by raising my index finger and digging the tip into the ball. I have small hands—unlike someone like Koufax, who had long fingers and could wrap them around the ball—so I use a different grip for every one of my pitches.”
Sutton signed with the Dodgers in 1964 at age 19 out of Florida’s Gulf Coast Community College, choosing Los Angeles over more lucrative offers from the Astros and A’s based on the organizational pitch by scouts Monty Basgall, Bert Wells, and John Keenan. His minor-league debut in 1965 screamed potential—a 1.50 ERA in 10 starts (averaging 8.4 innings) for Single-A Santa Barbara, then a 2.78 ERA in 21 starts (averaging 7.9 innings) for Double-A Albuquerque. For the year, he pitched 249 innings with 239 strikeouts, a 1.02 WHIP, and 24 complete games, a prospect for whom innings limits and pitch counts would have meant nothing.
On September 10, almost precisely on the one-year anniversary of signing him, the Dodgers promoted Sutton to the majors, but in the blazing heat of that ’65 pennant race he did not pitch, and no one handed him a rotation spot entering the 1966 season. He’d go up against veterans of different ages: 33-year-old Johnny Podres, 28-year-old Phil Regan, and 23-year-old Joe Moeller. For a month, the Drysdale-Koufax holdout opened spots for all, but as the preseason days rolled on, Sutton became the talk of Dodgertown, retaining his rotation candidacy even after the team’s twin aces returned.
“The singular attraction about Sutton this spring was that he seemed to throw 20-year-old stuff with a 40-year-old head,” Sports Illustrated writer Jack Mann reported.
“I may not win the MVP award, but I think I can win in the National League,” Sutton said on the eve of his 21st birthday, for which his present would be his first encounter with Willie McCovey and the Giants in an exhibition game. “And I may not be on Mr. Alston’s team the whole season, but I am going to be on it at least part of the time, and that’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was six years old.”
Los Angeles Times beat writer Frank Finch noted that Sutton, who was prone to nervousness on game days, watched the Giants hit several homers during batting practice and then went back into the clubhouse to read George Christian Anderson’s book, Man’s Right to Be Human.
“It deals with psychiatry and religion in man’s life,” Sutton explained.
Described by Finch as “the likeable Alabaman with the brashness of youth and the pose of an old pro,” Sutton fanned four batters across three shutout innings in his unofficial Dodger Stadium debut April 10 in an exhibition against the Indians, clinching his spot in the rotation. “This kid Sutton is going to make the fans like him,” Alston said. “He’s got the best command of a curveball I ever saw for a youngster.”
On April 14, in the Dodgers’ third game of the 1966 campaign, Sutton took the mound at Dodger Stadium for real. During his first seven innings, he struck out seven while holding Houston to an unearned run (and went 2-for-3 at the plate), but he walked Sonny Jackson to lead off the eighth and, despite a mound visit by Alston, surrendered a gametying RBI double to future Dodger Jim Wynn. In relief, Ron Perranoski allowed a two-run homer to Rusty Staub, saddling Sutton with the 4–2 loss.
Four days later in Houston, however, Sutton grabbed his first big-league victory, strolling through eight innings in a 6–3 win. His parents, listening from Florida to a New Orleans station that was part of the Astros radio network, tracked him down by phone in the visitors’ clubhouse.
“They’ve rooted for me ever since I was a Little Leaguer, and they were pretty proud tonight,” said a grinning Sutton.
Sutton struck out 10 Atlanta Braves in his first complete game on April 27, pitched his first shutout on May 11 against the Phillies, and two-hit Cincinnati in a 2–0 whitewashing on August 16. At one ballpark after another, future Hall of Famers paid tribute to his confidence and command.
“I like his poise, but I like his stuff even better,” Richie Ashburn said. “He acts like he wants to stick around for a long time.”
“Hell! He throws that [breaking ball] on 3-and-2 with the bases loaded,” Eddie Mathews complained to Murray. “Somebody should explain things to that rook.”
Sutton’s strangest predicament during his freshman year was that in his first 10 starts, he was hit by batted balls five times. He finished 1966 with a 2.99 ERA (110 ERA+) in 225⅔ innings, striking out 209—the most by an NL rookie since Grover Cleveland Alexander’s 227 in 1911. He would have whiffed more if not for a right forearm injury—a rarity in his long career—pulling a muscle September 5 against the Giants. (He was the fourth Dodger starting pitcher in as many days to leave a game early for physical reasons, following Osteen, Koufax, and Drysdale.) Sutton made three more starts in 1966, lasting four innings in each.
Perhaps showing lingering effects of having thrown nearly 500 professional innings in the two years before turning 22, Sutton’s 1967 season (at the outset of the Dodgers’ post-Koufax doldrums) was his worst in the majors, with a 3.95 ERA (78 ERA+) in 232⅔ innings, though he did have his second two-hit shutout against Cincinnati in as many seasons.
