A chat with Jim Kaat on a cold below zero day in January
January 19- I had an opportunity today to have a very nice chat with one of the Twins all time great pitchers, Jim Kaat and it was a real treat for me. Jim pitched in the major leagues with the Senators, Twins, White Sox, Phillies, Yankees, and Cardinals between 1959 and 1983. WOW! 25 years, the numbers are staggering, 4,530 innings pitched, pitching in 898 games and starting 625 of them, striking out 2,461 with a lifetime ERA of 3.45, a WHIP of 1.26 and 283 lifetime victories. But that is not all, Jim also won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves between 1962 and 1977 and hit 16 home runs and had 106 RBI’s in his big league career. After a short stint as a pitching coach in Cincinnati, Kaat moved upstairs to the broadcast booth and did a stellar job there as well for over 20 years. All this and the man is not in the Hall of Fame? Only Warren Spahn, Eddie Plank, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove, and Tommy John won more games among lefties than Jim’s 283. Shame, shame on those baseball writers.
Jim, what were your memories of your time with the Twins? In my overall body of work it certainly stands out above any of my other stops, obviously the one in 1982 was special because we ended up winning the World Series with the Cardinals. Getting to the World Series with the Twins in 1965 for the first time was exciting, but overall, moving from Washington in 1961 where we were a last place team and fan interest wasn’t very high and suddenly we come to the Twin Cities and everyone welcomed us as if we were a world championship team and it was such a great community to live in and be a part of. To play in Minnesota was probably the ideal environment for me, not quite the rabid fans with a sense of urgency that I found in my later years when I worked for the Yankees as a broadcaster. You see what happens when the Yankees bump heads with the Red Sox today, every game is like they say, its Armageddon. That whole experience in the Twin Cities was so delightful, you could walk from the stadium to your car in the parking lot after a game and talk with the fans on your way out; players are just not able to do that anymore. I didn’t even have a full year in the big leagues when we moved to Minnesota so that kind of an environment to launch my career was just perfect.
Is there a single memory that stands out for you here in Minnesota? Well, it was getting to the World Series, that stands out, that early in my career and we had such a good ball club from the mid 60’s through 1970, I think we sort of took it for granted that we would get back to the World Series. The more time that went by the more I realized how difficult it is to get there unless you are in today’s times where owners can spend enough money to help themselves get there. But under the normal conditions that we had back then, it was tough to get there and the rewarding thing in 1965 when we won the pennant was that I think the Yankees had won it the previous five years so every year everyone thought, “so who is going to finish second”. So for us to be the team to end that reign and get to the World Series, that stands out more then anything. I had a lot of individual things like the year in 1966 (Jim won 25 games that year) and even the pennant race in 1967, probably still the best pennant race before MLB broke into divisions. That month of September was the best month of pitching that I ever had in my career but unfortunately I hurt my arm in that Saturday afternoon game in Boston. It is kind of funny that whenever I run into Carl Yastrzemski and Ken Harrelson they will still say “that had you not hurt you arm, that we (Boston) would not have won”. Yes, I was really pitching well in September, while it was a disappointment, it was fun being part of that pennant race. The World Series and facing Koufax three times, who now has become a friend of mine and lives not too far from here and I see him from time to time, so that stands out as a real special memory for me.
Would you be willing to share what your highest salary was with the Twins? It was $60,000. I just did a column for the YES network and I just did sort of an answer to Fay Vincent who is a guest columnist here in our local paper from time to time and he did a column on how we may view athletes in the future based on how their image is tarnished because of the steroid issue so I wrote in the column from a different slant on things and I mentioned in there that in 25 seasons I figured it out that I averaged about $80,000 a season. My highest season with the Twins was the beginning of 1973 when they sold me on waivers to the White Sox and so starting that season coming off of 1972 when I missed half the year with my broken wrist it was my highest payday with the Twins.
