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As a player, coach and broadcaster, Jim Kaat has given more than 65 years of his life to the game of baseball.

When you are that devoted to any field for that amount of time, there should be a plaque in your honor somewhere.

Kaat will get that plaque, but it won’t be on display just anywhere: It will grace the prestigious Plaque Gallery in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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A consistent, reliable, workhouse of a hurler, Kaat spent most of his playing days as a starting pitcher. However, he also proved to be effective coming out of the bullpen late in his major league career.

Kaat was elected to Cooperstown on Dec. 5, 2021 by the Hall of Fame’s Golden Days Era Committee. The honor came years after the crafty left-hander last took the mound in 1983.

“I really didn’t think this day would ever come,” a grateful Kaat said. “This is a gift to me, and I’m so appreciative.”

After retiring from playing, Kaat was never far from the game. He put together an award-winning career as a television baseball analyst and broadcaster, which included stints in the booth with the Twins and the Yankees, as well as national networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN and MLB Network. He has won seven Emmy Awards for excellence in broadcasting.

CBS broadcasters Tim McCarver and Jim Kaat prior to Game 1 of the 1990 World Series in Cincinnati.

CBS broadcasters Tim McCarver and Jim Kaat prior to Game 1 of the 1990 World Series in Cincinnati.

Baseball Art by Ronnie Joyner: Jim Kaat 

As Kaat neared the end of his playing career in the early 1980s, baseball fans thought his 283 wins would make him a cinch to get into Cooperstown. But things didn’t work out that way. The three-time All-Star just missed garnering enough votes to get elected on a number of occasions.

Still, when considering pitchers of his era, Kaat was always ranked among the best. He managed to play major league baseball for 25 seasons (1959–1983), compiling one of the game’s longest careers.

Jim Kaat pitches against the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota.

Jim Kaat pitches against the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota.

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The southpaw said his career was one of “durability and dependability” more than dominance.

“I know I’m not in the class of Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. But I’m grateful that the Hall of Fame also recognized accomplishments made over a long period of time,” said Kaat, who will be inducted into Cooperstown on July 24.

Fans who have followed major league baseball since the late 1950s no doubt remember when a young Kaat was called up to the woeful Washington Senators on Aug. 2, 1959. He started toeing the mound for the Senators when they were still the butt of a joke — “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Nevertheless, the Senators had some talent, including Camilo Pascual, Harmon Killebrew, Bobby Allison and an up-and-coming Zoilo Versalles. But Senators fans would never reap the rewards of having these gifted players on their home team. The Senators left the District of Columbia for the Twin Cities in 1962 — Kaat and company included.

By 1965, the former Washington Senators — now the Minnesota Twins — would raise the American League pennant over Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Kaat figured prominently in that effort. The 6-foot-5 lefty won 18 games for the 1965 Twins, with a 2.83 ERA over 264 innings.

(From left) Twins stars Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Bob Allison celebrate a win for the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series.

(From left) Twins stars Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Bob Allison celebrate a win for the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series

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The Twins played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series, and Kaat had the unenviable task of pitching against Koufax in three games in that Fall Classic. The first two games were in Minnesota. The Twins jumped out to a fast start, winning Game 1, 8–2, against Dodgers pitching great Don Drysdale.

Koufax, who is Jewish, normally would have started Game 1, but the game fell on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Koufax took the day off to observe the holiday. He started Game 2 instead against Kaat.

The Minnesota starter was warming up for the game when he spotted Koufax throwing in the Dodgers bullpen.

“The bullpens were right next to each other,” Kaat recalled. “I could hear how hard Sandy was throwing. The ball was popping into the catcher’s mitt.”

It was a cold, gray day in Minnesota and Koufax shouted over to him, “Do you guys really play in this weather?” “I said, ‘Yeah, we’re even kind of used to it,’” Kaat replied.

For a brief moment, Kaat thought the Twins might have a chance to win Game 2 because they were accustomed to playing in the raw October weather and the Dodgers weren’t. But after he saw Koufax pitch for a couple of innings, the young Twins star remembered saying to pitching coach, Johnny Sain, “If I give up a run, the game is over. Nobody could hit this guy.”