“When he was right, 8 of 10 curveballs broke sharply, but lately, less of them have,” Alston said that July. “Maybe, subconsciously, he is afraid to break off a sharp curve because of the muscle injury he suffered last season.”
Sutton’s topsy-turvy 1968 began with the first of many unfulfilled trade rumors in his career, one that had Sutton going to Baltimore for 34-year-old shortstop Luis Aparicio. Remaining a Dodger, Sutton still commenced the season in the minors, having missed most of spring training while finishing a six-month Army Reserve commitment. Called up in late April to stay, Sutton soon had his first memorable encounter with the baseball patrol. In a June 10 duel against fellow 23-year-old Tom Seaver and the Mets, scoreless through nine innings, home-plate umpire Sam Sudol investigated Sutton for mischief.
“I did it on my own,” Sudol said. “Some of his pitches were doing unusual things. But after a thorough investigation of his cap, uniform, and glove, I was convinced he was using nothing but his hand. As far as I’m concerned, Sutton just has one helluva sinker.”
Said Sutton: “Sudol met me as I was crossing the line to start the ninth inning and told me the Mets were protesting that Sutton was using an illegal pitch. I told him to come out anytime. After I threw a strike to Art Shamsky in the ninth, Sudol started for the mound. I met him halfway, handed him my cap and glove. He looked me over pretty good, even felt in both pockets, and then he apologized for doing it.
“I feel I can get by with my natural stuff and don’t need anything else.” Later in June, Alston dispatched Sutton to the bullpen for the only time in his career. Combined with two more weeks of Army Reserve duty in July, Sutton went more than a month between starts. He took the sabbatical as a call to action.
“I’m stubborn and I’m ambitious,” Sutton said, “and I was angry when I was sent to the bullpen. But it made me want to be a starter more than ever. [Pitching coach Lefty Phillips] started working with me on a new changeup the day I went to the bullpen. It is a modified screwball…it has given me a third good pitch. I’ve been getting strikeouts on my curve, my fastball, and now my screwball.”
Returning to the rotation for good on July 28, Sutton had a 2.06 ERA in his final 109 innings of ’68, concluding with a 2.60 ERA (106 ERA+), a 2.08 FIP, and an MLB-leading 0.3 home runs per nine innings (six in 207⅔).
Come 1969, Sutton threw his first career one-hitter May 1 at San Francisco, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Jim Davenport lined a double off the left-field fence. He concluded the one-hit shutout to extend what became a 27-inning scoreless streak. In a tight, three-team race in the newly formed NL West, Sutton’s complete-game victory September 18 over Atlanta tied the Dodgers with the Braves, half a game behind the Giants. But Los Angeles dropped its next eight games, including heartbreaking, back-to-back 2–1, complete-game losses by Sutton—the first despite leading 1–0 with two out, the bases empty, and an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth.
Having finished 1969 with a nearly average 3.47 ERA (96 ERA+), Sutton began the 1970s with more sparkling moments in an otherwise disappointing year. He threw a 10-inning shutout July 17 against the Mets with 12 strikeouts. “That’s as good a stuff as Don will ever have,” said first baseman Wes Parker. “He was absolutely breathtaking.” Always on the verge of a breakthrough season, Sutton’s latest midseason slump—in this case, a 15.63 ERA in his first four starts of August—set him back.
“He has the same stuff,” Alston said. “It’s a matter, mostly, of his control. Either he’s right down the gun or he’s wild high…and when he gets behind the hitters he’s forced to come in with fat ones.”
Sutton’s ERA at the end of 1970 was the worst of his Dodger career: 4.08 (94 ERA+). Ninth in the NL in innings, Sutton was tied for first in earned runs allowed. Through the age of 25, Sutton had already thrown 1,219⅔ innings, but his career ERA of 3.45 (95 ERA+) in that era underwhelmed. Not the first promising Dodger pitcher to struggle well into his twenties—Koufax being the most famous—Sutton confronted some familiar tropes from those trying to explain it.
“Yes, I’m hardheaded,” Sutton said during spring training in 1971.
“I’m aware that’s what some people in the organization say about me, and I admit that it’s true. My feeling is that I’d have never made it to the majors if I hadn’t been hardheaded. People said I didn’t have the ability, I didn’t have the right style. I’m hardheaded enough to believe in the way I do things.
“But I’m also not hardheaded to the point that I think I’m smarter than the manager or the pitching coach. I’ll accept changes if I think they’ll help me.”
Having spoken with Alston and Adams, Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “it has been the inconsistency of [Sutton’s curveball] compounded by the straightening fastball that has in recent years retarded Sutton’s growth.” Sutton didn’t dispute this.
“I admit that there have been games when I’ve attempted to grind it out with a bad curve,” he said. “It’s always been such a good pitch for me that in those games, I just can’t believe it won’t snap back.”
