Day 32 of 2022 baseball books: The Year of the Kaat

“Good as Gold: My Eight Decades in Baseball”

The author:
Jim Kaat
With Douglas Lyons

The publishing info:
Triumph Books
304 pages
$28
Released April 19, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
The Baseball Hall of Fame website
At Bookshop.org
At Indiebound.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

Six decades into his life — four as an MLB player and coach, two as a broadcaster — Jim Kaat paused after the 2002 baseball season to write what he may have thought was the first and only autobiography he’d need or want to have published — “Still Pitching: Musing From the Mound and the Microphone,” for Triumph Books, released in April, ’03 (with Phil Pepe).

In the acknowledgements, Kaat was wise to include the contents of a note his son had recently sent him. In it, Jim Jr. acknowledged his dad’s final year of Hall of Fame eligibility had come and quietly passed the previous winter — with still no Cooperstown induction. At least he got 26.2 percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s vote in his last year (11th place, between Steve Garvey and Tommy John, and ahead of future Hall of Fame inductees Jack Morris and Alan Trammel). That total was a jump from the 19.5 he got in his first year of eligibility in 1989.

Wrote Jim Jr.:

“I just want to take a moment to congratulate you on your 130 writer votes. I know it does not matter to you and you never expressed a real concern, but if it means anything to you, you will always be a Hall of Famer in my book.

And one other thing, Dad, I want you to remember that scene from ‘The Natural.’ Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, asks Max Mercy, a New York sportswriter played by Robert Duvall, ‘Did you ever play the game, Max?’ His answer: ‘No, I never did. But I am here to protect the game.’ And Roy says, ‘Whose game, Max?’ And after an awkward pause, Max says: ‘Either way, Roy, hero or goat, you are going to make me a great story.’ And I say this to you because 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 respect from your peers. I love you, Dad.”

Well, guess what happened about 20 years later …

Kaat, along with Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges and Tony Oliva, gathered enough votes by the Golden Days Era Committee (looking at players from the 1950-1969 era) and squeezed into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 for ceremonies conducted this afternoon.

Kaat needed 12 of the 16 voters’ approval to get to 75 percent — and got exactly that (as did Hodges and Olivia)

His second autobio was actually ready to roll before that. Back in November, 2021, when some of the baseball-related books scheduled to come out this spring were posted on websites, note the tentative cover. So with that, Team Kaat could update the cover plate, and do so in plenty of time to coincide with his formal Hall pass in Cooperstown, N.Y.

So what changed? Peer pressure and perspective? Stats and stories? His consistent presence in the game as a broadcaster? Probably all that and more.

Kaat’s baseball card number obviously hadn’t changed — 25 MLB seasons, starting in 1959 when he was 20 and played for the original Washington Senators franchise. Trips through the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia and the New York Yankees, then winding down in fan-friendly St. Louis for ages 42, 43 and 44 (and finally on a World Series title team) when it all wrapped up in 1983.

(And now that we’ve become interested in such things about a player’s “last time out,” we see Kaat came in the eight inning, gave up a single to Dave Parker and then finished off Joaquin Andujar’s 13-6 win at Pittsburgh on July 1 with a 1-2-3.)

In 2021, Kaat still had 283 wins in 898 games, 180 complete games, 31 shutouts, and 4,500-plus innings to record 2,461 strike outs. A career WAR of 50.5 — which didn’t exist as as a measuring stick back then — was nothing to snort at.

A Game 7 matchup against Sandy Koufax in the ’65 World Series gave him a sizeable spotlight at the height of his career. Kaat defeated Koufax in Game 2 at Minnesota, 5-1, where Kaat drove in two runs with an eight-inning single. Koufax’s four-hit shutout defeated Kaat in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, 7-0.

(Original Caption) Closeups of Jim Kaat of the Minnesota Twins pitching in the fifth game of the World Series. The Twins ultimately lost the game 7-0.

Kaat could have had another Series appearance: On the last Saturday of the ’67 season, he went to the mound against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Twins were one win from wrapping up the AL pennant. Minnesota was up 1-0 in the third when Kaat came out with an elbow injury. The Red Sox won, then took the pennant on Sunday.

Three All-Star selections, three 20-win seasons, including leading the AL with 25 in 1966, where he had 41 starts, 19 complete games and 304 2/3 innings.

But here’s the catch: What seemed to separate him – and put him into a Greg Maddux-type conversation for comparison’s sake – was 16 Gold Glove awards. His abbreviated whip-it-up-there windup put him in perfect position to be an extra defender.

Even in 1969, when he had eight errors and a career-low .826 fielding percentage, he still won a Gold Glove, following the previous six seasons and continuing what would be seven more in a row.

As Baseball-Reference.com points out, there are a few ways of sizing up his stats that don’t measure up to an “average HOFer.”

