Former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat thrilled to take his place among baseball’s greatest
Only four players have ever been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as Twins. In July, when Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva are enshrined, they will join a group that includes Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Nestled on the south shore of Otsego Lake, between the Catskills and Adirondacks, a few miles from grazing cows and open farmland, sits the quaint village of Cooperstown. Here, it’s impossible to walk more than a few feet down Main Street without stumbling upon a reference to baseball. Even the shops that have nothing to do with baseball, like Grand Slam Guitars and Cooperstown Cigar Company, contain references to the sport in their branding.
Cooperstown likely wasn’t the birthplace of the sport as once claimed, though that hardly matters much now. Whether or not it lays claim to that distinction, the town has become synonymous with baseball greatness.
It is hard to get to — literally — from the Twin Cities. The quickest journeys involve two flights and a drive from Albany or a flight to New York City coupled with a four-hour drive.
It’s even harder to get to figuratively.
Only four players have ever been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as Twins. In July, when Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva are enshrined, they will join a group that includes Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven.
It’s a day that Kaat, 83, thought would never come. But after a lifetime spent crossing paths with other hall of famers, Kaat will soon be one of them, joining the exclusive club of the game’s very best in Cooperstown. He and Oliva will be inducted into the hall on July 24.
Asked how his life changed since getting the call in early December, Kaat joked he had signed his name about 3,000 times.
“There are different levels of the Hall of Fame, and I would never be naive enough to put myself in a class with Sandy (Koufax) and (Bob Gibson) and (Tom) Seaver and (Juan) Marichal, but I’m honored to be here I think as a representative of longevity and maybe dependability, accountability, and I’m happy about that,” Kaat said.
GREATNESS UP CLOSE
Kaat’s first up-close glimpse of greatness came on June 26, 1946, the day his dad, John, took him to a Tigers/Red Sox doubleheader at Briggs Stadium — later Tiger Stadium — in Detroit.
Remarkably, he saw four future hall of famers that day — Tigers pitcher Hal Newhouser and first baseman Hank Greenberg along with Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr and left fielder Ted Williams, one of the best to ever play the game.
“I think my little 7-year-old brain said, ‘I want to be one of those guys,’ ” Kaat recalled.
Years later, Kaat, a fresh-faced rookie pitching in just his third career game, would wind up facing Williams, who by that point was in the twilight of his career. They squared off twice in a game in September 1959 — Kaat’s first year — with the veteran collecting a single and a double off the lefty starter.
The next year, Kaat got Teddy Ballgame to fly out the one time he faced him. Over the ensuing years, the two developed a friendship, and in 1995, Kaat spoke at the dedication of the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston.
“He was one of those guys that if I would say, ‘Mr. Williams,’ (he’d say), ‘Don’t Mr. Williams me. I know who you are. Left hander, has this curveball,’ ” Kaat said. “He really made you feel comfortable being around him.”
Williams, understandably, was one of three players Kaat said he felt awestruck toeing the rubber against.
The other two? Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle.
Kaat only faced Berra seven times, but saw Mantle repeatedly in the ‘60s, facing him 82 times. Mantle hit .286 against Kaat with seven home runs.
“It was pretty intimidating,” Kaat said of facing Mantle.
“Before cable TV, all we knew about players or all we saw was trading cards and so we were just awestruck, like every pitch has to be perfect or he’s going to hit it out of the ballpark,” Kaat said. “It took a little while to realize that the human part of it, that they’ll make outs just like the rest of the hitters, but it was always a special experience facing Mickey.”
Kaat doesn’t know this for a fact, but it wouldn’t surprise him if, over the course of his career, he had faced more hall of famers than any other pitcher. That’s the result of a 25-year playing career, one that spanned four different decades — Kaat debuted in 1959 and retired in 1983.
Including the postseason — and pitchers who stepped in against him — he faced 62 of them. And that number doesn’t include Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, both of whom he faced in the 1966 all-star game.
He faced none more often than Brooks Robinson, who had 153 plate appearances against him. No one gave him more fits than Al Kaline, who hit 10 home runs off him; “he didn’t really have a weakness where you could fool him,” Kaat said. He fared the best against Reggie Jackson, whom he struck out 27 times in 77 plate appearances. He attributed that success to being in his prime while Jackson was still a young, developing hitter.
The list of hall of famers he’s crossed paths with in one form or another is long — and impressive.