But in ’71, the pitcher who became the Hall of Famer emerged. In 265⅓ innings, Sutton finished fifth in the NL with a 2.54 ERA (127 ERA+) and a 1.08 WHIP. Adams, according to Newhan in May, “went back and looked at movies of Sutton’s style in 1966 and then made an adjustment that benefited the curve.” From May 27 on, Sutton’s ERA was 1.91 in 202⅔ frames, despite pitching through elbow pain in June, his worst discomfort since the end of 1966.
Sutton one-hit Houston on June 19, the lone blemish Jim Wynn’s slicing liner to center that tipped off the glove of a diving Dick Allen. After finally completing his six-year Army Reserve commitment at the start of August, Sutton had a 1.75 ERA in his final 92⅓ innings. Entering the final day of the regular season, the Dodgers were one game behind the Giants in the NL West. Sutton went the distance for a 2–1 victory, but Juan Marichal’s complete game over the Padres pitched San Francisco to the division title.
Then, at age 27 in 1972, came Sutton’s masterpiece season, the one that is too often ignored, even by those in the Dodgers’ orbit.
In his first 10 starts, Sutton allowed only 11 earned runs while averaging 8⅔ innings per outing, for a 1.14 ERA, including a May 7 Sunday afternoon at Parc Jarry in Montreal when he pitched 10 innings of one-hit, shutout ball. In Sutton’s first All-Star Game—“my greatest thrill in sports,” he said at the time—his first batter, Reggie Jackson, hit a leadoff single, and the remaining six went down in order: Allen, Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson, Bill Freehan, and Mickey Lolich. Sutton finished September riding 36 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, including an 11-inning, 1–0 shutout of the Giants for his 100th career victory, then tossed in a complete-game victory October 3 over Atlanta in his final start for good measure.
Sutton’s 2.08 ERA, 162 ERA+, and 18 complete games (in 272⅔ innings) were career bests, as were his league-leading nine shutouts, 0.91 WHIP, and 6.1 hits per nine innings. For the first 20 seasons of the post-Koufax era, no Dodger pitcher bettered Sutton’s 6.6 wins above replacement. This was the real deal. Unfortunately for Sutton, his greatest season slammed against of the most famous pitching years of all time: that of Steve Carlton, who went 27–10 with a 1.97 ERA (182 ERA+) for a Phillies team that was 59–97 (30–85 when Carlton didn’t start). Sutton also lagged in the stat that mattered most in that era, settling for 19 wins.
“People don’t acknowledge you as a good pitcher until you win 20, but if I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world,” Sutton said at the time.
In 1973, his second consecutive All-Star season, Sutton affirmed his place among the best in baseball with a 2.42 ERA (144 ERA+) in 256⅓ innings and his fifth 200-strikeout season, hitting the magic number September 25 by striking out Dusty Baker and Davey Johnson to end his 14th complete game of the year. From 1971 to 1973, only Seaver’s adjusted ERA bettered Sutton’s.
“When Sutton has his control, he ranks up there with Seaver as the best right-hander in the league,” said Hank Aaron, who went 0-for-4 on September 25 in his bid for a 713th career homer—then took Sutton on a fishing trip after the season.
In 1974, the final year of his twenties, Sutton threw a career-high 40 starts with a 3.23 ERA (106 ERA+), beginning with an Opening Day shutout of the Padres and including his third career one-hitter, May 9 at San Diego. Oddly, Sutton reached the All-Star break with a 14-start winless streak that dropped his record to 6–8 with a 4.21 ERA. By his own admission, Sutton still struggled not to sabotage himself.
“Sometimes I think my temperament works against me,” he said. “After a bad game…I tend to try and double my efforts. Rather than staying and relaxing in a groove, I begin pressing. I guess that might be it.
“The key is in handling the bad times. Henry Aaron has a batting slump but he doesn’t change his stance. The great players keep doing the things they’ve always done. They stay in a groove. They don’t fight it.”
In the second half, Sutton went 13–1 with a 2.17 ERA, including a 1.79 ERA in seven September starts as the Dodgers fended off a strong challenge from the Reds. Entering play October 1 with 100 wins, the Dodgers had been in first place for 5½ months but led Cincinnati by only two games with two remaining. Sutton took the mound against Houston and won his 19th game of the season with five shutout innings, exiting to a happy reception after news arrived from Atlanta of the Braves’ victory over the Reds, eliminating Cincinnati from the race.
Ten seasons into his career, having sat on the sidelines during the 1965 and 1966 World Series, Sutton finally got to pitch for a playoff team.
“Now I’m a part of it, and it’s a great feeling,” he said before shutting out Pittsburgh in Game 1 of the NLCS, 3–0, allowing six baserunners, none of whom would have passed first base except for a Dodger error.
“That was the greatest display of pitching I’ve seen by anybody all year,” Davey Lopes said.
“Sutton’s artistry may have come to a surprise to the country at large because he has been living in the shadow of contemporaries like Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson,” Murray wrote. “When he broke in, he was in the shadow of teammates Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and even Claude Osteen. He was like the guy who came to shift the scenery or turn the pages at the podium.”
