It would appear that Jim Kaat was one of those pitchers who could, to resurrect a familiar sports cliché, do it all.
The big (6’4”) left-hander won 283 games during a 25-year career in the major leagues which made him a rare four-decade man, entering as a rookie in 1959 with the original Washington Senators and bowing out after the 1983 season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The one thing Kaat couldn’t do, apparently, was get into the Hall of Fame. During the 15 years he was eligible for election by the Baseball Writers Association of America, from 1989 through 2003, he never collected more than 30 percent of the vote, far short of the required 75 percent of all votes cast.
He won 20 or more games three times, the first time in 1966 when he had a 25-13 record with the Minnesota Twins. That year, he had three shutouts, 19 complete games and a 2.75 ERA. His reward was a berth on the American League All-Star team and a fifth-place finish in the Most Valuable Player vote.
He won 21 games with the Chicago White Sox in 1974 and then 20 the following year, also with Chicago.
Kaat captured 16 Gold Glove Awards, establishing himself as one of the finest fielding pitchers of the era. He could hit, too, with 16 career home runs and 106 runs batted in.
Kaat probably would have won a Cy Young Award in 1966, but that was the last year only one award was given for both leagues, and it was also the year the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax was 27-9 with an ERA of 1.73. As consolation, Kaat was named The Sporting News pitcher of the year.
Kaat finished his career with an earned run average of 3.45, with 180 complete games and 31 shutouts. He pitched in the World Series in 1965 as a starter with the Twins and then as a reliever with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982. His 17 years between appearances is a record, and one of those statistics that prove there are too many statistics.
Here are some pitchers with at least two things in common: Red Ruffing, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning, Jim Hunter, Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Bob Lemon.
First, they’re all members of the Hall of Fame. Second, Kaat had more wins than any of them.
So why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame, when they are? Well, Ruffing, Ford and Hunter spent at least part of their careers with the New York Yankees, always a boost for H of F consideration. Palmer and Bunning were dominating pitchers who also played in major markets, while Kaat, in contrast, spent more than half his career in Minneapolis. As for Gibson — well, Bob Gibson had several seasons in which he was the best pitcher in the game.
In 1978, when — at the age of 38 — Kaat went to spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies and put himself on a grueling workout regimen to make the club, he told a reporter: “It’s tough to love the game when it doesn’t love you anymore.” As late in his career as 1980, more than two decades after he broke in, Kaat won eight games, including a complete-game shutout and saved four as a Cardinal starter and reliever.
At long last, things may be looking up for Kaat, now 68. The Veterans Committee, which meets every two years, takes charge of voting for players after the 15 years of the writers’ jurisdiction, and in voting by the Veterans Committee in 2005, he was fourth with 54 percent of the vote. In 2007, he was second with 63.4 percent. Maybe in 2009.
Kaat’s son, also named Jim, wrote a foreword in Kaat’s 2003 autobiography, which read in part: “…in the future, when your peers on the Veterans Committee vote you into the Hall of Fame, that will be the true measure of your success. Because, in the end, writers write — that is all they do well — and players play, and there is no higher accomplishment than the ultimate respect from your peers.”