Gary Gaetti did it all over 20 seasons (1981-2000) for five major-league teams. He spent the first decade of his career with the Minnesota Twins, where he was a two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner at third base. In 1987, when the Twins won the first championship in franchise history, he was the MVP of the League Championship Series and handled the final out of the World Series.
By the time he retired after stints with the Angels, Royals, Cardinals, Cubs and Red Sox, he had amassed 2,280 hits and 360 home runs, and only two players in history had played more games at the hot corner.1 With his durability and hard-nosed style, Gaetti displayed a blue-collar grit that he learned growing up in a small Midwestern town.
Gary Joseph Gaetti was born on August 19, 1958, in Centralia, Illinois, a place he would later describe as “14,000 and dying.”2 He recalled, “When I was growing up, two things were big in that area: baseball and beer.”3 Gary and his older sister, Cheryl, were raised by their mother, Jackie (Shahan), and father, Bill. Jackie was a secretary and office manager. Bill was a blue collar railroad man, always up early to start a hard day’s work. When the elder Gaetti got home in the afternoon, his son would be waiting for him, ready to play ball. Gary Gaetti recalled that his dad “devoted time every day to hitting me grounders and playing catch. I think he loved baseball.”4
Busch Stadium in St. Louis was about an hour’s drive west of Centralia. Each year the Gaetti family made a handful of trips to see the Cardinals play, which gave young Gary opportunities to gather a trove of treasured memories and mementos, including an autograph from Lou Brock (“He was real nice”) and a bat from Dick Schofield (“It was so huge, man, it was a club”).5
Gaetti had talent to match his passion for baseball. As a 13-year-old, he blasted a home run halfway up a towering tree 250 feet away. It was so impressive that the opposing players all shook Gaetti’s hand.6 At Centralia High School, he earned all-state honors in baseball and football.7 On the gridiron he was a free safety and quarterback. Bill Gaetti recalled Gary’s football coach telling him, “I’ve never seen a kid with so much competitiveness and aggressiveness and charisma. We don’t have anything, but with him in there, those kids feel like they can’t be beat.”8
Gaetti’s family did not let the star athlete get too full of himself. “The biggest thing,” Gaetti recalled, “is how my family raised me. I didn’t grow up with an overinflated opinion of myself.”9 Still, his dad could see his son’s talent. Bill Gaetti thought that Gary was as good as the minor league players he’d seen.10 For Gary, the key moment came in high school when he was at a Cardinals-Reds game and realized that he could throw as well as Pete Rose. “I’m not saying I thought I could be as good as him,” Gaetti said, “but knowing I could do one important thing as good as him made me think. That was a turning point for me.”11
As talented as he was, Gaetti was not heavily recruited out of high school, so he attempted to get a railroad job, figuring his dad, who had decades of tenure, could pull some strings. But Bill Gaetti had other ideas. “He used his pull to not get me a job,” Gary recalled. “At the time, he had more ambition for me than I had for myself.”12 Nudged away from his father’s path, Gaetti went on to play baseball at Lincoln Land Community College. He made a big enough impression that the Cardinals drafted him in the 4th round of the January 1978 draft, but the Redbirds only offered him a $500 signing bonus, which he declined.13 The young prospect also turned down the White Sox after they picked him in the third round of the 1978 summer draft.
A year later, after transferring to Northwest Missouri State University and starring as a shortstop, Gaetti was picked in the first round (11th overall) by the Minnesota Twins. “Growing up, I’d never even heard of the Minnesota Twins,” Gaetti recalled. “I didn’t even know who they were.”14 Looking back on it, however, Gaetti realized that it was “the biggest break of my life.”15 Assigned to the Twins’ Rookie-level club in Elizabethton, Tennessee, Gaetti slugged 14 homers in 66 games against Appalachian League pitchers in 1979. The following year he led the Midwest League with 22 home runs for Class-A Wisconsin Rapids, and in 1981 he moved up to the Southern League and blasted 30 bombs for Class-AA Orlando. His performance earned him a September call-up to the big leagues. In his first at bat in the majors, Gaetti belted a home run off Charlie Hough.
He never went back to the minors.