On three days’ rest, Sutton presided over the 12–1, Game 4 clincher with eight innings of one-run ball before leaving with a blister. “His breaking pitches dipped and hooked and nosedived sharply all afternoon,” wrote Jeff Prugh of the Los Angeles Times. “They demoralized the Pirate hitters so much that they insisted in their red-faced frustration that Sutton had to be illegally doctoring the baseball.”
Plate umpire John McSherry examined Sutton’s glove in the fifth inning, returned it to him, and that was that.
In his World Series debut, Sutton ran his postseason winning streak to three games when his 3–2, Game 2 victory over Oakland evened the World Series at one win apiece. Striking out nine, Sutton took a shutout into the ninth inning, then yielded two baserunners who scored on Mike Marshall’s watch before the record-setting relief pitcher closed it out.
With the Dodgers facing elimination in Game 5, Sutton left for a pinch hitter as the Dodgers tied the game at 2–2 in the sixth. One inning later, Marshall allowed the final run of the game, and the season. For the 1974 playoffs, Sutton’s ERA was 1.50 in 30 innings with 25 strikeouts against 23 baserunners.
Coming back in 1975, Sutton received new guidance from an unexpected source. Juan Marichal, the longtime Dodger nemesis from San Francisco, hooked up with Los Angeles during spring training at age 37. In a brief echo of Sal Maglie mentoring a young Drysdale in the 1950s, Marichal (though he made only two April starts before being released) and Sutton found time to connect. “I used to hate him like everyone else on our club, but since he’s been over here he’s been a good friend,” Sutton said. “We’ve talked quite a bit about pitching. We’re similar. We throw breaking balls for strikes and spot the fastballs.”
Others saw the resemblance. “Sutton gets better every time I see him—he’s unbelievable,” Reds second baseman Joe Morgan said April 15, after Sutton pitched six no-hit innings on his way to his fourth career one-hitter. “The only guy he reminds me of is Marichal, in his prime. Marichal moved the ball around better than anyone I’d ever seen.”
After back-to-back complete games August 5 and 10, Sutton was 16–9 with a 2.38 ERA. But he didn’t pick up another win that year, not even when he held Montreal to one earned run in 11 innings on August 24.
Sutton’s season ended September 12 after he sprained his ankle while sliding into second on a double in a 2–1 loss to Atlanta, leaving him with a 2.87 ERA (119 ERA+) and a league-leading 1.04 WHIP in 254⅓ innings. The Dodgers were held to three runs or fewer in 21 of his 35 starts.
For his first 10 seasons, Sutton averaged 15.5 wins per year. Already the team’s No. 2 all-time leader in shutouts and fourth in strikeouts, Sutton’s inability to reach 20 wins in any season frustrated pretty much everyone, including himself. In the winter, he told Peter O’Malley that he’d happily relocate to the AL, believing that the new designated-hitter rule would allow him to stay in more games and get more wins (and apparently not fretting over having to face an extra hitter in opposing lineups). Before the 1976 season began, talk of a monumental trade involving Sutton and Seaver, winner of the 1975 NL Cy Young Award, broke beyond rumor. Mets general manager Joe McDonald conferred with Sutton’s agent, Larue Harcourt, about a contract renegotiation—imagine the shock waves from New York to Los Angeles if this one had gone through. But Seaver stayed put, and Sutton, whose service time gave him veto power over any trade, turned one down shipping him and Dodger infielder Jerry Royster to New York for 26-year-old Jon Matlack.
Thus beginning his 11th year in Los Angeles, Sutton struggled with the longest and toughest opening slump of his career, taking a 4.35 ERA into August—at which point he embarked upon the finest stretch run of his life. Beginning August 10, he won eight straight starts with a 1.17 ERA, boosting his record from 11–9 to 19–9 with three weeks to go, and suddenly, the long-delayed, gleaming “20” was within reach. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. In his next start, the first game of a September 17 doubleheader in Atlanta, Sutton pitched 11 shutout innings in a game Hough and the Dodgers lost in the bottom of the 12th on an infield single, sacrifice, wild pitch, and passed ball.
On September 22, Sutton took the mound at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. He fell behind 1–0 in the second inning, but the Dodgers tied the game in the third, took the lead in the seventh, and added an insurance run in top of the ninth. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, Sutton walked Darrell Evans, bringing Jack Clark to the plate as the tying run. Sutton struck him out, and at last, for one year, he had the wins to match the No. 20 on the back of his uniform.
“I’m numb,” Sutton said. “This is something I’ve wanted all my life, something I feel I’ve pitched well enough to achieve before, and right now I’d say it’s the biggest thrill of my career, more exciting even than the first pitch of a World Series. I know that sounds selfish but at this moment I don’t really care.
“One of the reasons this is so rewarding is that there are so many people sharing it with me. In fact, of all the people who are relieved and happy right now, I’m probably the least. There are my parents, who made so many sacrifices so that I could pitch. There’s my wife and children, who catch hell when I lose because I haven’t yet learned to accept the fact that I can’t win every time I walk out there. There’s Red Adams, who’s been like a father to me, and Walter Alston, who stuck with me early this season and parts of the ’74 season when I was the ugliest pitcher in baseball.”