I had just written a story about Calvin Griffith on my web site, he was a real character, are there any thoughts that come to mind when you hear his name? The more time that went on, the better our relationship was, particularly after I left the Twins as a player and came back as an announcer and he was still around then we had some nice visits. Dealing with him as a player, was obviously very difficult because he was the owner, the general manager, and he had a lot of his family working for the team so it was their livelihood. There wasn’t free agency or arbitration so getting any kind of a raise out of Calvin was, wow, hard work. Now when you look back on it, we as players had no bargaining power, it was just a game. How firm could you be in holding out? I was sort of stubborn and rebellious, of my thirteen contracts, seven of them called for a cut. Even in 1967, when I had that great run in September and went from 9-13 to 16-13 and my ERA was a little over 3 and we finished 1 game out and if I had not hurt my arm we would have had a good chance to win the pennant that year and my first contract that year was for a $6,000 cut. In fairness to Calvin, those were the rules back then and like today, the players rule and the agents rule. In those days the owners and general managers ruled, you had your compassionate owners like Mr. Wrigley in Chicago and Mr. Yawkey in Boston, I think the Dodgers were always pretty fair but even the Yankees were not overly generous with paying salaries to guys, they convinced their players that maybe you don’t have as high a salary but you are probably going to go to the World Series and get a nice bonus. In those days when we went to the World Series I was making $27,000 so if we won the World Series that would have been a $10,000 payday and that’s like 35%-40% of my salary. If you would compare that to today, let’s say today a player is making $5 million, for winning the Series his payday would be about $2 million, that how the percentages would break down. That what the Yankees sold their players on, that they were probably going to get a World Series check. So the owners and GM’s ruled then and unfortunately because they were so hard headed and arrogant about it they ended up losing the lawsuit over free agency and arbitration and it come back to cost today’s owners millions. I think our total payroll the year we won the pennant and ended up going to the World Series was a little over $600,000 as a team.
After you retired as a player and went into announcing and you were with the Yankees for a long time, what are your thoughts there? What about George Steinbrenner? I had some preconceived thoughts going in because I had been with the Yankees as a player for a short period of time and I had to deal with George contract wise and my dealings were not pleasant. At that stage of my career I didn’t have the leverage as far as free agency or arbitration so I was sort of still at the mercy of an owner showing some fairness and that just didn’t happen. So when I went back as an announcer, first off I didn’t think George would approve having me there but since I went there, particularly this last run from 1995 on when I went to work for MSG and latter the YES network we had a really good relationship. We would end up riding down the elevator together after games and we would end up talking about horse racing which I enjoy and which he is heavily involved in and he would let me use his box up in Saratoga. So, we had a very good relationship after that.
Jim, what are your thoughts on the on-going steroid and HGH controversy? Actually I just wrote a column about that on the YES network. You can find Jim’s column at http://web.yesnetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080117&content_id=1436150&vkey=8 .
I won’t keep you too much longer here Jim so just a couple more fun questions if you don’t mind. If you had a choice of playing in another era or the era that you played in, what era would you pick? The time frame I would probably pick, and we had sort of a giant in the industry who lived here in south Florida, John McHale, who passed away yesterday (January 18), at age of 86 and I actually saw him when he was a player in the mid 40’s when my Dad took me to my first game at Briggs stadium. That era right after World War II I think, before the teams moved out west, to me, that would have been the most enjoyable time to play, from like 1946 to 1958 when there were still three teams in New York, and all the teams were in the Midwest and east. You know, today there are a lot of great players, but let’s face it, when you have 30 teams versus 16, that means you have got 14 teams that back in the old days these guys would be playing in the minor leagues. The level of baseball in the Williams, DiMaggio, you know that era. I think today’s players are bigger, faster, stronger. You look at players like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Torii Hunter, the athleticism that the players can do today , there is no doubt that they are better physically but as far as the overall level of competition, the real sort of inside skills of how to play the game, when you were facing teams 22 times a year and you were pitching 9 innings, you might face some of these teams 6 or 7 times a year, you would have to pitch 9 innings against them, and you know that takes a little creativity beyond just athleticism and I think that would have been the most fun era to play in.
What do you think about fantasy sports and particularly the popularity of fantasy baseball? Do you play at all? You know, I did years ago, I tipped off some of my buddies back in the mid 80’s, I was part of a fantasy league team then and when I got back into announcing and I wasn’t in the same town that these guys were anymore I tipped them off that they should pick Tom Browning and Eric Davis, I told them that you can probably get them for a buck apiece when they were rookies because you know I went on to coach Tom when he was a rookie. I think stuff like that is great; anything that people interested in the game obviously is good for the industry. I am not home enough to play a fantasy game today, but if I did play, I think I would play fantasy golf.
I read someplace that you and your wife went on the road last year with your RV and you played some golf along the way? Yes, matter of fact I just sent about 200 pages of a journal that I sent to some publishers of magazines that cover RVing and RV golf travel and I am waiting to hear back from them. My wife and I traveled for 5 ½ months and we did over 10,000 miles, visited 27 states, and I played on over 60 golf courses.
Today, Jim lives a quiet life in south Florida with his wife, gets out on the golf course as often as he can and watches the sail boats go by. What a great guy and it was a real privilege and honor on my part to get to be able to spend time talking with one of the Minnesota Twins all time greats.