The 1982 season was Gaetti’s first full year in the majors. On Opening Day he displayed his two trademarks—power (two home runs) and aggressiveness (thrown out trying to stretch a triple into another home run). He went on to have a 25-homer, 25-double, 84-RBI campaign that earned him a 5th place finish on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot.16 Gaetti’s manager, Billy Gardner, thought he had star potential. “Heck,” Gardner said, “he’s capable of hitting 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs.”17
Gaetti eventually fulfilled his promise, but not before taking some big league lumps. His stats stayed fairly steady in 1983 but his power vanished in 1984 when he hit just five homers. Late that year, with Minnesota’s playoff hopes on life support, his devastating throwing error hastened the Twins’ collapse as they blew a 10-0 lead in a crushing loss to Cleveland. Afterward, he was brutal in his self-assessment: “It’s hard to throw with both hands around your neck.”18 Though he struggled in 1984, he never took a day off, playing all 162 games. According to Gaetti, the daily question was: Would Pete Rose play today? “If the answer was yes, then it was a no-brainer, you just went out and played.”19 Being in the lineup every day fit the G-Man’s blue collar roots. “I don’t always feel like playing,” he said. “The legs certainly don’t. But come 7 o’clock, I’m ready to go.” Thinking of his dad, perhaps, he added, “I guess it’s kind of like the guy who gets up at 6:30 every morning and drives off to work. I don’t know any other way.”20
Gaetti’s power stroke started to return in 1985, and in 1986 he blossomed into a star, hitting .287 with 34 home runs, 34 doubles, and 108 RBIs. Among American Leaguers he was third in homers, fifth in slugging percentage and RBIs, sixth in total bases, and eighth in OPS. In addition, he won his first Gold Glove for his outstanding defense at third base. The key to Gaetti’s newfound success was getting out of his own head. During his struggles, the young third baseman “started listening to other people telling me I should do this and do that, trying to change me. And I would listen. When you’re young, you do that.”21 The flood of advice made him overthink at the plate. “You reach a point where you’re thinking about where your shoulders are and if you’re striding too far and where your head is and before you know it, you forget the object of the game is to hit the ball.”22
The other object of the game is to win, and going into the 1987 season, Gaetti’s Twins had not done much of it, averaging 90 losses per year from 1982 through 1986. In 1987, however, the Twins took the AL West crown. Their charismatic third baseman helped lead the way, hitting 31 home runs, driving in 109 runs, and finishing 10th on the AL MVP ballot. He also earned his second consecutive Gold Glove. Gaetti’s defense at the hot corner led teammate Don Baylor to offer the most complimentary comparison a third baseman could get, saying Gaetti reminded him of Brooks Robinson.23
Gaetti’s teammates and opponents already knew how good he was, but his coming out party was the 1987 ALCS, when the Twins defeated the heavily-favored Tigers in five games. Gaetti, who was named Series MVP, stepped on the national stage in Game One and belted home runs in his first two at bats. In Game Two, he doubled and scored the Twins’ first run as they rallied from behind to beat Detroit. In the pivotal Game Four, he signaled catcher Tim Laudner for a pickoff play in the sixth inning with one out, Tiger runners on second and third, and the Twins clinging to a one-run lead. The throw and tag nabbed Darrell Evans, a momentum-swinging play that led to a Twins win. Minnesota took the AL title the next day with Gaetti singling and scoring his team’s first run.
The Twins went on to win the World Series in seven games against the St. Louis Cardinals, with Gaetti snatching a grounder and firing to first for the final out. In the clubhouse, reflecting on what he and his teammates had just accomplished, he said, “When I’m 65 years old, I’m going to take my grandchild to his first baseball game,” he said. “We’ll take our seats, and I’ll say to him, ‘Baseball is the national pastime, the greatest game in the world. And the greatest thing you can do in baseball is win a World Series.’ Then I’ll pause and say, ‘I once played for a World Series winner.’”24
A bona fide star entering the 1988 season, Gaetti had a year that was notable both on and off the field. On the diamond, he had another standout season with his bat and glove, earning his first All-Star selection and third Gold Glove. But his on-field production was overshadowed by his sudden born-again Christian experience in the middle of the season. The seeds of his transformation were planted after the Twins’ World Series victory. “It was nice, it was satisfying—but only in a baseball sense, in a human sense of accomplishment,” he said, “because it doesn’t mean anything the minute you win. It’s fleeting and you realize it.”25
In the middle of the 1988 season, while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, Gaetti examined his life, had some discussions with Christian teammates, and decided to radically change his ways. The hard-living Gaetti was known for chugging beers, smoking like a chimney, cursing like a sailor, and celebrating victories with shots of whiskey. But almost instantly, he abandoned those habits and dedicated himself to Jesus Christ. Gaetti’s conversion caused some tension in the clubhouse as his teammates tried to adjust to the new Gary, who also separated from his wife, Debby, who he had been with throughout his professional baseball career. On the field, though, he continued to produce, earning his fourth Gold Glove and second All-Star selection in 1989. Early in the season, Sports Illustrated asked the 12 American League managers who they thought was the best third baseman in the league. Ten of them picked Gaetti, and one more split his vote between Gaetti and Wade Boggs.26
By 1990, however, the G-Man’s production was noticeably slipping as he turned 31 years old. That season he hit only 16 homers and batted just .229, and his four-year Gold Glove streak ended. He did take part in a unique bit of baseball history, though, starting two triple plays in a game against Boston on July 17, the only time in major league history that a team has turned two triple plays in one game.27 Now a free agent, he faced a skeptical market. A Yankees official recalled that some scouts thought Gaetti was washed up.28 The California Angels, however, had enough confidence in him to sign the two-time All-Star to a four-year, $11.4 million contract.