Finishing the season with two more complete games, Sutton averaged 9⅓ innings in his final 10 starts of the year, giving him a 3.06 ERA (110 ERA+) in 267⅔ innings to go with his 21–10 record. For the fifth consecutive year, Sutton finished in the top five in the NL Cy Young balloting without winning.
Then, at the most gratifying moment of his career to date, turbulence returned to Sutton’s baseball world.
Alston had managed the Dodgers for 23 seasons, the last 19 of them in Los Angeles, the last 11 with Sutton in his starting rotation. But Alston retired at the end of September, the job officially passing to Tommy Lasorda. The new manager was a hurricane of fresh air for a number of Dodgers, but for those who worshiped the John Wayne–like Alston, it was Tropical Storm Tommy.
The longtime organization man and most recently the Dodgers’ third-base coach, Lasorda was obviously no stranger to Sutton. The pair had even traveled together all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska, before spring training in 1967 to conduct baseball clinics in the middle of February.
But Sutton’s loyalty to Alston and penchant for straight talking put his relationship with his new manager on poor footing.
“The question was posed to me: ‘What do you think about Walter Alston retiring?’” Sutton recalled. “And I said, ‘I’d rather he didn’t.’ Next question was, ‘Who would you pick to manage the Dodgers?’ And I said, ‘Jeff Torborg,’ because I saw in him a lot of Walt’s qualities. And that probably was purely selfish on my part, because I didn’t want any change in the atmosphere.”
A religious man, Sutton also bristled under Lasorda’s evangelistic style.
“I always regarded the Big Dodger in the Sky as somewhat sacrilegious,” Sutton daid. “For all I know, God may not even like baseball. He may be a football fan. Under any circumstances, I don’t think He should be considered a pocket good-luck charm that you can pull out when you need it.
“I know Tommy didn’t mean it disrespectfully. He’s just a gung-ho, emotional man. He goes sky-high over a win and hits a deep depression over a loss. Walter always said you should never gloat on the peaks and never stay in the valleys. I spent so many of my years with Walter, the transition was very difficult for me. It took me years to understand Tommy. I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but at least I think I understand him. For that matter, I doubt whether he agreed with a lot of my hanging curveballs.”
If nothing else, the pair learned to coexist.
“I didn’t feel we were as close as we should be. But we got along. It never got to the point where we weren’t on speaking terms,” Lasorda said.
“But one thing about Don Sutton—he kept himself in great shape. Great work ethic. Good, clean-living young man. So it was just a feeling that we had, but I think it simmered down and we became closer.
Said Sutton: “One regret I have is that Tommy and I never took a day, just the two of us, and sat down and explained our personalities to each other. But I knew then, and I know now, Tommy will do whatever it takes to give his club an opportunity to win, and I think he knows, and has said publicly, that he could always count on me.”
A new contract—a four-year, $1 million deal that was the richest in Dodger history—figured to ease Sutton’s mind, along with a wintertime gig as a color commentator for Pepperdine and Long Beach State basketball telecasts, indulging his broadcasting aspirations. Somehow, reports persisted that Sutton remained unsatisfied. In March, the Dodgers proposed trading Sutton to the Red Sox for promising 24-year-old slugger Jim Rice, a deal Sutton would have approved, but Boston backed out.
When Sutton threw his first pitch of the 1977 season and Lasorda’s reign, using a baseball intended to be preserved for posterity, San Francisco outfielder Gary Thomasson smacked it into the right-field pavilion—so much for ceremony. But that was the only run to score off Sutton, who won 5–1 to ignite a robust beginning under Lasorda’s new regime. Going 10–4 with a 2.58 ERA in the first half of the season, Sutton made his fourth All-Star Game, starting for the first time. Retiring 9 of 11 batters and striking out four in three shutout innings, Sutton was the winning pitcher and MVP in a 7–5 NL victory.
Projecting calm on the field, Sutton’s emotions still surfaced in times of stress. After allowing a game-losing ninth-inning grand slam August 12 to Rod Gilbreath of Atlanta, Sutton blew up in the clubhouse. “I put it to five lockers, two tables, two chairs, and the housing for a fire extinguisher,” he said. “And I feel a lot better about it. I usually have two blowups a year and I had this one coming. I feel relieved, but then the Dodgers haven’t billed me yet.”
Ill spirits purged for the time being, Sutton in his next start made his last and best no-hit bid, coming within four outs August 18 before Giants catcher Marc Hill singled to left. In pitching his fifth one-hitter, Sutton tied the NL record (later broken by Carlton), while winning his 187th game, matching Drysdale’s L.A. record. Ten days later, with another shutout, Sutton broke the mark. Sutton finished ’77 with a 3.18 ERA (121 ERA+).