The “average” Hall of Fame pitcher – which seems to be an oxymoron — has a 73.0 career WAR. But something called the “Hall of Fame Monitor” very much (lately) played in his favor – his was 130, with a “likely HOFer” was pulling about 100.

This ball signed by Jim Kaat acknowledging “Mickey Mantle hit 7 HRs off of me — all solo HRs” is on eBay.com for about $250.

That stat is a creation of Bill James and attempts to assess how likely an active player might be to making the Hall. A 130 is called a “virtual clinch.” It’s based on a point system James assigned to various statistical plateaus and honors reached during individual seasons as well as career totals. Kaat racks up most of his calculated numbers with career games (30 points), career wins (25 points, at being above 275), 15-or-more win seasons (36 total points) and one each for the Gold Gloves. Even though he was fifth in the AL MVP voting in 1966 and the only pitcher in the top five with his 25-13 record and 2.75 ERA with 304 2/3 innings, there was only one Cy Young Award given out at that time. That season, it went unanimously to Sandy Koufax (27-9, 1.73 ERA, 317 strikeouts). The next year, 1967, they finally gave one in each league.

An AL Cy in ’66 would have given Kaat five more total points.

It is undoubtedly a career accumulation that gets it done in a Don Sutton-esque fashion, and a body of voters who understand that.

But don’t overlook the decades in between when Kaat has been one of the most concise, sensible and knowledge TV broadcasters in the game, helping keep his voice in play as well as his “brand,” to a point where the game could give him added validaity had it only went the extra yard to induct him into the Hall as a player.

At age 83, with more than 50 years associated with the game, it has finally happened, and James Lee Kaat is here to experience it.

Jim Kaat speaks to the media in Cooperstown on Saturday, July 23 prior to his Sunday Hall of Fame induction.

And how does any of that figure in the context of this new book? It keeps Kaat’s consistent, congruent and clear-and-present-danger commentary relevant as today’s game continues to try to figure out what it’s trying to accomplish.

Amazon offers a $35 Kindle edition of four of David Halberstam’s most important sports-related titles. In our book, “Breaks of the Game” on the 1977 Portland TrailBlazers belongs in this company.

In that 2003 autobiography, esteemed journalist David Halberstam wrote an introduction and included a story about how he had been listening to a Yankees broadcast and couldn’t help but be captured by what he heard:

“At a certain point it struck me: Even though I am a lifelong baseball fan, there is still much for me to learn about the game. … It was great fun and listening to Jim Kaat gradually pulled me away from my work. After a few weeks, I wrote in an ESPN column that, in what was a damaged year in baseball, one in which the treat of a strike hung over most of the season, Kaat was my hero because he seemed to reflect what the game is all about. Gradually it struck me that I was listening to one of the best broadcasters I’d ever heard.”

In that July 2002 column Halberstam references, he also wrote: “One of my great pleasures has been a surprising one — the simple delight I take in listening to Jim Kaat, as he broadcasts the Yankee games. Quietly with no blather and bombast, he gives what is one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful ongoing seminars on pitching I’ve ever heard. Jim Kaat, you’re right up there for my MVP.”

Kaat already had the credibility as an observer of the game decades ago. But the game has changed much over the last 20 years, and consider this an important and viable refresh with much more circumstances to examine and help give us more to consider, whether on social media or, at last, in book form.

With Bob Costas often as his wingman on national MLB Network or TBS broadcasts — Kaat “retired” after the 2006 season from the Yankees’ YES Network but was likely forced out — Kaat’s conversations are in the same ballpark as what we enjoyed hearing a contemporary, Al Downing, when he was with the Dodgers as part of their broadcasting team many years ago. Speaking from experience on how the game was once played and how it presents itself today, one could argue it’s neither better nor worse, but just different.

In an easy-to-get-through chapters and presentations, Kaat will get his points across in a polite discourse — mostly in Chapter 6 — where he’ll comment on things such as:

Released in 2009.

== The game’s best time period: “I would have loved to have played in the era right after the players came back from World War II. There were just 16 teams. You played each team 22 times and traveled by train. I love train travel. That was baseball’s golden era for me: 1946-1957. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, Western civilization began to go downhill. Not really. THat’s just the voice of an old dinosaur who loved the hit-and-run, lead-off triples, squeeze plays and pitchers who could field their positions like Bobby Shantz.”

== Today’s players: “I’m happy whenever the Dodgers catcher Will Smith gets a big hit. He had no chains, beard or visible tattoos. He’s my kind of young man.”

== The 2020 and ’21 seasons: “Sixty games (in ’20, and a Dodgers World Series title)? That’s like playing 40 holes at the Masters and celebrating like you actually won it. Not legitimate. It should have been started earlier so they could have played at least 100 games. Stubborn leadership on both sides prevented that from happening. There were some disappointing parts of the 2021 season. With the friendly atmosphere on the field between players, some games looked like they’re intrasquad practice games. … and nine no-hitters! The influence of science is evident. With overthinking and input from the dugout the analytics department, the games lack a rhythm. … The game needs a more positive vibe.”