The Angels regretted their decision almost instantly. Gaetti’s batting average and power numbers were subpar in 1991 and worse in 1992. His world-class defensive abilities vanished, too, frustrating the club and its fans. A game story from 1992 reports that Gaetti’s “hitting and fielding failures sent boos cascading from the seats in Anaheim Stadium.”29 In another game, after he “failed to make two critical plays,” he “was booed by the home crowd and received a standing ovation for every ball he handled cleanly thereafter.”30
After the 1992 season, Gaetti asked the Angels for a trade, but they could not grant his wish because, as an Angels official bluntly put it: “Right now we haven’t been tempted by anybody, because there has been no interest.”31 He started the 1993 season buried on the Angels bench, and did not help himself when he was given opportunities to play, hitting just .180 with zero homers in 50 at bats. He performed so poorly that the Angels decided to eat the remaining year and a half on his contract and released him in early June.
Gaetti soon latched on with the Kansas City Royals. “We took a shot,” said Royals manager Hal McRae. “It’s hard to say what the guy will do.”32 What he did was drastically surpass expectations. A year later, McRae said, “He’s been our most valuable player so far, among the position players.”33 During 1993 and 1994, Gaetti played 172 games for the Royals and hit 26 homers. He was just getting started.
After the 1994 season, Gaetti was divorced and married his second wife, Donna. Perhaps energized by his new love, the G-Man found the fountain of youth in 1995. While turning 37 years old, he thumped a career-high 35 round-trippers, knocked in 96 runs, garnered the Silver Slugger as the AL’s top-hitting third baseman, and finished 10th in the MVP voting. Along the way he exacted revenge against the team that had released him by blasting a walk-off homer against the Angels in May. He did it again against the Brewers in June, part of a scorching streak of eight homers in ten games. Gaetti did not let himself get carried away with his exploits, though, saying, “I know how humbling baseball can be.”34
At his age, Gaetti knew the next game, much less the next season, were not promised to him. “My physical condition is going to determine how long I last,” he said in the middle of the 1995 campaign. “Right now, Advil is the key. I could do a legitimate commercial for Advil.”35
He could afford plenty of Advil with the one-year, $2 million deal he reached with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1996 season. It was a dream come true to join the team he had rooted for as a boy. He said, “I can’t tell you how many times I stood in the front yard, the back yard, everybody’s yard,” pretending to be various Cardinals stars.36 Gaetti started slowly due to injuries, but he finished strong and racked up 23 home runs and 80 RBIs. Continuing a career-long theme, the veteran slugger had a knack for dramatic home runs in 1996:
- Homered in his first at bat in his first Cardinals home game.
- Smashed a walk-off dinger on August 7 to restore the Cardinals’ division lead.
- Belted a game-tying, momentum-changing homer on September 24 to help St. Louis clinch the division crown.
- Blasted a three-run bomb in the first inning of Game One of the NLDS against San Diego.
- Tagged Greg Maddux for a crushing grand slam in Game Two of the NLCS against Atlanta.