In the bottom of the sixth inning, a Dodgers error allowed the Twins to score a run and they tacked on another in the inning to take a 2–0 lead. The Dodgers got a run back in the top of the seventh and then, with a couple of men on in that same inning, decided to pinch-hit for Koufax. But the move didn’t pay off, as Kaat retired the Dodgers without allowing another run.

With Koufax out of the game, the Twins added three more runs to win Game 2, 5–1. Kaat got the win and the Twins captured the first two games of the series. The Dodgers won the next three games in Los Angeles, however, to lead the series 3 games to 2. After the Twins were victorious in Game 6 in Minnesota, the Dodgers took Game 7, also played in the Twin Cities, and won the series.

As for Koufax, after Game 2, the Twins didn’t score another run off him for the rest of the series. He shut them out in both Game 5 (7–0) and the pivotal Game 7 (2–0). Kaat took the loss in both games. At the time, he never envisioned that one day both he and Koufax would end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Koufax is right up front. I’m in the back someplace, because Koufax was the dominant pitcher of that era,” Kaat said. “With no disrespect to Bob Gibson, Seaver or Marichal, but Sandy, winning all those games for a team that didn’t score a lot of runs for him, was pretty impressive,” Kaat said.

Despite the thrill of playing in the Fall Classic, Kaat was disappointed he didn’t come away with a World Series ring in 1965. But he never gave up on his pursuit, and his persistence would pay off 17 years later. In 1982, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Kaat — by this time winding down his lengthy major league playing career — would finally bask in the glory of winning it all.

GROWTH SPURT

Kaat, 83, hails from Zeeland, Mich. That city bestowed legendary status on him decades ago when he first started baffling big-league hitters with his fastball, slider and change-up. The new Hall of Famer was not a big kid when he attended Zeeland High School in the early 1950s. He was 5-10 and 170 pounds when he pitched in high school, but even then, he knew how to get batters out.

Despite his pitching prowess at a young age, he was not offered any college scholarships to play baseball because college recruiters thought he was too small. So Kaat enrolled at Hope College, a small school in Holland, Mich., not far from Zeeland. For some reason, Kaat grew to 6-3 between the time he graduated from high school in the spring of 1956 and when he entered college in the fall of that same year. The growing teen added some weight as well.

He joined the Hope College baseball team in his freshman year, won all six games he pitched and only gave up one earned run. But what really attracted attention was that he had outstanding control in all his outings in college.

After his college season was over in the spring of 1957, the wide-eyed youngster was contacted by the Washington Senators. It turns out the Senators had a scout looking for talent in west-central Michigan, where Hope College is located, and he saw Kaat pitch several times. Washington offered Kaat, now 6-4 and closing in on 190 pounds, a tryout.

“I jumped at the chance,” Kaat remembered.

The tryout took place about a week later. The 18-year-old Kaat was offered a contract with the Senators the day after he tried out. After signing on, he was sent immediately to play Class-D Ball with the Superior (Nebraska) Senators in the Nebraska State League.

The left-handed hurler spent most of his time between 1957 and 1960 in the minor leagues, “learning how to pitch” at the professional level, he noted. Kaat did get some major league experience as a late-season call-up in both 1959 and 1960. But it was a bumpy road for him.

In 1959, Kaat was 0–2 in three appearances with the Senators. He got more work in the big leagues late in the season in 1960 with nine starts and four relief appearances, but had a 1–5 record for a team that wasn’t very good. Still, the Washington organization saw Kaat’s potential, and he would be in the major leagues for good starting in 1961.

Jim Kaat's 1960 Topps rookie card.

Jim Kaat's 1960 Topps rookie card.

Only Kaat was not wearing a Senators uniform anymore. After the team moved to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins, Kaat became a pitching force to be reckoned with for the next couple of decades.