== Analytics: “Oh, how I wish those analytic people would have been working for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Seven of the 1965 World Series! We had a couple of men on base, and Sandy Koufax was going through the batting order for the third time. He worked out of the jam and shut us out 2-0. That was the last seven-game World Series where every win was a complete-game win.”

(Make the time to enjoy NBC’s beautifully restored black-and-white coverage of that game with Vin Scully and Ray Scott on the call:)

== Alex Rodriguez and steroid use: In context, Kaat documents an odd exchange he once had as a Yankees broadcaster and had to comment about Alex Rodriguez’s inability to push across runners in late-inning situations. ARod didn’t appreciate it and they had a talk, and “we have been fine ever since, though I don’t think it’s right that he gets all the exposure he does on TV and was even a candidate to buy the Mets. If I was commissioner, he would have been banned for life after his second offense. He is a well-mannered but insecure individual who seems to crave attention.”

Right on target as usual. He said as much in a 2014 blog post: “I have a question for Commissioner Selig as he heads into retirement. Why is Alex Rodriguez still allowed to play baseball and Pete Rose is serving a lifetime suspension? I don’t agree with what Pete did and I wish he had been remorseful. He didn’t admit he made a mistake and that hurt him. But Alex has not been overly remorseful, if remorseful at all. Unfortunately, his Hall of Fame numbers and talent will not be how he is defined. I think he will be remembered as the most selfish, arrogant, and self-centered player in history. Maybe a compromise since he wasn’t banned for life a couple years ago, which I certainly think he should have been. Start a fund for former players who are indigent, ill and/or have not much quality of life. Maybe name it the Alex Rodriguez I Wish I Had Been More Humble, Honest and Respectful of the Integrity of the Game Fund. Just a thought.”

Ultimately, the game has become something he doesn’t connect to as well as he once did, and it’s a fact that he could be done with it.

On page 199: “Tony Kubek … passed his job as the analyst on the MSG Network on to me because he lost interest in the way the game was being played and operated. I’m afraid my day of feeling that way is coming. I hope the way it is operated and played attracts a lot of new young fans. But it is far from its original concept of watching a couple of hours of action on a warm spring or summer afternoon where it was quite enough to hear the ball hit the bat sitting in the stands. I’m 83 as I write this. I am concerned about the game appealing to young fans in the years to come. I hope I’m wrong.”

So do we. And this is the right place to express that opinion.

How it goes in the scorebook

This is a fitting calling card for “Kitty” Kaat to have with him in Cooperstown.

Yet, deep down, we all know it a bronze plaque amidst the game’s immortals could hardly measure up to this … glass vase? — he recently received from the New York Yankees.

In late June, Kaat was made to stand near home plate and hold the New York Yankees’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

Why? Why not. But it comes perhaps with some shade thrown in.

During a Yankees-Twins telecast on MLB Network earlier in June, Kaat had been talking up Yankees pitcher Nestor Cortes ability to mow down hitters. “Nestor The Molester” was the phrase Kaat decided to use in describing Cortes’ nastiness.

The blowback was … notable in these days of social media shaming and all that involves. Kaat apologized. Cortes said he wasn’t offended.

And when it was decided by someone in the Yankees front office (George Costanza?) that Kaat needed some sort of public atonement with a dubious recognition that sounds like things the former president gave out to his friends like pardon, and they had run out of room in Monument Park, the team had Cortes present it to Kaat prior to a game he did with Costas for MLB Network.

Because, after all, Kaat did pitch 44 of his 898 games in Yankees pinstripes, none as a starter, covering the back half of 1979 and the first month of the 1980 season, and amassing a 2-4 record and 4.12 ERA before they sold him off to the Cardinals.

Imagine the Dodgers trying to hijack Rickey Henderson’s Hall of Fame induction by giving him the same kind of “lifetime” contribution to their franchise for the 30 games he played at the end of 2003 — highlighted in our review of Howard Bryant’s new biography on Henderson.

Kaat, by the way, was also pushed into another head-scratching moment eight months ago when, last October, he apologized after saying teams should try to “get a 40-acre field full of” players who look like Chicago White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada. Ask Spike Lee for some context to that — the reference to how the U.S. government once promised freed slaves 40 acres and a mule following the Civil War.

It didn’t sound like Kaat was referring specifically to that, but … are we good now?

One more thing to consider: Is there anyone whose been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player and then won the Ford C. Frick Award honoring one’s work as a broadcaster?

Nope.

Could Kaat be the first? That could be the MLB EGOT.