Maddux also gave up Gaetti’s 2,000th career hit the following year, a shot off the pitcher’s right ankle. “I couldn’t have gotten a nice, clean hit,” Gaetti said. “I had to dig it out and work for it. I guess it’s fitting.”37 The gritty veteran also scored his 1,000th run in 1997. He knew 1,000 was a big number, but he thought it could have been higher: “I’ve probably been thrown out a thousand times at the plate, too.”38 He believed he could have had more career homers and a better batting average, too, “But I didn’t learn how to hit a breaking ball for 10 years because nobody could throw a fastball by me and not a lot of people would try.”39
Gaetti appreciated being in St. Louis, constantly reminded of childhood memories. He could stand on the field and “smell the same smell that I used to love as a kid coming over to watch the Cardinals. The hot dogs and the beer and the popcorn, and it just wafts in the air. I used to just love that as I kid because, you know, going to the ballpark is a special time. Times like that, I think I really am blessed to be in the position I’m in.”40
Gaetti gave St. Louis two and a half seasons of solid production. But on July 31, 1998, the Redbirds acquired Fernando Tatis in a trade, and they no longer needed Gaetti’s services. Eventually they released the veteran, freeing him to sign with the Cubs on his 40th birthday. He may have been over the hill, but he was as relentless and driven as ever. For the second time in his career, he responded to being released by turning back the clock. Gaetti appeared in 37 games for the Cubs down the stretch of the 1998 season. And he did not just play—he raked. The rejuvenated G-Man posted a .320 batting average, a .594 slugging percentage, and a .991 OPS. He also produced a cluster of clutch hits as the Cubs battled for a playoff spot. On September 17 he smashed a pinch hit homer in the 10th inning to beat the Padres. On September 26 he doubled and scored to tie a critical game against the Astros, then doubled again to drive home the deciding runs. Finally, in a Game 163 winner-goes-to-the-playoffs duel with the Giants, Gaetti hit a two-run home run to break up a scoreless tie in a game eventually won by the Cubs, 5-3.
Gaetti was back with the Cubs again in 1999, but the magic vanished from his bat and he struggled mightily at the plate. Retirement started to cross his mind. “It’s a huge decision,” he said. “What I’d really like is at least one more hot streak. Just to enjoy it again.”41
It was not to be. After he hit just .204 in 113 games in 1999, nobody wanted to sign the 41-year-old with 19 seasons of major league mileage on his wheels. Finally, after every other major league club passed on him, Gaetti accepted an invitation to Boston’s spring training camp. Entering his 20th big league season, his passion for baseball was as strong as ever. He said, “I’m sure I’m going to hear people say, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ My answer to them is, ‘Why don’t you quit watching?’ The game is in my blood as much as it is in yours.”42
Surprisingly, Gaetti did well enough in spring training to make Boston’s season-opening roster, but he could not hit regular season pitching. After an 0-10 start at the plate, he had a discussion with his wife and decided to retire. “I’m tired,” he said. “I definitely didn’t want to end up bitter at my lack of success, getting beaten physically and taking it home.”43 He went home to Louisiana, where, in 2002 he was hired as the hitting coach for the Houston Astros’ Class-AAA team, the New Orleans Zephyrs. In the middle of the 2004 season, the Astros promoted him to the same role in Houston. Back in the majors as a coach, he fit in well. “[Gaetti] is just an upbeat guy,” said Houston’s Lance Berkman. “Everybody respects him for the kind of ballplayer he was.”44
Gaetti was the hitting coach for the 2005 NL champion Astros, but he was fired at midseason in 2006. The following year, he landed in North Carolina as the hitting coach for the Class-AAA Durham Bulls. Gaetti then went on to manage the independent Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters from 2012 to 2017. He guided the club to a league championship and was the skipper when Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro made cameo appearances for the team.
Gaetti married his current wife, Joni, in 2014, and his family includes three children from previous marriages—daughter Gigi and sons Joe and Jacob. Joe turned out to be a talented ballplayer himself. He never got above Class-AAA, but in an interesting coincidence he married the daughter of Dan Gladden, Gaetti’s teammate on the 1987 world champion Twins.
When Gaetti was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame, his former teammate, Kent Hrbek, summed up his longtime buddy and got to the core of who he was. “Gary wanted to win more than anybody,” Hrbek said. “Gary wasn’t out there to make friends or headlines. He was just out there to win.”45
Last revised: February 11, 2021
This biography was reviewed by Malcolm Allen and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Mark Sternman.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.baseball-reference.com
1 When Gaetti retired, only Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles had played more games at third base. Later, Adrian Beltre moved into second place behind Robinson.
2 Dennis Brackin, “Memories return for old Cardinals fan named Gaetti,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 20, 1987: 3D.
3 Mike Eisenbath, “Centralia’s Gaetti Discovering New Baseball Life With Royals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 27 1994: 1G.
