Sutter, Ellsworth were stingiest of Cubs, but their pitching feats don’t get enough credit

By on October 18, 2022

Bruce Sutter

Bruce Sutter

Bruce Sutter and Dick Ellsworth were united in death recently with not else much in common other than a couple of salient facts.

The pair were practically the stingiest pitchers in modern Cubs history in one season — both counseled by crafty pitching coach Fred Martin — who got scant recognition for their feats at Wrigley Field and team events after their careers.

Hall of Famer Sutter died too young at 69. Ellsworth lived to a riper old age at 82. But if you looked around at Cubs Conventions and other alumni gatherings from the mid-1980s, they were not around, given despite their status in Cubs annals for two of the best pitching seasons ever. More about that in a little while.

Master of the most deceptive pitch this side of the knuckleball, split-finger fastball master Sutter was the first reliever to win the Cy Young Award, in 1979, as a Cub, a feat that unfortunately speeded his departure out of town. Ellsworth, at his best the epitome of a “stylish left-hander,” was the last Cubs southpaw to win 20 games, in 1963. No, two-no-hitters Ken Holtzman and World Series champion mentor Jon Lester never got to 20 wins as Cubs.

When “stingy” is broken down further, no other Cubs pitcher with the exception of Jake Arrieta can compare with Sutter’s and Ellsworth’s one-season accomplishments.

Sutter was taught the forkball-type splitter by Martin in 1973 in Quincy, Ill., the Cubs Class A affiliate in the Midwest League. The savvy pitching tutor had been banished to the Cubs minor-league system over an apparent personal issue after serving as Ellsworth’s ’63 big-league pitching coach. Martin has never gotten the credit he deserves for being connected to two of the Cubs’ best pitching seasons in franchise history.

Owner Bill Veeck hired Martin to be White Sox pitching coach in 1979 at the recommendation of new player-manager Don Kessinger. who knew how Martin had positively impacted pitchers from his Cubs shortstop days. Unfortunately, Martin died of cancer in June 1979, “(He) had the unusual faculty of being able to teach,” said Veeck after Martin’s death “The extremely sad point of it is he helped our young pitchers so much and won’t be able to see the fruition of his teaching.”

After learning this new pitch from Martin, Sutter was called up to the Cubs almost out of desperation a month into the 1976 season. The Cubs pitching staff had endured a number of fearsome bombardments, including Mike Schmidt’s four-homer game on April 17. Late-inning relievers like Mike Garman, Oscar Zamora and Darold Knowles had been found wanting.

By mid-season 1976 Sutter was the closer at age 23 and racked up 10 saves with a 2.70 ERA and just 63 hits allowed in 83 1/3 innings. But he really stunned the National League in 1977 when the splitter became virtually unhittable. Coming in like an average straight fastball, hitters had to commit to swinging for fear the splitter was not going to break straight down. But break it did almost always, the baffled batsmen swinging helplessly over the pitch. Sometimes Sutter fooled ‘em by throwing a real fastball down the middle, freezing them in their place.

Nobody had ever seen a pitch like that, or knew how to react. A handful of left-handed hitters like the Cardinals’ Ted Simmons (a switch-hitter) or the Padres’ Gene Richards or Jerry Turner had low-ball swings that could go down and golf a low Sutter pitch. But many lefty batters went down like their right-handed brethren as Sutter’s near-perfect closing talents fueled a Cubs’ all-time record hot streak for a 53-game stretch. In May and June 1977, the Cubs went 40-13 and sported a 47-22 record and 8 ½-game first-place lead on June 28. Sutter saved three wins in a row through that date, with 21 saves overall and a miniscule 0.68 ERA. Bumper stickers proclaiming, “Only The Lord Saves More Than Sutter,” began appearing.

Sutter too much of a good thing for Franks

Problem was, if hitters did not know how to handle Sutter, neither did first-year manager Herman Franks. The round, gruff Franks had turned down the skipper’s job back in 1969 when an angry P.K. Wrigley momentarily wanted to fire Leo Durocher for an unexcused three-day absence to visit his stepson’s summer camp in northern Wisconsin. He did not at first believe there was too much of a good thing in Sutter, working him in all those consecutive games in a row or pitching him as long as three innings in save situations.

By mid-July Sutter complained of a sore shoulder and began missing chunks of time. The injury was first diagnosed as a “knot” in the right shoulder, but both doctors and trainers were almost flying blind in 1977.

“He probably had a torn muscle in his upper back but we didn’t have MRIs at the time and nothing showed on X-rays,” said then-first-year Cubs trainer Tony Garofalo. “Some days were worse than others. On the bad days he didn’t pitch. I just tried to keep him as loose as possible.”

Tony Garofalo (center) was re-united with Bruce Sutter (right) and Bill Buckner left at a 2010 softball game.

Tony Garofalo (center) was re-united with Bruce Sutter (right) and Bill Buckner left at a 2010 softball game.

