Six years ago today, Minnesota Twins star outfielder and Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett passed away at the age of 45 from a stroke he suffered a day earlier. The youngest of nine children born into poverty in a Chicago housing project, Kirby Puckett was the Minnesota Twins first round pick (and third over all) in the 1982 amateur draft. After just 224 minor league games in Elizabethton (rookie), Visalia (A ball), and Toledo (AAA ball) Kirby was called up by Minnesota and made his big league debut on May 8, 1984 against the California Angels in Anaheim Stadium and he never played in the minors again. In his rookie season in 557 at bats, Kirby had only had 12 doubles, 5 triples, 0 home runs, and 16 walks. This lack of power was rare but even more unusual for a player that two years later hit 31 home runs with a .537 slugging percentage.
Puckett played for 12 years in a Minnesota Twins uniform hitting .318 in 1,783 games while hitting 207 home runs and knocking in 1,085 more. Though his numbers were not exceptional, Puckett was voted into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001. His respect and enthusiasm for the game factored in as much his .318 average, 1989 batting title, six Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star game appearances and two championship rings. The man known simply as “Puck” was immensely popular with baseball fans everywhere. Fans loved his style, especially the high leg kick that preceded his swing. Twins public address announcer Bob Casey, who became a close friend, introduced him with vigor before every at-bat, “KIR-beeeeeeeeee PUCK-it.” “I wore one uniform in my career and I’m proud to say that,” Puckett once said.
On September 28, 1995 in the bottom of the first inning in a game at the Metrodome, Puckett was hit by a pitch from Cleveland Indians starter Dennis Martinez that broke his jaw in what turned out to be his last at-bat of the 1995 season and his last at bat in a major league game. Puckett woke up one morning the following spring and couldn’t see out of his right eye. It was eventually diagnosed as glaucoma, forcing him to call it quits that July. It was a sad ending to a brilliant career.
After his career ended prematurely, Puckett tried to remain upbeat but his personal life began to deteriorate. Shortly after his induction to Cooperstown, his then-wife, Tonya, accused him of threatening to kill her during an argument – he denied it – and described to police a history of violence and infidelity. In 2003, he was cleared of all charges from an alleged sexual assault of a woman at a Twin Cities restaurant. He kept a low profile after the trial and eventually moved to Arizona. His relationship with the Twins organization ended in 2002, but the Twins kept trying to re-establish a connection and get him to come to spring training as a guest instructor. Puckett put on considerable weight, as well and his weight gain concerned friends and former teammates. Kirby suffered a massive stroke early Sunday, March 5th at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona and passed away the following day.
Baseball Digest article called “The game I will never forget” as told by Kirby Puckett to George Vass
The Minneapolis Star Tribune obituary for Kirby can be found here.