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Former Cubs closer and Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter has died

His split-finger pitch was almost unhittable for a while.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

There was a time, in the late 1970s, when the split-finger pitch thrown by Cubs closer Bruce Sutter baffled nearly every batter who tried to hit it.

Sutter had five outstanding seasons for the Cubs, but eventually his success led to an arbitration award deemed too expensive for the sclerotic Wrigley ownership regime, and he was traded to the Cardinals.

Sutter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 after several good years with the Cardinals and Braves, with a total of 300 career saves that now ranks tied for 30th in MLB history.

Bruce Sutter passed away today, aged 69, confirmed by the Cardinals’ official Twitter account:

One thing I did not recall when looking up Sutter’s career is that he was originally drafted by the Washington Senators out of high school in Pennsylvania in 1970. He didn’t sign, and eventually signed with the Cubs the next year as an amateur free agent.

His first couple of minor league seasons didn’t go well and then he landed with the Key West Conchs, a Class A affiliate of the Cubs in the Florida State League in 1974. It was there that coach Fred Martin taught him the split-finger fastball that made his career. The Conchs were a terrible team — they finished dead last in the league at 37-94 — but produced several MLB players including Sutter, Joe Wallis, Donnie Moore and Mike Krukow. Sutter posted a 1.38 ERA and 1.031 WHIP with 65 strikeouts in 64 innings in 1974 split between Key West and Double-A Midland, had a similarly good year in Midland in 1975 and after seven dominant games in Triple-A in 1976, was promoted to the Cubs, where he made his MLB debut in garbage time in the ninth inning of a 14-2 loss to the Reds May 9, 1976.

Sutter began closing games late in the 1976 season and posted 10 saves. Then Herman Franks became Cubs manager in 1977 and had Sutter closing games from the beginning of the season. “Closer” had a different connotation back then; Sutter would often pitch two or more innings at the end of games.

And it was his splitter, a pitch new to the game, that hitters simply could not hit. During the Cubs’ great 40-15 May and June 1977 that put them in first place by as many as eight games, Sutter posted an 0.60 ERA and 0.763 WHIP, with 66 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 56⅓ innings, with 18 saves (and five blown saves, though the Cubs won two of those games anyway). It’s one of the greatest stretches by an individual player and Cubs team in franchise history.

Sutter eventually got hurt in August, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Cubs started losing games. He finished with a 1.34 (!) ERA, 31 saves, sixth place in Cy Young voting and seventh place in MVP voting, and compiled 6.5 bWAR.

He wasn’t quite as good in 1978, though still made the NL All-Star team for the second straight year,

In 1979, Sutter returned to near his 1977 level, posting a 2.22 ERA and 0.977 WHIP, led the major leagues with 37 saves and won the Cy Young Award. It was the first of four straight seasons Sutter led MLB in saves.

There’s not much video of Sutter that survives from that time, but here he is striking out Jim Rice in the 1979 All-Star Game. You can see the break on the splitter here:

That great year sent Sutter and the Cubs to arbitration, the first arb hearing involving a Cubs player in the then-fairly new system. The Cubs offered Sutter $350,000, about a 50 percent increase from his $225,000 salary in 1979. Sutter asked for $700,000 — a huge figure for the time — and the arbitrator awarded the higher figure to Sutter.

Cubs ownership claimed the salary was something they couldn’t afford, and after Sutter had another very good season for a 98-loss Cubs team in 1980, they traded him to the Cardinals for Leon Durham, Ken Reitz and Ty Waller.

Though Reitz and Waller were duds as Cubs, Durham put together several good seasons for the Cubs, so it wasn’t a terrible trade.

Sutter, though, helped lead the Cardinals to a World Series championship in 1982. In 1984, though, the Cubs would get revenge, of a sort, when Ryne Sandberg famously hit two homers off Sutter in what would become known as “The Sandberg Game.” Here are both those home runs:

Watch the way Sutter takes the new baseball in his glove after the second homer (at about :42 into the video). He was PISSED.

Another somewhat lesser-known bit of Cubs revenge against Sutter came in the final game of the 1984 season, after the Cubs had clinched the NL East title. They were facing the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, trailing 1-0 entering the bottom of the ninth, and Sutter, who had posted a then record-tying 45 saves, entered to try to wrap up the game for St. Louis. Had he finished, he’d have broken the MLB single-season record for saves (Dan Quisenberry, 1983).

The Cubs foiled those plans. Henry Cotto, Dan Rohn and Thad Bosley singled to tie the game 1-1, and after Sutter walked Gary Woods to load the bases, Keith Moreland hit a ground ball to third. Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton threw home for a force at the plate, but then St. Louis catcher Glenn Brummer’s throw to first was wild and the winning run scored.

This TV sports report has the highlights — scroll in to 1:00 to start watching. It includes the Cubs coming back on the field to celebrate with fans, something rarely done in that era.

Back to Sutter: He signed a six-year deal with the Braves after the 1984 season, a contract said to be worth, per the New York Times:

... about $44 million. A total of $4.8 million would be paid in salary over the six years and the other $4.8 million would be invested into a deferred payment account at 13 percent interest that would pay Sutter $1.3 million a year for the 30 years after the six-year deal ends.

But Sutter’s performance declined in 1985 and after the season he had shoulder surgery. He pitched in only 16 games in 1986 and didn’t pitch after May 27. He had another shoulder operation in 1987, returned to pitch in 38 games with a 4.76 ERA and 14 saves in 1988, then retired at age 35.

Sutter settled in the Atlanta area after retirement and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006 in his 13th year on the ballot. He became the first pitcher enshrined who had never started a MLB game. He posted 133 saves as a Cub, which ranks second in franchise history to Lee Smith’s 180. Here is his Hall of Fame speech:

Sincere condolences to Sutter’s family, friends and many fans. Rest in peace.