Cy Young Award

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.

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