Kaat's career lengthened with transition to bullpen
For nearly two decades, Jim Kaat had excelled as one of the game’s top left-handed starting pitchers with the Senators/Twins, the White Sox and then the Phillies.
But when the time came for him to evolve into a new kind of pitcher, Kaat was more than ready to embrace the challenge of becoming a reliever.
That pursuit officially continued into a second year on April 1, 1980, when Kaat signed a one-year deal with the Yankees at 41 years old.
Kaat had opened 1979 with the Phillies, marking his fourth season in Philadelphia. He appeared in just three games, throwing 8.1 innings and recording a 4.32 ERA, before the Yankees purchased his contract on May 11 to bring the lefty to New York.
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There, Kaat began to assume his new role of relief pitcher, appearing in 40 games but starting just one while posting a 3.86 ERA in 58.1 innings.
At the end of the 1979 campaign, Kaat became a free agent, and he said he struck up an agreement with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner: If he was not signed by another team and then made the Yankees squad as a non-roster player in Spring Training camp, he would settle for a salary of $150,000 – the same amount he had made in 1979.
When spring rolled around, Kaat did in fact make the team as a non-roster invitee, and he and the club reportedly came to terms on a contract on March 29 – but things wouldn’t be settled without some disputes.
“I agreed on the premise that George Steinbrenner and I would get together and talk,” Kaat told the Herald-News.
Kaat’s agent, Richard Moss, requested that their earlier agreement be altered slightly so that Kaat’s salary could include a cost-of-living increase of $20,000.
“George [Steinbrenner] thinks Dick Moss is jacking the price up because I pitched well in the exhibition season, so he says take it or leave it,” Kaat said. “But we had an agreement and I feel very strongly about that.”
Yankees general manager Gene Michael told the Associated Press that Steinbrenner “said he didn’t make any promise like that.”
Though details on how the conflict was resolved are scant, the two sides quickly came to an agreement, as on April 1, Kaat officially signed a $150,000 contract with the club.
As it turned out, Kaat’s tenure with the Yankees would soon come to a close. He opened the season with New York, appearing in four games and tossing 5.0 innings while posting a 7.20 ERA. Then, a month after he signed with the Yankees, on April 30, his contract was purchased by the Cardinals.
In St. Louis, Kaat continued to embrace the role of situational left-hander, going 8-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 129.2 innings of work in 1980. He would remain in a similar role for the final three seasons of his career, helping the Cardinals win a title in 1982 to mark his first World Series victory. Kaat was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2022.
Janey Murray was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum