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OC Register: Alexander: Dodgers great Don Sutton learned well from his elders

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  • LDN-L-DON-SUTTON-0120-KB2-2.jpg

    Hall of Famer and former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton, right, chats with fellow Hall of Famer and Dodgers great Sandy Koufax before an Old-Timers game on June 8, 2013 at Dodger Stadium. Sutton passed away at age 75 on Tuesday morning. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • LDN-L-DON-SUTTON-0120-KB3-2.jpg

    Hall of Fame and former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton passed away at age 75. Former Los Angeles and Brooklyn Dodger left handed pitcher Sandy Koufax, left, talks with hall of famed and former Los Angeles Dodgers right hander, Don Sutton during the Old-Timers game prior to a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, June 8, 2013 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • HALL-OF-FAME-2.jpg

    The three living inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 hold their plaques after their induction in Cooperstown, N.Y. From left are Lee MacPhail Jr., a general manager and front office innovator with the Dodgers and Yankees, pitcher Don Sutton, and Larry Doby, the second black player to play in the major leagues. (AP Photo/David Jennings)

  • SUTTON-B-DI_-1-2.jpg

    Former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton wipes away tears during the ceremony retiring his No. 20 jersey prior to a game between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 14, 1998, at Dodger Stadium.

  • imageedit_1_87268632-16x9-1-4.jpg

    Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton delivers a pitch during Game 3 of the 1978 World Series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 13, 1978. Sutton died on Tuesday at the age of 75. One of the most durable pitchers in modern history, Sutton is the Dodgers’ all-time leader in wins, games started, innings pitched and strikeouts. (AP Photo)

  • AP21019822716855-1.jpg

    File-This Oct. 17, 1978, file photo shows, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton, left, following through as he fires his first pitch in World Series Game in Los Angeles. Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was a stalwart of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation spanning an era from Sandy Koufax to Fernando Valenzuela, died Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. He was 75. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, said Sutton died at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, after a long struggle with cancer. The Atlanta Braves, where Sutton was a long-time broadcaster, said he died in his sleep. (AP Photo, File)

  • AP20065712053505-1.jpg

    Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, right, and pitcher Don Sutton are all smiles in the dugout as they watch their team defeat the Yankees, 6-1, in New York, Oct. 13, 1977, in the second game of the World Series. (AP Photo)

  • AP7710050274-1.jpg

    Dodgers Dusty Baker, left, and Don Sutton leave the field after the Dodgers defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 7-1 in the second game of the NL Championship Series, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 1977, Los Angeles, Calif. Sutton, the pitcher, went the route, and Baker pushed the Dodgers ahead with a grand slam homer in the seventh. (AP Photo)

  • AP78101701309-1.jpg

    Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton, right, sits at his clubhouse locker on Oct. 17, 1978 after his team lost Game 6 to the Yankees and lost the World Series. (AP Photo)

  • AP070827029938-1.jpg

    Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton acknowledges the crowd before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Monday, Aug. 27, 2007. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

  • AP954886329759-1.jpg

    Hall of Fame player and former Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Sutton throws out the ceremonial first pitch before baseball game between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

  • AP7810120357-1.jpg

    Don Sutton made his major-league debut with the Dodgers in 1966, going 12-12 with a 2.99 ERA as a 21-year-old. By the time he left the Dodgers as a free agent following the 1980 season, Sutton had won more games (233), made more starts (533), pitched more innings (3,816-1/3) and struck out more batters (2,696) than any other pitcher in franchise history. He helped the Dodgers reach the World Series in 1966, 1974, 1977 and 1978.(AP Photo)

  • LDN-L-DON-SUTTON-0120-KB1-2.jpg

    Hall of Fame and former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton passed away at age 75. Retired Los Angeles Dodgers numbers Don Sutton (20) and Don Drysdale’s (53) during a Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 in Los Angeles. Arizona Diamondbacks won 8-5 in 12 innings. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)



This has been a brutal stretch of months for members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with one sad announcement after another of a legend’s passing. On Tuesday we had another, with the death of Don Sutton at his home in Rancho Mirage at age 75.

Sutton won 324 games in 23 seasons, a journey that started and ended with the Dodgers and also included two-plus seasons with the Angels. He stayed in the game for another three decades as a broadcaster, and I’d frequently seek out Atlanta Braves broadcasts on satellite radio whenever Sutton was on the call. He was as entertaining behind the microphone as he was an interview.