The Dodgers breezed to the NL West title, outpacing the division by 10 games, and Sutton won Game 2 of the NLCS with a complete-game nine-hitter. In the World Series, Sutton pitched well but with little reward. He held the Yankees to three runs in seven innings of Game 1; the Dodgers lost in the 12th.
With the Dodgers facing elimination in Game 5, Sutton dished off six shutout innings while the Dodgers built a 10–0 lead, going the distance in a 108-pitch, 10–4 win, only for Los Angeles to fall under the onslaught of Jackson’s three homers in Game 6.
With the years mounting, each new season carried Sutton to one milestone after another. In 1978, Sutton defeated Atlanta in his seventh Opening Day start, tying Drysdale’s team record. On June 30, Little D passed Big D to become the Dodgers’ all-time strikeout leader. On September 15, Sutton blanked Atlanta to tie another Drysdale record with his 49th shutout as a Dodger.
“I’m definitely thinking about these records, and I don’t think that’s selfish,” Sutton said. “It means a great deal to me to be thought of in the same terms—the statistical terms, at least—as Drysdale and Koufax. I can’t think of a better example of ability and durability.”
For many other reasons, 1978 was…an eventful year. On July 14, years upon years of accusations came to a head, when umpire Doug Harvey ejected Sutton (seeking his 200th career victory that day) in the seventh inning against the Cardinals for using a defiled ball.
“In the second or third inning, my first-base umpire got the ball back on a third out and said, ‘Doug, this ball has been defaced,’” explained Harvey, himself a future Hall of Famer. “I told him to take the ball to home-plate ump Jim Quick. In the sixth inning, there was a fly to [center fielder Bill] North and the ball had an identical-type scuff mark. I went to Lasorda and said, ‘Tom, someone’s messing with the baseball. If we find another one, we will eject the pitcher.’ When we found another, I said, ‘We’re not finding it at any other time than when Sutton’s pitching. He’s out of the game.’”
Said Lasorda: “[Harvey] showed me the ball. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I protested because he had no right to throw Sutton out of the ballgame. He’s accusing my player of doing something to the ball. I don’t think someone can deprive him of a living. He did absolutely nothing to the ball.”
That part about depriving Sutton of his livelihood was no idle comment by Lasorda.
“After he had been thrown out of the game,” Scott Ostler of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Sutton returned to the discussion near home plate and handed Harvey a piece of paper. Harvey slapped it out of his hands without reading it, but it was apparently a hastily scrawled notice of Sutton’s intent to sue.”
Subject to a 10-day suspension, Sutton got none. He and his attorney, Ed Hookstratten, met with NL president Chub Feeney for two hours in New York, and came away with a warning from the league office that “additional disciplinary action may be taken in the event repeated violations of this nature are detected.” Satisfied, Sutton reveled in his unique style. Wearing a shirt under his uniform that said NOT GUILTY in his next start, closely examining baseballs out in the open—“like a geologist inspecting a series of fascinating rocks,” wrote Ostler—as if to make sure he wasn’t being framed, Sutton picked up his 200th career victory with a 7–2 complete-game victory July 18 over the Pirates.
For a moment, peace. And then in the next, another war.
Before a Sunday afternoon game on August 20 at Shea Stadium, Steve Garvey confronted Sutton with quotes condensed from a Boswell story in the New York Post. “All you hear about on our team is Steve Garvey, the All-American boy,” Sutton had said. “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. He doesn’t smile at the right people or say the right things…Reggie’s not a facade or a Madison Avenue image. He’s a real person.”
Their tête-à-tête began, serious but quiet. Suddenly, according to UPI reporter Milton Richman, “Sutton leaped at Garvey and flung him against a row of lockers along the opposite wall.” They brawled in the visitors’ clubhouse in open view of reporters, with teammates needing to separate them. Faces were scratched. Garvey’s right eye was bloodied.
Sutton apologized with an emotional public statement that took stock of himself: “For the last few days, I have thought of nothing else and I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this all had to happen. 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.”
Hugely popular, Garvey had the support of the fan base. Dodger fans booed Sutton, though he pitched better down the stretch than he had in the first half of the season, finishing his year with a 3.55 ERA (99 ERA+). Sutton admitted that the negativity stung.
“Darn right it bothers me,” he said. “In 13 years I’ve experienced a lot of highs and lows. In 13 years I’ve made some positive contributions and interjected some negatives. I’ve always tried to be honest, and it seems to me that people are taking a little bit of information and making concrete judgments that have hurt both my family and myself.
“If they’re booking on the basis of performance, that’s one thing. But I don’t think that’s the issue here.”
Putting the noise behind him and moving into October bearing a 2.13 career playoff ERA, with his path to the summit of the Dodger record book largely carved out, Sutton focused keenly on a title. “A world championship,” he said, “is the last of my childhood dreams.” But Sutton had his first disappointing postseason, losing once in the NLCS and twice in the World Series, allowing 14 earned runs in 17⅔ innings, including the defeat October 17 in the decisive Game 6.
