Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher and holder of several Dodgers franchise records, died in his sleep on Monday night. He was 75.
Sutton’s son Daron announced the news on Twitter:
Saddened to share that my dad passed away in his sleep last night. He worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and he treated those he encountered with great respect...and he took me to work a lot. For all these things, I am very grateful. Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/cvlDRRdVXa— Daron Sutton (@lifeisgreatsut) January 19, 2021
Sutton’s playing career was remarkable in its longevity, having pitched for 23 years, but also for his impact. The career totals are mind-blowing. Sutton ranks third all-time in games started (756), behind only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan. Sutton is also in the top 10 in innings pitched (5,282⅓), strikeouts (3,574), and shutouts (58).
He’s the Dodgers’ all-time leader in wins (233), starts (533), strikeouts (2,696), and shutouts (52), thanks to rarely missing a turn for the first 15 seasons of his career, or after.
Signed by the Dodgers in 1964, a year before MLB instituted an amateur draft, Sutton made the majors at age 21 in 1966, and immediately impressed, starting 35 games with a 2.99 ERA for a pennant winner. He pitched 225 innings in that first season, and never threw less than 207 innings in any of his first 15 seasons with the Dodgers.
“I wish Walter Alston could be here. When I joined the Dodgers in ‘66, I joined the man as a manager who was an extension of my relationship with my dad, in more ways than one,” Sutton recalled in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1998. “He once told me I was the second-most stubborn person he’d ever met. I asked him who was first. He said, ‘I am. And it might do you well to remember that.’”
From 1966-80, Sutton averaged 34 starts and 249 innings per season, an absolute stalwart in the rotation who finished in the top-5 in National League Cy Young Award voting for five straight years (1972-76). From Gregory H. Wolf’s SABR bio of Sutton:
“I never wanted to be a superstar, or the highest paid player,” said Don Sutton. “[A]ll I wanted was to be appreciated for the fact that I was consistent, dependable, and you could count on me.” By that measure, Sutton achieved his goal and more, as few pitchers in baseball history were as reliable, and as healthy, for as long as the right-hander.
Sutton was a big-game pitcher, winning his first five postseason decisions for the Dodgers and posting a lifetime 3.68 postseason ERA, including 3.34 in 10 starts with the Dodgers. Sutton’s seven Opening Day starts shared a franchise record with Don Drysdale that has since been broken by Clayton Kershaw.
In four All-Star Games, all with the Dodgers, Sutton pitched eight scoreless innings, including three scoreless innings in a start in 1977 at Yankee Stadium, winning the game and MVP honors.
Sutton out-dueled Jim Palmer on the final day of the 1982 season in Baltimore, clinching an AL East division title for the Brewers.
Sutton was also blunt and honest, which served him well in his three decades of broadcasting, the bulk of which came with the Braves. That honesty sometimes rubbed some teammates the wrong way, like when he told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post in August 1978, “All you hear about on our team is Steve Garvey, the All-American boy. Well, the best player on the team the last two years — and we all know it — is Reggie Smith. As Reggie goes, so goes us.
“Reggie doesn’t go out and publicize himself. He doesn’t smile at the right people or say the right things. He tells the truth even if it alienates people. Reggie is not a facade or a Madison Avenue image. He’s a real person.” (1)
As you might imagine, this did not sit well with Garvey, who fought Sutton in the Dodgers clubhouse prior to a game at Shea Stadium on August 20, 1978. Garvey in 1977-78 hit .307/.344/.489, a 130 OPS+, with 394 hits and 54 home runs and 228 RBI, two fine years. Smith though was otherworldly, hitting .302/.406/.568, a 165 OPS+ (not that anybody knew what OPS was back then), with 61 homers and 180 RBI. Smith also had a sizable edge in WAR, for what it’s worth. Sutton knew what he was talking about.
After the 1980 season, one in which he led the majors in ERA (2.20) and WHIP (0.989), Sutton signed a four-year free agent contract with the Astros. Traded to the Brewers down the stretch in the 1982 season, he reached the playoffs again that year with Milwaukee and again in 1986 with the Angels, when at age 41 he posted a 110 ERA+ in 207 innings.
Sutton won his 300th game on June 18, 1986, pitching a three-hit complete game to beat the Rangers 3-1 in Anaheim. That was one of 178 complete games in his career.
“I’m an unspectacular grinder who stayed around for 21 years and did his part,” Sutton said (2). “It’s nice to know, of course, that there’s more than one way to do something.”
That was Sutton’s 20th season with at least 200 innings, the most of any pitcher in history. It would have been 21 seasons were it not for the strike-shortened 1981 season, in which Sutton pitched 158⅔ innings. His 20 seasons with at least 30 starts are also the most ever.
Sutton returned to the Dodgers at age 43 in 1988, and made 16 starts for the World Series winners. But he struggled in that final season, with an 86 ERA+, and was eventually released in August to make room for rookie Ramon Martinez.
“Today we lost a great ballplayer, a great broadcaster and, most importantly, a great person. Don left an indelible mark on the Dodger franchise in his 16 seasons in Los Angeles and many of his records continue to stand to this day,” said Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten, who also worked with Sutton the broadcaster for both the Braves and Nationals.
Sutton spent 28 seasons calling Braves games. “Don brought an unmatched knowledge of the game and his sharp wit to his calls. But despite all his success, Don never lost his generous character or humble personality,” the Braves said in a statement.
It took five years on the ballot, but Sutton was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 with 81.6 percent of the vote.
The Dodgers retired Sutton’s No. 20 on August 14, 1998. It’s one of 10 uniform numbers retired by the team. With Sutton’s passing and the death of Tommy Lasorda on Jan. 7, Koufax is the only Dodger with a retired number who is still living.
It’s a testament to Sutton’s longevity that he bridged generations. He began his career behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the Dodgers rotation, and ended it pitching alongside Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, and Martinez.
Sutton was a pitcher of uncommon durability whose place in baseball and Dodgers history is secure. He will be sorely missed.
- “Sutton, Garvey hope to end troubles,” Associated Press. The Shreveport (La.) Journal, August 22, 1978.
- “The grind still not over for Sutton,” by Ross Newhan. The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1986.