By August Sutter did not pitch at all and the Cubs collapsed like a punctured balloon with a lack of power, mediocre starting pitching after Rick Reuschel and an incapable bullpen in Sutter’s absence. GM Bob Kennedy even hired an overly ripe Dave Giusti as fill-in closer. Tied for first as late as August 6, the Cubs finished the month 9 ½ games back as the powerful Phillies simply blasted past them.

The collapse picked up more speed in the final month as the Cubs, still 76-64 on September 8 and a respectable season still a possibility, lost their final five in a row to finish at 81-81. Sutter returned to pitch decently, winning two games in a row through that September 8 game. He finished with 31 saves, a 1.34 ERA, just 69 hits allowed with 129 strikeouts in 107 1/3 innings and a WHIP of just 0.857. Chastened by both the collapse and his overwork of Sutter, Franks shortened his closer’s outings over the next two seasons, enabling him to set a then NL record of 37 saves to snare the Cy Young Award in 1979.

“He had the ability to forget a bad outing,” said Garofalo. “Thirty minutes after the game, good or bad, it was history.”

Ellsworth watched Sutter’s emergence from afar from his native Fresno, Calif. He knew exactly what it was like to pitch effectively in Wrigley Field, which was then considered a pitcher’s unfriendly bandbox.

Lefty rushed to the Cubs right out of high school

Dick Ellsworth

Dick Ellsworth

Signed out of Fresno High School at 18 in 1958, Ellsworth immediately experienced the impatient, rush-‘em-up (and eventually ship ‘em out) philosophy of Cubs GM John Holland. He started in an exhibition game against the White Sox soon after graduation. On June 22, 1958, he was promoted to the Cubs and a start against the Reds at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Obviously nervous and not ready, Ellsworth gave up four runs and three walks in 2 1/3 innings, taking the defeat.

But he was back at Wrigley Field full-time at 20 in 1960 as Holland shuffled starters in and out after a spate of injuries to the likes of Dick Drott and Moe Drabowsky. He did not pitch badly for a raw southpaw on a 94-loss team, going 7-13 with a 3.72 ERA. Ellsworth was 10-11 in 1961 before enduring yet another Cubs distinction on the 103-loss team in 1962. He lost 20 games, laying the groundwork as the only modern Cubs hurler to twice lose 20 in his career – Ellsworth dropped 22 games on another 103-loss squad in Durocher’s first year as manager in 1966. Perhaps he was the role model for Jack Brickhouse’s admonition that a 20-game loser has to be a good pitcher if his manager sends him out that many times to start.

In between, however, Ellsworth earned a mark of distinction that resonates even today. With the rotating bodies of the College of Coaches ended in 1963, he was aided by the stability of one manager (“head coach” Kennedy in his first Cubs job) and Martin, in the first of his two seasons as the parent club’s pitching coach. He put everything together to rank as baseball’s best left-hander after Sandy Koufax and Warren Spahn, the latter in his final 20-win season.

Employing a sinking fastball and a good slider, Ellsworth went 22-10 in 1963 with a 2.11 ERA, which ranked as the lowest Cubs starter’s ERA from at least the 1930s until Arrieta blew away most team pitching marks with a 1.77 ERA in 2015. He allowed just 223 hits with 75 walks in 290 2/3 innings for a 1.025 WHIP. Ellsworth served up only14 homers. Just like Sutter as an impetus for a team revival, Ellsworth helped the Cubs to an 82-80 record, their only above-.500 season between 1946 and 1967. The Cubs were 58-48 on the fringe of contention in early August, but slid back to .500 without an ill Ernie Banks in the lineup. Mr. Cub had 17 homers in mid-June, but just one more the rest of the season.

Cubs staff second in ERA to Koufax’s Dodgers

Ellsworth also enabled the Cubs’ staff as a whole to rank second (3.08) to the Koufax-Don Drysdale Dodgers (2.85) in ERA in the pitching-oriented season, perhaps second in the 1960s to 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher.” No. 2 starter on the ’63 Cubs was right-hander Larry Jackson, one in a string of Cardinals’ imports by Holland and successor-once-removed Kennedy. Jackson had one of the great statistical anomalies in Cubs history – a 2.55 ERA despite a 14-18 record. Jackson lost his last seven decisions in a row on a team with little second-half offense besides Ron Santo and Billy Williams.

Ellsworth’s sensational season made him a Cubs hero to more than one young Baby Boomer fan at the time. Grown to senior status, they still fondly talked about the craftsman like lefty who made the Cubs competitive, at least for a moment.

As in 1977, the team revival did not stick, thanks to an ace’s injury – in this case Ellsworth’s elbow compared to Sutter’s back/ shoulder. He was 10-6 with a 2.87 ERA after a June 27, 1964 victory over the Colt .45s (now the Astros). Holland had traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals 12 days earlier on the theory he’d be adding veteran Ernie Broglio to a rotation led by Ellsworth along with Jackson and Bob Buhl. The Cubs were 33-32 after the Ellsworth win.

But both Ellsworth and the Cubs backslid from that point forward. He made the same number of starts (37) as in 1963, but finished 1964 at 14-18 with a 3.75 ERA as the Cubs finished 76-86, again in eighth place while Brock collected his first World Series ring. Decades later, Ellsworth told me he developed tendinitis that prevented him from throwing his slider. But bowing to the job insecurities of his time, Ellsworth downplayed his pain and made all his starts amid decreasing effectiveness.

