ST. LOUIS — When Bruce Sutter first started experimenting with the split-finger fastball, he wasn’t looking for a path to Cooperstown. He was just hoping to save his career.
“I wouldn’t be here without this pitch,” Sutter said shortly before his Hall of Fame induction in 2006. “My other thing was A ball, Double A at best. Split finger made it even.
Sutter, the bearded closest who paid for his elbow surgery as a minor league low and later pioneered the high-dropping pitch that dominated big league batting for decades, died Thursday. He was 69 years old.
Sutter was recently diagnosed with cancer and in hospice surrounded by his family, one of Sutter’s three sons, Chad, told The Associated Press. The Baseball Hall of Fame said Bruce Sutter died in Cartersville, Georgia.
A six-time All-Star, Sutter led the National League in saves for five years and won the Cy Young Award in 1979. He made 300 saves in his 12-year career with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves.
Sutter played during a time when closers were routinely getting more than three outs. He pitched over an inning for 188 of his saves and pitched over 100 innings five times in a season.
At his best, he threw two perfect innings – future retired Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Ted Simmons – to complete the Cardinals’ Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series. 1982.
The team’s wins, his son Chad said, meant the most to Sutter.
“He won all these awards and stuff and they weren’t even dragged home because all he cared about was winning and being respected by the other players and being a good teammate. C was his whole motivation,” he told the AP by phone on Friday.
“The awards, you know, after he retired, it was kind of the time he was like, ‘Man, I did well, you know? Being a teammate was what mattered most to him.
Sutter was the fourth reliever to be elected to the Hall after Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage, Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman have since joined the roster.
“We lost a good friend last night in Bruce Sutter,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said ahead of Friday’s NL Division Series game against the Phillies in Philadelphia.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.
“Bruce was the first pitcher to reach the Hall of Fame without starting a game, and he was one of the key figures who foreshadowed the evolution of the use of relievers,” Manfred said in a statement. “Bruce will be remembered as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of two of our most historic franchises.”
Sutter was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1953. Drafted by the Washington Senators in the 21st round in 1970, he was just 17 and too young to sign.
After a brief stint in college at Old Dominion, he returned home and was pitching for the semi-pro Hippey’s Raiders in the Lebanon Valley League when a Cubs scout spotted him.
Sutter pitched twice for the Cubs in the Gulf Coast League rookie in 1972 before injuring his right elbow while trying to learn a slider. Fearing the Cubs would cut him if they knew he was injured, Sutter scheduled his surgery and used his bonus to pay for the surgery.
Unable to throw as hard as he previously could, Sutter was fortunate enough to learn two-finger fastball from Fred Martin, the Cubs’ minor league pitching instructor, during spring training in 1973.
“Nobody was throwing what he called split finger,” Sutter said. “It was a pitch that didn’t change the way the game was played, but developed a new way of getting batters out. Everyone who throws the split-finger fastball owes a lot to Fred Martin (who died in 1979) because he was the first to teach it.
The pitch – the ball held between the index and middle finger and suddenly dipping as it approached the plate – had been around for a while, mostly defended by former great Roger Craig, but was not thrown successfully.
“It came easily to me, but it took me a long time to learn how to control it,” Sutter said. “I could throw pretty hard. I could pull off 16 guys, but I could walk 10. I mean, I was wild.
Sutter made his Cubs debut in 1976. He won the Cy Young in 1979 in a season in which he had 37 saves, a 2.22 ERA and 110 strikeouts.
Sutter was 68-71 with a 2.83 overall ERA. In 661 games, he pitched 1,042 innings and struck out 861.
He pitched for the Cardinals from 1981 to 1984.
“Being Cardinal of St. Louis was an honor he cherished deeply,” the Sutter family said in a statement Friday. “To the Cardinals, his teammates and especially the biggest fans in all of sports, we thank you for all the love and support over the years.”
Sutter finished with three seasons in Atlanta. His last stop, #300, was in 1988.
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“Bruce was a fan favorite during his years in St. Louis and in the years to come, and will always be remembered for his game-changing 1982 World Series save and split-fingered pitch,” the owner said. and Cardinals CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. in a report. “He was a true pioneer in the game, changing the role of end-inning reliever.”
The Cardinals retired Sutter’s number 42 after MLB retired the number honoring Jackie Robinson. The Cardinals said Sutter is survived by his wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.
“All our father ever wanted to be remembered was for being a great teammate, but he was so much more than that,” the Sutter family said in their statement. “He was also a wonderful husband to our mother for 50 (years), he was a wonderful father and grandfather and he was a great friend. His love and passion for baseball can only be surpassed by his love and passion for his family.
Chad Sutter said his dad “didn’t suffer and he went and went fast and he went peacefully surrounded by all his loved ones”.
The family said funeral arrangements are pending.
“I feel like a brother passed away,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Kaat, Sutter’s teammate on the 1982 Cardinals champions. “I knew Bruce more deeply than any other teammate We spent a lot of time together, and as it happens when your careers end, you break up, but we stayed in touch and considered each other great friends.
AP reporters Ron Blum, Tom Canavan and Erica Hunzinger contributed.