Bruce Sutter holds up the 'dreaded pajama' road jersey he wore during his Cub career, at his Hall of Fame induction in 2005
Can you imagine a Hall of Fame pitcher named... Howie Sutter?
It could have been, you know. There are many examples through baseball history of great players who went by their middle name, rather than their given first name: James Hoyt Wilhelm. Henry Louis Gehrig. John Franklin Baker. Jacob Nelson Fox. George Thomas Seaver. Lynn Nolan Ryan.
There are lesser lights, too, such as Dewey LaMarr Hoyt and Bertram Ray Burris, and present-day stars such as Anthony Nomar Garciaparra and George Kenneth Griffey (both Sr. and Jr.)
This may be a silly way to introduce a player who could have been one of the top 20 here if the Wrigleys hadn't been too cheap to keep Howard Bruce Sutter around, after he had been awarded what was then the largest arbitration award in history -- $700,000 after the 1979 season. The Wrigleys paid that, as they had no choice, and then traded Sutter to the Cardinals after the 1980 season, in a deal which we've already discussed in the profile recently run on Leon Durham, who was acquired for Sutter.
Durham was, as you know, a decently productive player for several seasons -- but Sutter, oh, how he dominated the National League in his five Cub seasons, and how he could have continued doing that at Wrigley Field had the Cubs been sold even one year earlier; I have no doubt that Dallas Green would have kept him, savored his talent.
And the only reason Bruce Sutter developed the split-finger fastball that became his signature pitch (and that has been widely copied for the last three decades) is that he had a potentially career-ending arm injury while pitching in the Cub farm system.
Born on January 8, 1953 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sutter was originally drafted by the Washington Senators out of Donegal High School in Lancaster in 1970. Opting to attend Old Dominion University instead, Sutter signed with the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1971, and crawled through the Cub farm system at Bradenton and Quincy, before winding up about as far as you can get from major league civilization -- Key West, Florida, in 1974, with a team charmingly named the Key West Conchs.
The 1974 Conchs were a terrible team -- they finished dead last with a 37-94 record. But they had no fewer than four pitchers who became solid major league regulars: Dennis Lamp, Mike Krukow, Donnie Moore, and Sutter, unusual for any minor league team, let alone one with such a bad record. Sutter had been taught the split-finger pitch by Cubs minor league pitching coach Freddie Martin late in the previous season, while rehabbing from elbow surgery. Despite missing a month of the '74 season, he wound up with 50 strikeouts and 13 walks and a 1.35 ERA in 40 innings, excellent work for such a bad team.
Two years later he was in the major leagues, toiling in obscurity for a bad team with a bad bullpen, getting occasional (10 -- which led the team, incidentally) saves and winding up 1976 with an 8-3 record and a fine 2.70 ERA. The Cubs were so far off the national radar screen that he didn't get a single rookie of the year vote (that year, it was split between two pitchers, Pat Zachry and Butch Metzger, neither of whom had a career worth mentioning beyond this sentence).
The following year, Sutter was installed from day one as the Cubs' closer, and in fact, this was the year that the current concept of closer began to gell. Before 1977, "closers" were often brought into the game in the 7th inning, even when their club was behind, which would result in gaudy won-lost records like Phil Regan's 14-1 in 1966.
Herman Franks changed all that. He refused to bring Sutter in unless the Cubs were at least tied. Of Bruce's 62 appearances in 1977, only six came with the Cubs trailing.
And when he came in with a lead, he slammed the door. We all marveled, watching either on TV or in person, at the pitch that figuratively "fell off the table" -- seeming to go straight, then at the last moment, dropping three feet, right after crossing the plate. Hitters had no idea what to do with it. In 107.1 innings, Sutter struck out 129 batters and walked only 23. He allowed 69 hits for a ridiculously low WHIP of 0.857, and he had 31 saves, second in the NL. On September 8, he became the 12th pitcher in major league history to strike out the side on nine pitches -- and the hitters he K'd weren't too shabby; Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter and Larry Parrish.
Even so, this sort of thing wasn't well recognized. Had a year like this been posted today, such a pitcher would likely win the Cy Young Award, or come close. Sutter finished sixth, although he did also finish 7th in MVP voting.
The following year he slipped a bit; his ERA ballooned to 3.18 and he lost ten games, with only 27 saves. But in 1979, he was back to '77 form, with his ERA back to 2.22 and his 37 saves led the NL -- and this time, it did get him a Cy Young Award, the only one he won and at the time, only the third one given to a relief pitcher (Mike Marshall, 1974 NL, and Sparky Lyle, 1977 AL the others). The 37 saves don't sound like much now (that won't even get you a slot on the top 100 single seasons), but they set a NL record (broken by Sutter himself in 1984), and stood as the Cubs' club record for fourteen years until Randy Myers broke it in 1993.
And then came 1980, the Cubs collapsed to a 98-loss season after three years of sort-of contention, and the arbitration award, and the trade.
It was bad enough that he was dealt, but then we had to watch him succeed with the Cardinals, and be the bearded presence on the mound when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series.
Enough of that. The Cubs got some revenge on their former closer in 1984, first, when Ryne Sandberg famously homered not once, but twice, off him in the game now known for all time as the Sandberg game; it was one of only three games in his career in which he allowed two home runs. I was there, but have that game on tape, and the sight of Sutter, receiving a new ball from the umpire with an enormous scowl on his face after giving up the tying HR, is an image I'll always remember.
And then, on the last day of the 1984 season, the NL East clinched for the Cubs, they faced the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. St. Louis led 1-0 going into the last of the 9th, and Sutter was on the mound, having entered in the 8th, going for what would have then been a major league record 46th save. Here's what the Cubs did to him in that ninth inning:
FRAZIER; Woods walked [Rohn to third, Bosley to second]; Moreland forced Rohn (third to catcher) [Bosley scored (unearned) (error by Brummer), Woods to second]; 2 R, 3 H, 1 E, 2 LOB. Cardinals 1, Cubs 2.
After that year, Sutter left St. Louis via free agency and signed with the Atlanta Braves, at the time a team in decline. The years and innings had caught up with him and he saved only 23 games in 1985, with a high 4.48 ERA, and after the '86 season he broke down, had arm surgery, and attempted a brief comeback in 1988 after missing an entire season, and then retired, having saved exactly 300 games.
Sutter was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005, and due to his success as a Cardinal, will be seen with a Cardinals cap on his HoF plaque. But I will always remember him for his five great Cub seasons -- his 133 Cub saves still ranks second on the club list behind Lee Smith -- and especially that magical 1977 season, the first in which the split-finger pitch really baffled major league hitters, and when Sutter's use as the first true modern closer by Herman Franks began a trend that continues unabated today.