4 Mike Eisenbath, “Heavy-Duty Gaetti Was Built For The Game, And He Returns, Game As Ever,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 21, 1996: 3F.
5 Brackin, “Memories return for old Cardinals fan named Gaetti.”
6 Norman Draper, “Gaetti’s old town divided,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 20, 1987: 3D.
7 Eisenbath, “Heavy-Duty Gaetti Was Built For The Game.”
8 Dennis Brackin, “Playing for keeps,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 16, 1987: 1C.
9 Eisenbath, “Centralia’s Gaetti Discovering New Baseball Life With Royals.”
10 Eisenbath, “Heavy Duty Gaetti Was Built For The Game.”
11 Eisenbath,” Heavy Duty Gaetti Was Built For The Game.”
12 Craig Barnes, “Thanks To Dad, Gaetti Isn’t Working On Railroad,” Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, March 13, 1988: 4C.
13 Robbie Andreu, “Just Call ‘Em The Get-Well Cards,” Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, October 17, 1987: 4C.
14 Dan Barreiro, “Gaetti is having great time,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 16, 1987: 1D.
15 Ted Silary, “The Tale Of 2 Cities: Youthful Twins Blaze Hottest Trail In West,” Philadelphia Daily News, August 27, 1984: 82.
16 Cal Ripken Jr. won, and Gaetti’s teammate Kent Hrbek finished second.
17 “Gaetti, Twins See A Bright Future — But Will They Enjoy It Together?” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 13, 1983: E12.
18 “Twins: 50 Years, 50 Moments,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 28, 2010: C2.
19 R.B. Fallstrom, “At 39, Gaetti carves out a home with the Cardinals,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 17, 1985: 5.
20 Dennis Brackin, “Unspoiled Gaetti still is dishing it out daily,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 17, 1988: 1C.
21 Dan Barreiro, “Learning game proves a hit for Gaetti,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 15, 1987: 1C.
22 Barreiro, “Learning game proves a hit for Gaetti.”
23 Brackin, “Memories return for old Cardinals fan named Gaetti.”
24 Steve Wulf, “Sweet Music,” Sports Illustrated, November 2, 1987.
25 Hank Hersch, “The Gospel And Gaetti,” Sports Illustrated, August 21, 1989.
26 Peter Gammons, “Baseball,” Sports Illustrated, May 1, 1989.
27 Gaetti was involved in seven triple plays during his career.
28 Mike Penner, “With Gaetti’s Release, Angels Cut Dead Weight,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1993: 4.
29 Dennis Brackin, “With the past fading away, Gaetti battles the present,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 23, 1992: 1C.
30 “Gaetti’s fielding lapses at new position draw boos from all but the Blue Jays,” Baltimore Evening Sun, July 22, 1992: 1B.
31 Bob Nightengale, “Angels Gaetti Is Free to Seek Own Trade,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1993: 8.
32 Dennis Brackin, “He’s no Angel — and glad of it,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 22, 1993: 1C.
33 Dennis Brackin, “Gaetti of old returns with Royals,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 26, 1994: 12C.
34 “’Washed Up’ Gaetti Suddenly Carrying Royals Offensively,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 6, 1995: 4C.
35 Dennis Brackin, “Second chance has been a blessing to Royals’ Gaetti,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 25, 1995: 10C.
36 Rick Hummel, “Gaetti Finally A Cardinal,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 19, 1995: 1C.
37 Rick Hummel, “Gaetti Hits Plateau, And As Usual, Takes Everything In Stride,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 18, 1997: F3.
38 Ruck Hummel, “Gaetti Hits Another Milestone,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 30, 1997: D5.
39 Fallstrom, “At 39, Gaetti carves out a home with the Cardinals.”
40 Jim Souhan, “Gaetti feeling right at home in St. Louis,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 30, 1997: 5C.
41 Stephen Cannella, “Inside Baseball,” Sports Illustrated, July 12, 1999.
42 Gordon Edes, “Not The First Choice At Third Gaetti Gives It Another Shot,” Boston Globe, February 24, 2000: C6.
43 Godeon Edes, “It’s A Painful Goodbye For Gaetti,” Boston Globe, April 15, 2000: G3.
44 Derrick Goold, “Gaetti brings experience, positive attitude to Astros,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 15, 2004: F6.
45 Dennis Brackin, “Anniversary Summer: Twins’ First World Championship — The 1987 Season,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 17, 2007: C6.