Kaat, who studied speech and journalism while playing baseball at Hope College before signing with the Senators in 1957, has frequently been on first-draft Frick Award ballots that often get winnowed down to a final eight-or-10 names. In 2004, he was already being considered, having logged 17 years working for the Yankees, Braves and Twins, plus his time with CBS, ABC, ESPN and The Baseball Network.

Of the 340 members now enshired in the Baseball Hall of Fame after today’s ceremonies — that includes players, managers, umpire, executive, owners and contributors — the ones who’d have strongest consideration to also get a Frick Award might be Richie Ashburn, Bert Blyleven, Lou Boudreau, Dizzy Dean, Don Drysdale, Harry Heilmann, Ralph Kiner, Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto and Don Sutton.

Perhaps John Smoltz or Pedro Martinez, if there is a length of time involved in their mike careers.

One could make a case for Blyleven, Boudreau, Rizzuto and Reese not even deserving of getting in as a player, but had the benefit of a broadcasting career keeping their names in circulation for voters. Dean barely logged in the necessary 10 years required for Hall of Fame induction as a player and compiled just 150 wins mostly from 1932 to ’41, but that included a stretch of 18, 20, 30, 28 and 24 – very Koufaxian. Then came the 1937 All-Star game injury and a spiral. Dean got into the Hall as a player in ’53, staying in the public eye as a colorful broadcaster for the Cardinals and Browns of St. Louis, then the Yankees, followed by national broadcasters Mutural Radio, ABC and CBS through 1965. Dean was among the finalists for the Frick Award in 2021, ’17, ’16, ’15, ’10, ’07, 06, ’05 … at some point, someone figured he’d just get in by voter exhaustion.

Drysdale was also a Frick finalist in ’21 (won by Al Michaels) and ’17 (won by Bob Costas). Morgan and Reese were also a finalist in ’17. Heilmann, elected as a player in 1952 after 19 years primarily with the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds (1913-32), was the Tigers’ radio voice from 1934-1950. He was on the Frick ballots in 2019, ’16 and ’15. Ashburn and Kiner were among the 10 candidates for the Frick in ‘15.

After the first Frick award was given in ’78, seven former players won it — Jerry Coleman, Jack Graney, Joe Garagiola, Bob Uecker, Tony Kubek, Tim McCarver and Ken Harrelson. But none were really in Hall of Fame player discussion. Graney, after 14 years as an outfielder with Cleveland, was the first former big leaguer to broadcast a game, and he did it for 22 years, as a pioneer on the medium.

Something to think about … And to begin preparing to happen for Kaat’s sake, and his stake in the game.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== While we’re in this Hall of Fame moment, consider a pre-order on “Baseball Memories and Dreams: Reflections on the National Pastime from the Baseball Hall of Fame” (National Baseball Hall of Fame Books, $29.95, 265 pages, due out Oct. 4, 2022). It is said to be “recollections of Hall of Famers and narratives from top baseball writers” picked up from the Baseball Hall of Fame’s member magazine, “Baseball Memories & Dreams.” Included are postings by Johnny Bench, Peter Gammons, John Grisham, Tim Kurkjian, Ichiro Suzuki and Joe Torre.

== Kaat talks about his book on SportsBylineUSA.com.

== The Holland (Mich.) Sentinel excerpts all the Kaat material about him growing up in Zeeland, Mich., a town today with a population of about 5,000, near Lake Michigan just southwest of Grand Rapids. Kaat dedicated his first book to his father, John Kaat, who worked at the local Dutch turkey hatchery but “known as ‘Mr. Baseball’ in Zeeland and who took Jim to his first game at Briggs Stadium in 1946.

== One other previous Kaat-scratched-out book for Triumph: The 2015 “If These Walls Could Talk: New York Yankees,” with Greg Jennings. Also, in April 2023, a paperback of “Good As Gold” is scheduled to be released for $18.95, perhaps with a reflection of his Hall of Fame induction experience as the new intro.

== More books by co-author and SABR member Douglas Lyons include “100 Years of Who’s Who in Baseball” (Lyons Press, 2015); “Can You Believe It?: 30 Years of Insider Stories with the Boston Red Sox,” (with Joe Castiglione, Triumph Books, 2012),” “Out of Left Field, Short Hops and Foul Tips: 1,734 Wild and Wacky Baseball Facts,” (with brother and famous movie critic Jeffrey Lyons, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005), “Catching Heat: The Jim Leyritz Story,” (co-authored with Leyritz and brother Jeffrey Lyons, HCI, 2011), “Curveballs and Screwballs: Over 1,286 Incredible Baseball Facts, Finds, Flukes, and More!” (with brother Jeffrey, Random House, 2001), and “From an Orphan to a King: Eddie Feigner” (with the famous softball star Feigner, Immortal Investments Publishing, 2004).

1 thought on “Day 32 of 2022 baseball books: The Year of the Kaat”

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