Though he only had nine wins in his first full season with the Twins, Kaat pitched more than 200 innings and showed tenacity in each of his 29 starts. It was clear that he was going to be a key cog on the Minnesota pitching staff.

One thing that made the Twins’ pitcher stand out right away was how quickly he worked from the mound. He didn’t dawdle when he got the ball back from the catcher. He fired the next pitch within seconds after the backstop sent the ball back to the mound. At first, even some umpires had trouble getting into position fast enough to make the calls behind the plate when Kaat was on the mound.

“Working fast caught batters off-guard and off-balance,” Kaat said.

Pitching quickly worked for Kaat. He started racking up wins. He had 18 victories in 1962, fell off a bit in 1963 with only 10, and then won 17 games in 1964, 18 in 1965, an incredible 25 wins in 1966, and so on, until he amassed 190 wins during his 15-year career (1959–1973) with the Twins.

1963 Topps Jim Kaat card.

1963 Topps Jim Kaat card.

In 1966, baseball only gave out one Cy Young Award. That changed in 1967 when one was presented in each league. But with the rules as they were in 1966, Kaat, with his 25 wins, a 2.75 ERA and 205 strikeouts, came in second in the Cy Young voting behind Koufax, who had 27 wins, a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts.

In 1967, Kaat practically pitched the Twins to their second pennant in three years when he had a blistering September. In that last month of the regular season, he went 7–0 as the Twins battled for the American League pennant. But Minnesota came up short, finishing in second place, one game behind the pennant-winning Boston Red Sox. Kaat would again have to wait to reach his goal of getting a World Series ring.

1967 Topps Jim Kaat card.

1967 Topps Jim Kaat card.

In 1969, the American and National Leagues were split into two divisions. The Twins won the AL Western Division in both 1969 and 1970. Kaat viewed this as another chance to win a World Championship. But the Twins lost the American League Championship Series both times to the powerful Baltimore Orioles.

DURABLE AND DEPENDABLE

Kaat was a steady and disciplined pitcher for the Twins during his 15 years with the club. He pitched more than 4,500 innings, made 433 starts and was the starting pitcher in some of the franchise’s biggest games. In an age long before pitch counts, he routinely pitched seven or more innings when he started a game. He threw 180 complete games with the Twins and rarely missed his turn in the rotation, taking pressure off the Twins’ bullpen.

“People would always ask me in spring training what my goals were for the season,” the southpaw said. “Most pitchers would talk about how many wins they wanted. My goal was always to start 40 games and pitch 280 innings over the course of a season. That meant a lot to me and I took great pride in it.”

Baseball has changed significantly since the era when he played, Kaat said.

“If you were to go in and tell the pitching coach that you had a long game the last time out, you are a little stiff and need another day to rest, he might say, ‘OK, we’ll go with someone else,’ but you know that if that other pitcher did well, you could have a hard time getting back into the rotation,” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen, so I learned to go out there every four days.”

According to the star hurler, starting pitchers today could certainly go deeper in games, but they’re not trained to do so. The game is becoming more specialized, he said, and some starters don’t even get a chance to face a lineup a third time around. That, he noted, is going to make it hard to evaluate exactly how good a starting pitcher is today, compared to hurlers of the past.

But Kaat is not completely surprised by how the game has evolved. The new Hall of Famer was quite close with his pitching coach in Minnesota, Johnny Sain.

“In the 1960s, Johnny told me that the day is coming when a team that can’t find five starters will use three pitchers to pitch three innings each to get through the game,” Kaat recalled. “He also told me the day is coming when a team will use a pitcher to get just one, two, or three outs in an inning, and that’s it. Can you imagine — he was saying this in the 1960s.”

Sain was a well-respected, right-handed starting pitcher, known for his playing days with the Boston Braves (1942, 1946–1951). He teamed up with left-hander Warren Spahn to give the Braves one of the best one-two punches in the major leagues. Sain became a top-notch pitching coach after his playing days were over.