“An hour after the game,” Ostler wrote, “Sutton slumped into the canvas-backed chair in front of his locker and stared blankly at the wall, his back to the busy Dodger clubhouse. His eyes were red and his voice was shaking with emotion.”
“It just keeps haunting me that I might never be here again,” Sutton said, in what Ostler called a hoarse whisper. “I’m 33 years old, I’ve played 13 years, I’ve been here three times before, and I might never be here again.
“Just once I wanna win it all. Just once.”
It wasn’t going to be in 1979, the Dodgers hitting the All-Star break in last place and scrambling just to finish third. With a 3.82 ERA (95 ERA+), Sutton had his poorest year since 1970, though he did break the Dodgers’ all-time win record with his 210th on May 20 against the Reds, the strikeout record with his 2,487th on August 5 against the Giants, and the shutout record with his 50th on August 10 at San Francisco.
Remaining outspoken and occasionally alienated, Sutton vented after Lasorda pinch-hit for him in the sixth inning on June 5 against Pittsburgh. “I have more wins than anyone in this organization,” Sutton said. “I don’t have to put up with it. I’m not one of his bobos. They can’t fire me.” When he broke the strikeout record, he talked openly about the possibility of retiring to broadcasting, with his agent Hookstratten eyeing openings in the Angels booth. For the NL playoffs, Sutton joined Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek to provide color commentary for NBC, shifting back to humility for the national audience.
“Well, Joe, I helped both of these clubs get here—I contributed heavily to their being in the playoffs.” Sutton deadpanned in his opening remarks. (It wasn’t really true—Sutton’s ERA against the two teams was 2.58.)
Sutton returned to the mound in 1980—eventually. When time came for pitchers and catchers to report for spring training, Sutton, in the last year of his contract, wasn’t there. Again, speculation about his future in Los Angeles arose. In mid-March, the Associated Press reported that Sutton was on the verge of going to the Yankees, except that the Yankees wouldn’t part with 21-year-old pitching prospect Dave Righetti.
“It wouldn’t be spring without a Sutton trade rumor,” Mike Littwin of the Los Angeles Times wrote. “No one really expects him to be traded this time, but no one has rushed forward to quash the rumor, either.”
Once more, Sutton was in a Dodger uniform when the season began, but to some surprise, the 35-year-old unveiled quite nearly the best season of his career, leading the NL for the first time with a 2.20 ERA (161 ERA+), along with an MLB-best 0.99 WHIP. He was consistent, with his ERA never rising above 2.50 after May 1, despite pitching with a fractured toe suffered in late August. If there were any individual honor eluding Sutton that year, it was that with the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium for the first time, six teammates made the NL squad, but Sutton and his 2.27 ERA at the break didn’t.
Still, every bit of his performance counted in a taut NL West dogfight with the Astros. Beginning on April 26, no more than 3½ games separated Houston and Los Angeles in the standings for the rest of the season.
On October 3, making his final start as a Dodger before impending free agency, on the first night of a three-game season-ending series that the Dodgers needed to sweep, Sutton pitched seven innings of one-run ball before allowing the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth—but the Dodgers rallied to win in the 10th, 3–2.
The teams arrived at the final Sunday, Game 162, one game apart in the standings. Starting pitcher Burt Hooton was removed four batters into the second inning, making it all hands on deck for the pitching staff. In the bottom of the eighth, Ron Cey’s two-run home run gave the Dodgers and closer Steve Howe a 4–3 lead. But in the ninth, when singles against Howe put runners at first and third with two out, Sutton emerged from the pen. It took two pitches before Denny Walling grounded to second for the final out.
“I knew I wasn’t going to throw the ball by anyone,” said Sutton. “But after 15 years, I think I ought to be able to finesse one batter.”
With the Dodgers’ elimination in the NL West tiebreaker game the next day, Sutton’s Dodger career was on the precipice. Conversations continued, but entering his age-36 season, Sutton was looking for a five-year deal at $4 million. Under the free-agency system used at the time, Sutton’s tenure as a Dodger came to an official end November 13, when the Dodgers did not join 10 other teams in selecting him for negotiation.
On December 3, Sutton signed with Houston. Though clearly ready for a change, Sutton did ponder what he was leaving behind.
“You don’t spend 15 years anywhere except prison without developing an emotional attachment,” he said.
The following March, at his first spring training away from Vero Beach, Sutton further reflected.
“Last year was a very exciting year,” he said. “That last week, the Houston series, will always be the first thing that comes to my mind when I think back on the Dodgers. Not World Series games or All-Star Games but that week, pitching in the ninth inning of the Sunday game. That’s a pretty pleasant memory to leave town on.
“With all things equal or close to equal, I’d like to have spent the rest of my career there, extended the Dodger records. I remember the night they had for Don Drysdale when he retired and they gave him a pickup and a boat. A thought came over me: ‘I’d like to have that happen to me.’”