Carl Yastrzemski faced him — often. He pitched to Hank Aaron, his favorite position player to watch growing up, six times. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan. Willie McCovey. Paul Molitor. Mike Schmidt. George Brett. The list goes on and on.
After leaving Minnesota — he pitched for the Twins from the start of his career until the late in the 1973 season — he faced his former teammates Carew, Oliva, Killebrew and Blyleven.
“I saw him make his debut and I could’ve told you after he pitched about three innings, he was going to be a star,” Kaat said of Blyleven. “He just looked like he belonged.”
Years later, it would be Blyleven who would help Kaat cement his place in baseball history, helping him get to where he belonged.
In the days leading up to the Golden Days Era Committee vote, Kaat was telling those around him that he would be much more surprised if he got in than if he didn’t.
He had, after all, been through the process numerous times. He dropped off the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot after 15 years following the vote for the 2003 class and then missed out on being elected by a smaller committee the next five times he appeared on the ballot. The last time, 2015, he received 10 of the necessary 12 votes.
Really, he said, he hoped more than anything that two of his former teammates, Oliva and Dick Allen, each of whom received 11 votes the last time around, would get voted in. Oliva, of course, did. And Allen would fall one vote short yet again.
It wouldn’t be an anxious or stressful time for him. No matter what happened that Sunday, he would hit the golf course on Monday, as usual, he said just days before the vote.
“I think the Hall of Fame rewards dominance over durability and so from a baseball standpoint, I’m at peace about that,” Kaat said days before the vote. “I understand why but as far as the buildup, the curiosity is gone. I’m still kind of cynical about it.”
Kaat’s credentials relied largely on his durability. He finished his career with 283 wins, which is 31st on the all-time list, but short of the 300 that many consider a lock for the Hall of Fame. Three hundred — and 283 for that matter — is a number now that no one will ever likely reach again. Just two current pitchers, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, have even cracked 200 wins.
Every year from 1962 through 1976, he won at least 10 games. In three of those seasons, he reached 20 wins. In 1966, he won 25 games, throwing a staggering 304 2/3 innings, a number that is near impossible to comprehend in 2022.
Kaat finished his career with a 3.45 earned-run average and 2,461 strikeouts, 44th all time. He one won World Series ring — in 1982 with the St. Louis Cardinals — and narrowly lost out on another, famously dueling with Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers three times in the 1965 World Series that went the full seven games.
He is tied for second all time with 16 Gold Glove Awards, and his name dominates the Twins’ record books to this day — Kaat is the club’s all-time leader in wins, games started and innings pitched. He is second in strikeouts, complete games and shutouts, and in July will become just the ninth Twins player to have his number retired by the club.
But for all the accolades, he still didn’t think he was getting the call.
“I sort of put it in my rearview mirror because I always thought that the pitchers in the Hall of Fame were perennial No. 1 pitchers,” he said. “Opening Day starters, perennial all-stars, and I never fit that profile.”
When his phone rang on Dec. 5 and it was Jane Forbes Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Hall of Fame, on the other line, his life changed forever. Clark doesn’t call when it’s only bad news. From years of missing out, Kaat knew this.
The phone call could only mean one thing: Kaat had received the necessary 75 percent of the votes from the Golden Days Era Committee. The voting block consisted of hall of famers, including some of his former teammates — Ozzie Smith, Schmidt and Blyleven among them — major-league executives and veteran media members and historians.
“I’m sure there are some naysayers out there that now will say, ‘Well, you know, he wasn’t in the category of those dominant pitchers,’ ” Kaat said. “But, you know, I’m glad with the (Golden Days Era) Committee that they were guys that I played against, I played with, writers that were there when I played, executives like John Schuerholz that felt I belong. I’m very grateful for that.”
On Tuesday, Kaat, after a private tour of the museum, signed the backer to his future plaque, slipped on the Hall of Fame jersey for the first time and was welcomed by Clark to “probably the best team” he’s ever been on.
The day, he said, was humbling.
In just a couple of short months, the baseball lifer — after his playing career, Kaat briefly coached and then embarked on an award-winning broadcasting career that continues to this day — will take his rightful place in this baseball-crazed town, his legacy cemented forever among the game’s greatest, so many of whom he played with, against and befriended over the years.
At age 83, that little boy who once longed to “be one of those guys,” will now forever be linked with the greatest to ever play.
“I don’t know if it ever will sink in,” he said.
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