Not many others could come up with gems like, “Comparing me to Koufax is like comparing Earl Scheib to Michelangelo.” Or my particular favorite: “I’m the most loyal player money can buy.”

The numbers alone make up a compelling narrative: 14th on the all-time list in victories (tied with Nolan Ryan, a teammate briefly in Houston), third all-time in starts (756), seventh in innings pitched (5,282-1/3), seventh in strikeouts (3,574). He led the NL in ERA once and in WHIP four times, and the only time in his first 21 seasons that he didn’t surpass 200 innings was the shortened season in 1981 because of a players’ strike.

He learned his early lessons well. Signed by the Dodgers at 19 out of Gulf Coast Community College in Florida, Sutton whipped through Class A and Double-A in one year and was in the big leagues by 21, a teammate of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on a defending World Series champion in 1966.

He didn’t embarrass himself on that staff, either. He was 12-12 with a 2.99 ERA and from the start had people talking about his crackling curveball, a knuckle-curve of sorts thrown with the index finger raised and the nail dug into the ball.

“The best thing that could have happened to me was to join a team with Drysdale and Koufax (who retired after that season),” Sutton told Sports Illustrated’s Ron Fimrite in 1982. “They were obviously helpful to me as a pitcher. They offered me nothing but encouragement, and Don gave me my first scouting report on Hank Aaron.

“‘High and inside,’ he’d say, ‘then the slider.’ ‘What if you don’t have a slider?’ I asked him. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t go out there at all.’ They were both so unselfish. When I began breaking their Dodger records, they’d never fail to call or wire. I have their records, but I wouldn’t ask anyone to compare me with them.”

Sutton, who never landed on the injured list in his 23-year career, wound up surpassing both of his elders in the Dodgers record book, with 233 wins, 553 starts, 3,816-1/3 innings pitched, 52 shutouts, 2,696 strikeouts … and also 181 losses and 3,291 hits allowed, in 15 seasons from 1966-1980 and the first part of the 1988 season. All remain franchise records.

He was his own man, without a doubt. He was strong-willed enough to quietly rebel against Manager Tommy Lasorda at times, since Sutton remained a Walter Alston man to the end. And he was blunt enough to make remarks to Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell that led to a 1978 clubhouse fight with Steve Garvey. (A couple of days later he made a tearful televised apology, and in character tried to break the tension by saying he was simply arguing that SEC football was better than Garvey’s Big Ten.)

Sutton fit right in on those 1970s Dodger teams, a collection of players who seldom gave a dull answer. You might not always like what they said, but they were unflinchingly honest.

And he picked this up from Drysdale specifically: For years he got into hitters’ heads with the assumption that he was doctoring the ball. He never discouraged that talk, and in fact, he’d leave notes in his back pockets for the umpires to find if they demanded to inspect him, with messages such as, “Not here,” “You’re getting warmer,” or, “Ask Sparky (Anderson), he knows everything.”

No one ever detected him scuffing the ball. He was ejected once in 1978 for throwing a scuffed ball but umpire Doug Harvey later acknowledged he had no evidence that Sutton did it. It was just understood that he knew what to do with a scuff mark when he found one, like many pitchers of his era. There’s a reason, after all, why umpires now throw balls out of play any time they hit the dirt.

And when the subject of Vaseline and its effect on a thrown ball came up, Sutton cracked, “It’s not a foreign substance. It’s made right here in the good old USA.”

When the Dodgers let Sutton get away in free agency after the 1980 season, he was 35. He lasted another 8-1/2 seasons, pitching for Houston, Milwaukee, Oakland and Anaheim, joining the Angels in a September trade in 1985 and going 15-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 34 starts at age 41 for the 1986 AL West champs. He started the 1988 season back with the Dodgers but was released at midseason after 16 starts, but General Manager Fred Claire made sure Sutton and his wife accompanied the team when it visited the White House after winning that year’s World Series.

When Sutton was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, his fifth year of eligibility, critics jumped on the fact that he only won 20 games once (21-10 in 1976) and suggested that he was a “compiler” and somehow unworthy.

My response, as a Hall of Fame voter then and now: If you are good enough to be employed in the major leagues for 23 seasons, and if you are good enough to have 324 wins (tied for 14th all-time with Nolan Ryan) and a 68.3 WAR (32nd all-time and higher than 38 other Hall of Fame starters, including Koufax and Drysdale), there should be no question.

And consider: There are 60 players currently in Cooperstown who have some sort of tie with the Dodgers franchise. But only three of those plaques have an L.A. on the cap, and they belong to Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton.

Not bad company.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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