Poetically, his first start as an Astro was at Dodger Stadium, but Sutton was beat, lasting three batters into the fifth inning of a 7–4 loss. His longtime home fans jeered him. But near the end of the year, on September 27, Sutton two-hit the Dodgers (a day after Ryan no-hit them) with nine strikeouts, holding the eventual World Series champions hitless until Ken Landreaux singled to start the seventh. For the strike-shortened 1981 season, Sutton had a 2.61 ERA (126 ERA+) and led the NL for the second consecutive year with a 1.02 WHIP.
However, during a final meeting at Dodger Stadium on October 2, a Jerry Reuss pitch fractured Sutton’s right kneecap while he was attempting to bunt, ending his season and any chance of facing the Dodgers in the first National League Division Series or pitching his new team into the World Series.
In 1982, Sutton went from apprentice to full-fledged member of baseball’s wandering class. That August, the fading Astros traded him to Milwaukee, where he made his American League debut, won ALCS Game 3 over the Angels, and nearly got his elusive World Series ring.
With the Milwaukee Brewers leading the Cardinals 3–2 in the series, the 37-year-old Sutton was knocked out in the fifth inning of a Game 6 loss, and could only watch St. Louis win Game 7.
Milwaukee traded Sutton to Oakland after the 1984 season. Oakland sent him to the Angels in September 1985. In the 1986 ALCS, making his final postseason start, he pitched 6⅓ innings of one-run ball in the Angels’ 4–3 Game 4 win. Following a relief appearance in the Red Sox’s 7–1 blowout of the Angels in Game 7, Sutton’s postseason career passed 100 innings, with a 3.68 ERA.
From 1981 to 1987, seven years of baseball that took Sutton from age 36 to 42, he had a 3.70 ERA (103 ERA+) with 878 strikeouts in 1,466 innings. In the off-season leading into 1988, Dodger general manager Fred Claire, trying to reshape an L.A. team that had endured two straight 73–89 seasons, eyed the free agent who would turn 43 two days before Opening Day.
“I wanted to bring him back so that that some of our young pitchers saw how a championship and indeed Hall of Fame pitcher prepares for a season,” Claire says.
Sutton didn’t need to keep pitching. He had made money inside the game and invested it well outside of the game. Broadcasting awaited,as did (ironically, given how often Garvey had been said to have such ambitions) a potential political career. But on January 5, he put his name on a contract bringing him back to Los Angeles.
In the first three months of the season, Sutton made 15 starts, never allowing more than four earned runs, before missing the month of July with a sprained right elbow—his first trip, after all those years, to the disabled list. Returning August 9, in the 774th start of his MLB career, Sutton lasted seven innings but allowed five earned runs in a 6–0 loss to the Reds, who whittled the Dodgers’ NL West lead to half a game.
That night, Claire and Lasorda decided it was time to recall Ramón Martínez—at age 20, less than half Sutton’s age.
“Don had been the role model we expected him to be in the spring,” Claire wrote in his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, “and had given us a veteran presence during much of the season while Martinez gained experience at Triple-A. But now, it was time to make the switch.”
Sutton had said publicly after the loss at Cincinnati that he had been inquiring about jobs with other organizations, including the open position of assistant general manager with Houston, but the mini-controversy was quickly defused, and Claire said it bore no impact on the timing of Sutton’s departure. Nevertheless, circumstances didn’t allow for the fanfare of a ceremonial retirement in front of the home fans for Sutton.
“I guess I would have liked Bob Hope singing ‘Thanks for the Memories,’” said Sutton, whose mother tragically died in a car accident on August 12, two days after his release. “It’s a business and I understand that. They held a press conference, and I think I said the right things… [but] that was not a good week.”
Despite spending seven seasons with other teams, Sutton retired as the Dodgers’ all-time pitching leader in wins (233), starts (533), innings (3,816⅓), strikeouts (2,696), and shutouts (52) (and remains atop those leaderboards 30 years later and counting). His place in Los Angeles pitching history was secure. All that remained was Cooperstown.
In 1994, his first year of eligibility, Sutton pulled 57 percent of the vote, the best of anyone new to the ballot. In 1997, he needed 353 votes and tallied 346. The following year, Sutton reached baseball nirvana, with room to spare.
“I just went numb at first,” said Sutton, after getting the news while playing golf. “I went through a multitude of emotions, from instant tears to joy to excitement to numbness…There were so many people who are no longer with us who I would have given anything to share this with—my late mother, Walter Alston, the Big D.”
Sutton joined Koufax and Drysdale in the Hall to become part of the first trio of Hall of Famers from the same rotation (1966) since Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon pitched for the Indians in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
None other than Lasorda said Sutton was overdue.
“What was special about him is he went to the mound,” Lasorda said. “That’s what was different about him. He logged a lot of innings. He was a winner. He was a competitor. When you gave him the ball, you knew one thing: your pitcher was going to give you everything he had. You win as many games as he did, to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame.”