During the 1973 season, the Twins thought Kaat had reached the end of the line and put him on waivers late in the season. He was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, where he was reunited with Sain, the pitching coach for the Pale Hose. Sain had been let go years earlier by the Twins.

“Johnny really saved my career. We made a few adjustments, including a quicker release of the ball, and I started to win again,” Kaat said.

The lefty won 21 games with the White Sox in 1974, and then won 20 in 1975.

1974 Topps Jim Kaat card.

1974 Topps Jim Kaat card.

In a cost-cutting move, Chicago sent Kaat to the Phillies in 1976. He spent three seasons in Philadelphia and won 27 games during that time. Early in the 1979 season, the veteran hurler went from the Phillies to the New York Yankees, where the 40-year-old Kaat put in some solid relief appearances.

While Kaat still felt he could start, he was willing to take on whatever role the Yankees wanted him to. Early in the 1980 season, the Yanks sold Kaat’s contract to the St. Louis Cardinals. Little did he know that he would find what he had been looking for his entire career with the Redbirds.

“I started some games for the Cardinals in 1981. Then Whitey Herzog [the Cardinals manager] came to me and said I want you to be my lefty coming out of the bullpen against lefty hitters in 1982,” Kaat said. “He told me the team was going to get [star closer] Bruce Sutter and build the pitching staff from the ninth inning back.”

Jim Kaat finally won the World Series in 1982 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jim Kaat finally won a World Series in 1982 with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

The All-Star was glad he agreed to his new role because the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982.

“I always said that even if I never get into the Hall of Fame, that World Series ring was something that I really cherish,” Kaat said.

Kaat acknowledged that it took some adjustment to go from a starter to a relief role.

“As a starter, there isn’t that urgency when you come into the game. You can take your time getting the feel of the mound to get comfortable,” he said. “As a reliever, sometimes you think you have to come in and throw as hard as you can and then you tend to overthrow the ball. You have to learn to warm up in a hurry, but then come in and pitch like you always have.

“I learned from Bruce Sutter — the gold standard when it comes to relief pitching — how to handle the pressure in a relief role. He would come in in the ninth inning and pitch like it was the first inning and that’s what you have to be able to do.”

The news in 1982 that he would be pitching solely out of the bullpen meant Kaat might never get a chance to win 300 games, which he didn’t.

“Winning 300 was never an obsession with me,” he said. “I knew it was sort of a benchmark with pitchers. But my goal at the time was to pitch as long as I could and pitch for teams that had a chance to win.

“I’m glad I made the choice I did to pitch in relief. It gave me the chance to win a World Series. I wouldn’t trade those years as a reliever for the Cardinals for anything.”

KAAT OR “KATT”

In sports, a nickname can quickly make you a fan favorite and Kaat had one — “Kitty.” And there’s a fascinating story behind that moniker.

“When I first started out in professional ball, everyone, including my teammates, pronounced my name ‘Cat,’” he said.

Kaat is a Dutch name that is actually pronounced “Cot.” But the pitcher himself didn’t correct the mispronunciation at first. Adding to the confusion, Kaat’s 1965 Topps card has his name spelled incorrectly. He appears on card number #62 with the name “Jim Katt” under his picture on the front of the card. His name is spelled correctly on the card’s flip side.

Jim Kaat’s 1965 Topps card has his name spelled incorrectly. He appears on card number #62 with the name “Jim Katt”

Jim Kaat’s 1965 Topps card has his name spelled incorrectly. He appears on card number #62 with the name “Jim Katt”

But “Cat” seemed to fit because the young pitcher was a great fielder, with cat-like reflexes when playing a ball hit near him. Kaat’s fielding prowess was truly amazing as he won an astounding 16 Gold Glove Awards in a row (1962–1977).

From “Cat,” the nickname morphed into “Kitty.” Late in his career, when it looked like his playing days were coming to an end, Kaat always managed to find a team that needed an experienced pitcher. He did it over and over again for roughly 10 seasons. That led other players around the majors to muse that the aging “Kitty” had nine lives.

Now, all those lives, which made up one stellar career, will forever be celebrated in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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