Thursday, June 21, 2012

#385 - Don Gullett

Why does Don Gullett look so concerned? He’s at Shea but I don’t believe this is before a playoff game. He is in the midst of an excellent bounce back from what had been the worst year of his career. He was still a couple seasons away from the arm problems that would permanently derail that career. None of those. Don always looked that way, thanks to those sloping eyebrows that sort of enhanced that “aw shucks” image of his while on the mound. At least until batters saw his 96 MPH heater.

Don Gullett grew up in Kentucky, not terribly far from Cincinnati. He was in a large family and was an excellent athlete. His senior year in high school he scored 72 points in a football game, 47 points in a hoops game, and struck out 20 of 21 batters in a perfect game from the mound. Signed by the Reds as a first-rounder in ’69 he pretty much toyed with the batters that summer in A ball. The Reds had seen enough and by the end of spring training in ’70 he was up for good.

In 1970 the Reds were stocked with young pitchers and two of them – Gary Nolan and Wayne Simpson – were already in the rotation so Gullett was put in the pen. There he did a pretty nice job putting up a K an inning while picking up six saves. He then had an excellent post-season, giving up one earned run in ten innings. In ’71 Simpson sort of fell apart and Don moved seamlessly into the rotation to lead the NL in winning percentage even though the Reds fell hard from the prior year. ’72 was a bit of a bummer since early in the season a bout of hepatitis sapped Don’s strength and led to a season-long slump that resulted in his only losing record ever. He had a tough playoff against Pittsburgh but rallied in the Series against Oakland. In ’73 he augmented his rotation time with some pen work and put up his biggest season in terms of wins and games though his ERA was still relatively toppy. In ’74 he went 17-11 while lowering his ERA half a run and topped out in innings and strikeouts, with 243 and 183 respectively. Then in ’75 he got hit by a comebacker from Larvell Blanks and broke his thumb on his pitching hand, missing nearly half the season. Too bad because his 15-4 record and 2.42 ERA meant he had come all the way back from his ’72 infection. This time he won his only playoff start against the Pirates also grabbing three RBI’s in the game. He then started three games in the Series and won his first ring. In ’76 he began experiencing some shoulder issues and also saw his workload diminished a bit as he was involved in protracted contract talks with management. But like in ’75 he maxed out his mound time, going 11-3 and had another excellent post-season both on the mound and at the plate. Then after the contract talks officially broke down he went to Series rival New York as a free agent.

With the Yankees in ’77 Gullett had a season similar to his ’76 as shoulder problems limited his rotation time. But he went 14-4 to lead the AL in winning percentage and was happily part of his third Series winner in a row. But this time he struggled badly in the post-season as he got bombed by Kansas City and wasn’t too effective against LA. He did a bit of off-season rehab work and got off to a nice start in ’78 but that spring his arm popped and it would eventually turn out that his rotator cuff had significant damage that had been accruing for the past few seasons. It would be a career-killer. Don had it operated on but he was never able to return to the mound and he was formally released after the ’80 season. At only 27 he had gone 109-50 with a 3.11 ERA, 44 complete games, 14 shutouts, and eleven saves. In the post-season he was 4-5 with a 3.77 ERA in 20 games. He did pretty well as a hitter, posting a .194 average with 36 RBI’s in the regular season and .292 with six RBI’s in the post-season. He has the seventh best winning percentage of guys with 100-plus decisions of all time.

Gullett was pretty demoralized about what happened to his baseball career and so after he stopped playing he returned to work his farm back in Kentucky and also ran a trucking business. A big smoker he suffered a heart attack in ’86 when he was only 45 and then had a triple bypass performed in ’90. Around then he got back into baseball in the Cincinnati system, putting in three seasons as a minor league pitching coach before moving up top in ’93. He held that gig until dismissed during the 2005 season. Since then he has been actively involved in running a baseball camp with his son and splintering that out to form a youth league based in Cincinnati called the Fury.

At the time of this card Don was only 23 and had already put up numbers that many thought would take him to the Hall. His star bullets are pretty impressive and I’m pretty sure the sentiment in the cartoon was shared by lots of people.

We have moved back to the NL but this one’s easy:

1. Gullett and Chris Chambliss ’77 to ’78 Yankees.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I could never figure out this guy's look - on this card and practically every one he ever posed for. Don't believe me? Check out: