Bruce Sutter, Hall of Fame pitcher and Cy Young winner, dies

When Bruce Sutter first started experimenting with split fastball, he wasn’t looking for a way to Cooperstown. He just hoped to salvage his career.

“I wouldn’t be here without that pitch,” Sutter said shortly before his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2006. “My other stuff was A-ball, double-A at best. The split finger did the same.”

Sutter, the bearded closer who paid for his own elbow surgery as a low minor league player and later pioneered the sharply sloping pitch that dominated big league players for decades, died Thursday. He was 69.

Sutter was recently diagnosed with cancer and is in hospice surrounded by his family, one of Sutter’s three sons, Chad, told the Associated Press. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bruce Sutter died in Cartersville, Georgia.

A six-time All-Star, Sutter led the National League in saves for five years and won the 1979 Cy Young Award. He made 300 saves in a 12-year career with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

Sutter was playing during a period when Closers were routinely hitting more than three outs. He threw more than an inning for 188 of his saves and threw more than 100 innings five times in one season.

At his best, he threw two perfect innings — retiring fellow Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Ted Simmons — to end the Cardinals’ Game 7 win over Milwaukee in the 1982 World Series.

Team wins, said son Chad, mattered most to Sutter.

“I mean, he won all these awards and all this stuff and they weren’t even in the house because he just cared about winning and being respected by the other players and being a good teammate. That was his whole motivation,” said Chad Sutter.

Bruce Sutter at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 2006.

Bruce Sutter at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 2006.

(Jim McKnight / Associated Press)

Sutter was the fourth assistant elected to the Hall, after Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage, Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman have since joined the list.

“We lost a good friend in Bruce Sutter last night,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said ahead of Friday’s National League Division Series game in Philadelphia.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

“Bruce was the first pitcher to enter the Hall of Fame without starting a game, and he was one of the key people who foresaw how assist use would evolve,” Manfred said in a statement. “Bruce will be remembered as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of two of our most historic franchises.”

Sutter was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1953. Drafted in the 21st round by the Washington Senators in 1970, he was only 17 and too young to sign.

After a brief college stint at Old Dominion University, he was returning home and playing for the semi-pro Hippey’s Raiders of the Lebanon Valley League when a Cubs scout spotted him.

Sutter played twice for the Cubs team in the rookie Gulf Coast League in 1972 before injuring his right elbow trying to learn a slider. Fearing the Cubs would cut him if they knew he was injured, Sutter planned his own surgery and used his bonus money to pay for the surgery.

Unable to throw as hard as he had previously, Sutter was fortunate enough to learn how to fastball with cleft fingers at spring practice in 1973 from Cubs minor league pitching instructor Fred Martin.

The pitch — the ball held between the index and middle fingers that suddenly dips as it approaches the plate — has been around for a while, most prominently championed by former Big League player Roger Craig, but hasn’t been thrown successfully.

“It came easily to me, but it took me a long time to learn to control it,” Sutter said. “I could throw pretty hard. I could beat 16 guys but I could walk 10. I mean I was wild.

Sutter made his debut with the Cubs in 1976. He won the Cy Young in 1979 in a season in which he had 37 saves, a 2.22 ERA and 110 strikeouts. Sutter was 68-71 with a 2.83 ERA overall. In 661 games, he pitched 1,042 innings and struck out 861.

Sutter finished three seasons at Atlanta. His last save, No. 300, came in 1988 with the Braves.

“Bruce was a fan favorite during his years in St. Louis and the years that followed, and he will always be remembered for his 1982 World Series, where he scored the win and drove split fingers,” said Cardinals owner and chief Executive Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. “He was a true pioneer of the game and changed the role of the late-inning reliever.”

The Cardinals retired Sutter’s No. 42 years after the league retired the number in honor of Jackie Robinson.

The cardinals said Sutter is survived by his wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.

“All our father ever wanted to be remembered for was being a great teammate, but he was so much more than that,” the Sutter family said in a statement Friday. Bruce Sutter, Hall of Fame pitcher and Cy Young winner, dies

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