Sutter and Ellsworth moved on from the Cubs in mid-career, watering down their impact in team history and becoming overlooked by an organization where institutional memory was hardly a strength.

Inheritance tax mess cost Cubs Sutter

Sutter became caught up in owner Bill Wrigley’s financial difficulties from a $40 million inheritance tax burden due to the 1977 deaths, months apart, of parents P.K. and Helen Wrigley. Seeking to collect his just-due after the 1979 Cy Young Award season, Sutter apparently agreed on a new multi-year deal with Kennedy in the annual range of $450,000, doubling his 1979 salary.

But Bill Wrigley put the kibosh on the agreement. Sutter went to arbitration with the demand for $700,000 at a time when only one player in the majors made as much as $1 million. The Cubs countered with $350,000. Young executive Andy MacPhail handled the Cubs’ side of the arbitration and was praised for his presentation, but still lost. Wrigley could not abide paying $700,000 to any player. After Sutter’s 28-save season for the 64-98, last-place Cubs of 1980, Wrigley ordered him traded. Former Cardinals farm director Kennedy went to the well again with his old team, dispatching Sutter down I-55, getting Leon Durham as the main player in return.

Sutter went on to help clinch the 1982 World Series for the Cardinals and set another record with 45 saves in 1984 before cashing in on a free-agent deal with Atlanta. Yet his Cubs accomplishments seemed to be buried after he served up two consecutive game-tying homers to Ryne Sandberg in the famed nationally-televised game on June 23, 1984. Sutter seemingly was more remembered for the shocking gopher balls in St. Louis road powder blue than the countless swings and misses wearing blue pinstripes with the Wrigley Field crowd standing and roaring its encouragement.

In future decades as he gained an entrée to Cooperstown, Sutter almost totally identified with the Cardinals. He was a regular attendee in a red team jacket in the reunion of franchise greats in St. Louis home openers, his trademark white beard growing longer each year. He was absent from similar Cubs events, with the probable exception of the All-Century Team ceremony in 1999 at Wrigley Field. In a related twist, Reuschel, who became friendly with Sutter in their Cubs seasons, served a term as president and still is active with the Pirates’ Alumni Association, after his late-career comeback in Pittsburgh and second marriage to former Cubs teammate Scot Thompson’s sister.

Smith now the top alumni Cubs reliever

I recall trying to reach Sutter in the off-season, but was told he was out hunting, a favorite pastime. By now fellow Hall of Famer Lee Arthur Smith, a one-month Cubs teammate of Sutter’s in September 1980, is the headline reliever when the Cubs’ Cooperstown alums get together for team events. Although Smith went on to pitch for the Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles and Expos, he had long-time personal or teammate/coach relationships with the likes of Sandberg, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams and Andre Dawson, a quartet with whom he most often appears.

Ellsworth kept his affinity for the Cubs even after service on the Phillies, Red Sox (16-7 season in 1968), Indians (now the Guardians), and Brewers. But he told me that when he went on the field at Wrigley Field sometime in the late 1980s on an official visit, some young front-office functionary spotted him, did not recognize Ellsworth and yelled at him to get off the field. Offended, Ellsworth never attended a Cubs game in a ceremonial capacity again, instead watching from the grandstands. I don’t know if any subsequent attempts were made to mend the fences with Ellsworth.

But he was just a phone call away on his real-estate job in Fresno, where he also served for years as a part owner of the Triple-A franchise when it was affiliated with the Giants. Without any formal Cubs Alumni Association or on-staff historian, any re-rapprochement with Ellsworth was apparently blunted. I wrote about the situation multiple times, yet the narrative likely fell on deaf ears.

Sutter and Ellsworth were plain-spoken men who would have been great ambassadors for the Cubs.

Even in his informal exile from Wrigley Field, Sutter stayed close to Garofalo.

“The sad thing about his passing was that we just spoke about four weeks ago,” said Garofalo. “I knew he had back surgery and I called to see how he was feeling. He asked how I felt after my cardiac rehab. He joked that it would be tough to get the old gang together on the field.

“Before he hung up he said. ‘At least we are looking down at the grass instead of up. Love ‘ya brother.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Although he was a near-lifelong California Central Valley guy, Ellsworth settled into a house in north suburban Morton Grove during his Cubs days. The late bard of Morton Grove, former Cubs pitcher-turned-author Jim Brosnan, told me his daughter baby-sat for Ellsworth’s kids, which included future major-league pitcher Steve Ellsworth. Upon hearing of Ellsworth’s passing, a Facebook poster recalled going with other Morton Grove kids and, on a dare, knocking on Ellsworth’s door. Most big leaguers weren’t so haughty or super-affluent to play keep away circa 1963. The lefty came out and gabbed with the kids on his front stoop.

Sitting on the nostalgia stoop, talking to the mass of fans about their Cubs days, now is a permanent hole in the team narrative when Sutter’s and Ellsworth’s post-baseball timelines are remembered.

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