Bruce Sutter (MLB.COM)

In Memoriam: Bruce Sutter

Bruce Sutter (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Without the split-finger fastball, Bruce Sutter once said, “I would have been, at best, a Double-A player. If they told me it would hurt my arm if I threw it, I’d do it all over again.”

Sutter rode his signature pitch to a celebrated career as a closer with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and Atlanta Braves, winning the 1979 National League Cy Young Award, throwing the final pitch of the 1982 World Series, and recording 300 saves over 12 seasons.

A pioneer reliever during the “fireman” era of bullpens, Sutter, who died at the age of 69 on October 13, 2022, became the first pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame who never made a single start in the major leagues.

As Norm King writes at the SABR BioProject, “Sutter’s professional career was almost over before it got started” when he suffered a pinched nerve in his elbow after only five innings in rookie ball with the Cubs organization. He paid for his own elbow surgery without telling the team and reported to spring training in 1973 where he discovered he no longer had a fastball.

That’s when he began working with pitching instructor Fred Martin, who taught him the split-fingered grip as a way of changing speeds on a hitter. Sutter soon mastered the pitch and made an immediate impact with the Cubs when he reached the majors in 1976. He made the first of six NL All-Star teams in 1977 and became the third reliever to win a Cy Young Award in 1979.

Sutter was traded to the Cardinals before the 1981 season and recorded three more top-5 finishes in the Cy Young voting, capped off by a spectacular 1982 season when he led the NL with 36 saves and struck out Gorman Thomas of the Milwaukee Brewers to finish Game Seven of the World Series.

Sutter’s reputation was so strong during his prime that even when he faltered on the mound, opposing hitters (like Mike Schmidt in 1979 and Ryne Sandberg in 1984) were elevated just because they had succeeded against him.

He signed a lucrative free agent deal with the Atlanta Braves in 1985, but shoulder injuries derailed his career and he missed most of the next two seasons. He returned in 1988 and notched his 300th career save at age 35 on September 9 before retiring and settling in the Atlanta area with his wife, Jayme Leigh, and their three sons.

The Cardinals retired his number 42 in 2006 and the Hall of Fame came calling that same year, when he was elected by the baseball writers with 76.9 percent of the vote in his 13th year on the ballot.


Originally published: October 14, 2022. Last Updated: October 14, 2022.