Don Sutton and I once discussed the possibility of doing a book together. It never happened but it would have been an honor.
Sutton always seemed regal to me, a man who was straight in his walk and his talk. He seemed taller than his listed height of 6-foot-1 and was invariably direct and honest in dealing with the media.
His was by far the best, the longest, and the most complete of all the interviews provided by any of the 10 living members for my 2010 book The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Our 300-Game Winners?
Sutton, who passed away Wednesday at age 75, had the rare distinction of reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player and the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. He won 233 games during a 16-year run with the Dodgers, won 91 more with four other clubs, and spent 30 years as a broadcaster, excelling as an analyst on both radio and television.
Initially overshadowed as a pitcher by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in Los Angeles, Sutton was a master of good timing: a rookie in 1966 spring training camp, he got an extended audition because the two veterans were staging a double holdout. His work, and his work ethic, were good enough for manager Walter Alston to add Sutton to a rotation that also included the veteran Claude Osteen.
An All-Star four times, he led the National League in starts, shutouts, earned run average, and hits per nine innings in different seasons but was always dependable, averaging 14 wins per season over a career that lasted 23 years.
“I was always a goal setter,” Sutton told me during one of our pre-game interview sessions in the press box. “When I was 15 years old, I knew I could pitch in the big leagues. When I heard there was a Hall of Fame, that was my goal. I wanted to win 300 and make the Hall of Fame. And that as before I got out of high school.”
A double-digit winner from 1966 through 1982, Sutton developed a reputation for dependability. He was 6-4 with a 3.68 earned run average in five postseason series but his biggest game may have been the 1982 American League East title-clincher, when he beat Baltimore ace Jim Palmer while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sutton also pitched for the Angels, Astros, and Athletics.
He was a strong believer in both physical and mental conditioning – almost to the point of being stubborn.
“My dad believed in discipline but you could talk to him,” the right-hander remembered during one of our talks. “Walt was like that. He once told me I was the second most stubborn person he ever met. And, I, in one of my belligerent moments, said, ‘Oh yeah, who’s first?’ Alston said, ‘I am, and you might want to remember that.’”
Sutton revealed that the long-time Los Angeles manager, a fellow member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, gave the pitcher a copy of his book on the day he retired. He wrote on the inside cover, “To Don Sutton, when it is on the line, I want you to have the ball.”
Why not? He collected 3,574 strikeouts, topping Koufax as the career Dodger leader, and won just 50 fewer games by himself than Koufax and Drysdale did together. He never allowed a run in any of his four All-Star appearances and was voted Most Valuable Player of the 1977 game, his last.
The only 300-game winner who had only a single 20-win season, Sutton started seven openers, threw 58 shutouts, and pitched 178 complete games – a huge factor in his ability to vault over the 300-win plateau.
“Pitchers don’t go nine innings now because the environment does not encourage it,” he said. “It almost does not allow it. We glorify 200 innings pitched and a 4.50 earned run average. In the past, that would have gotten you a ticket back to Triple-A. We are conditioning pitchers to go six innings – two-thirds of their job – and glorifying a level of performance that is not conducive to winning 300 games.”
Often described as a finesse pitcher, Sutton once remarked that he was a mechanic in a world of nuclear scientists. “I got everything I could out of everything I was given,” he conceded. “I was taught to exhaust every effort and leave it all out there.
“When you look at the list of 300-game winners, Phil Niekro and I sit on the same ledge. He was a freak with the knuckleball, a battler. Neither of us threw that hard, had the Steve Carlton slider, the Tom Seaver fastball, the Gaylord Perry guile, the Nolan Ryan heater, or whatever Roger Clemens had. Nor could we throw 100 miles an hour like Randy Johnson.”
Sutton never threw a no-hit game but threw five one-hitters, and nine two-hitters. He gave up three hits when he joined the 300 club on June 18, 1986 by beating the Texas Rangers, 5-1, in a complete-game performance for the California Angels.
Ten days later, he and Niekro became the first members of the 300 Club to face each other in a game since Tim Keefe and Pud Galvin in 1892.
That was quite an accomplishment for a man who parlayed a $7,500 signing bonus into a peak salary of $890,000.
“The day I left to go to my first spring training,” Sutton revealed, “I had to take a bus from Pensacola, FL to Vero Beach. Dad took me to the bus station and said, ‘There will always be people out there better than you, but don’t let anyone ever outwork you.’ And I didn’t.”
Sutton was selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, the same year the Dodgers retired his No. 20 jersey. In 2015, his name was added to the Braves Hall of Fame, which already included broadcast legends Pete Van Wieren, Skip Caray, and Ernie Johnson.
His broadcasts, like his personal encounters in the clubhouse and media work spaces, were brightened by a sharp sense of humor. Sutton not only spent 28 years in the Atlanta broadcast booth and covered several postseason series but also broadcast occasional golf tournaments. He loved that game almost as much as he loved baseball. But mostly, he just loved people.
Don Sutton is the ninth member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to pass away in less than a year’s time. The others were Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Tommy Lasorda, Niekro, and Seaver.