Sutter remembered as pioneer of split-fingered fastball

Bruce Sutter’s entire career can be boiled down to about an inch of white leather and red stitching.

By spreading his index and middle fingers farther apart on the ball when he pitched, the right-hander developed a split-fingered fastball that stunned opposing batters and gave him a second chance at the game he loved before his Major League career even began.

Twelve years in the majors and 300 saves later, Sutter had become one of the most dominant relievers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, all because of a different grip on the ball. His success earned him a World Series ring in 1982 and enshrinement in Cooperstown in 2006.

Bruce Sutter pitched for the Cardinals from 1981-1984 and saved Game 7 of the 1982 World Series. (Lou Sauritch/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Sutter, 69, passed away on Oct. 13, 2022. During his career, he fought through devastating elbow and shoulder injuries and underwent three surgeries, yet retained his calm demeanor and ability to stay poised under pressure as he became the first pitcher to lead the National League in saves five times.

“Bruce Sutter was so honored when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, and since that time his kindness, his love for Cooperstown and his humility sparkled every time he returned to the Hall of Fame,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “The Hall of Fame family will forever celebrate his achievements on the field and remember his passion for his family and friends. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Jamye, and his children.”

Howard Bruce Sutter was born in Lancaster, Pa. on Jan. 8, 1953. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, excelling as captain of both the football and basketball team while leading the baseball team to a county championship.

The Washington Senators selected Sutter in the 21st round of the 1970 draft, but because he was not yet 18 years old he was unable to sign a contract. He spent the next year pitching in semipro leagues around his hometown before the Cubs signed him as an amateur free agent on Sept. 9, 1971.

In his first season as a professional in 1972, Sutter experienced pain in his right elbow while pitching in the Gulf Coast League and was shut down for the rest of the year. Afraid that the Cubs would deem him unable to pitch, Sutter pursued and underwent surgery on his own.

His procedure repaired a pinched nerve in his elbow and upon returning to baseball, Sutter found he could not muster enough strength to throw a fastball, much less complete an inning.

“He couldn’t even throw it 60 feet, six inches,” Cubs assistant minor-league director Pat Nugent told The Atlanta Journal in 1985. “He was within about 30 minutes of getting released.”

The Cubs arranged a meeting with Sutter to release him, but during the conference, Sutter showed the executives his surgical scar.

“There was a change of heart right there,” Nugent said. “I mean, here’s this guy who went out and did this on his own to save his career.”

Instead of releasing him, Chicago sent Sutter to the minor leagues to rehabilitate his arm. After posting an ERA of 4.13 with the Quincy Cubs in 1973, Sutter met Fred Martin, a Cubs pitching instructor and the answer to Sutter’s lost fastball.

Martin taught Sutter the split-fingered fastball – a variation of the much older forkball – which Sutter picked up quickly.

“I’d like to tell you I worked and worked at it but I’d be lying to you because it did come to me right away,” Sutter said. “The first day I threw it I’d get it to break, not every time, but you [could] see the signs of it that it was going to be something special. I never adjusted my grip after the first day.”

The results were immediate. In 1975, Sutter helped lead the Double-A Midland Cubs to a Texas League championship, and by 1976, he was playing for the parent club.

Sutter made his first big league appearance on May 9, 1976 when he pitched the ninth inning in a 14-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. He gave up two hits and a walk, but induced a double play and escaped the inning without allowing a run. Sutter finished the season with 10 saves and a 2.70 ERA as he established himself as the Cubs’ primary reliever.

He had a breakout year in 1977, posting a 1.34 ERA and earning a place on the National League All-Star team en route to 129 strikeouts in just 107.1 innings. His 31 saves propelled him to a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting and a seventh-place finish in MVP voting.

“I tried to bunt on him because I can’t hit him,” Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench said of Sutter in the Los Angeles Times in 1977. “He’s the best.”

Sutter saved 27 games in 1978, then followed with a Cy Young Award and a National League record-tying 37 saves in 1979. He allowed a career-low three home runs on the season en route to both the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award and the Sporting News Fireman of the Year Award. He would win both awards again in 1981, 1982 and 1984.

He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals before the 1981 season, in which he made his fifth consecutive All-Star appearance. In every year from 1978 through 1981, Sutter either won or saved the All-Star Game for the National League.

In 1982, Sutter pitched the final out in the seventh game of the World Series to help defeat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3.

“Every young kid who dreams of pitching in the major leagues has imagined himself striking out the batter to end the seventh game of the World Series,” Sutter said. “I was one of the lucky ones who got to realize that dream.”

As a free agent, Sutter left the Cardinals for Atlanta in 1984, recording a career-high 45 saves for the Braves and tying Dan Quisenberry’s record for most saves in a season.

“I feel like a brother passed away," said Sutter's teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Jim Kaat. "I knew Bruce deeper than just about any other teammate. We spent a lot of time together, and as happens when your careers end, you go your separate ways. But we stayed in touch and considered each other great friends. He was as much a brother to me as a teammate as anyone could be.”

Sutter recorded 23 saves in 1985 before injuries began to curtail his career. He saved just three games in 1986 before undergoing shoulder surgery to repair an injured rotator cuff, the third arm surgery of his career. He missed the entire 1987 season before posting a career-worst 1-4 record in 1988 while dealing with ongoing shoulder problems. By 1989, his rotator cuff was severely torn, and the Braves released him in November.

Eighteen years later, Sutter received a call in January from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, informing him of his election to the Hall of Fame. It was his 13th time on the ballot, and the player who had once known for taking the mound with little emotion was suddenly overcome.

“I started crying,” Sutter said. “It was a call you always hope for but never really expect to happen. When it did, I didn’t think it would affect me or hit me as hard as it did, but it sure did.”

Sutter was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 as the first pitcher without a single starting assignment to be elected.

“The call answered a question that had been ongoing for 13 years, a question – quite frankly – I would ask myself every year at election time: Do you belong?” said Sutter.

While his induction proved that he did indeed belong among baseball’s greats, Sutter also found he belonged outside of baseball. After his retirement, he focused on raising his family. He resurfaced for a brief part-time coaching stint in the Cardinals’ organization, but eventually chose to leave baseball for his wife and children.

“Once I was done playing, I walked away,” Sutter said. “I wanted to be with my boys.”

Sutter’s legacy will forever live on in the split-fingered fastball, which has since become a prominent pitch at every level. As a pioneer of the pitch, Sutter paved the way for the many pitchers who throw splitters today.

“Every baseball player wants to be remembered,” Sutter said, “whether it’s for a pitch or a play or a season.”