Throughout the new month, I’ll profile some of the former Yankees who will be coming to Cooperstown on June 21 to participate in the first-ever Hall of Fame Classic. The list of Yankee old-timers scheduled to play at Doubleday Field includes Phil Niekro, Lee Smith, Dennis Rasmussen and Kevin Maas. In the first installment, we take a fond look at the career of the man affectionately known as “Kitty.”
Jim Kaat has not thrown a meaningful pitch in more than a quarter of a century, but I can still see that pitching motion in my mind today. The photograph from his 1980 Topps card brings it all back: a delivery featuring virtually no windup and the smallest of leg kicks, accompanied by a mechanical precision. It’s no wonder that Kaat’s career lasted a marathon of 25 seasons with hardly a stay on the disabled list.
Like Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, “Kitty” is part of a contingent of longtime starters who fell just short of the 300-win club but remain on the cusp of election to the Hall of Fame. Unlike Blyleven, I’ve never given Kaat a vote in any of my mythical Hall of Fame elections, but I would not exactly shed a tear if he somehow joined the elite in Cooperstown. Though never really dominant and hardly an overwhelming collector of strikeouts, Kaat achieved a high level of successful longevity, fulfilling at least one of the requirements of Hall of Fame enshrinement.
As a pitcher, Kaat enjoyed two careers. The first spanned from 1962 to 1975, when he carved out a niche as a durable and effective starter for the Twins and White Sox. Over the course of his long tenure as a starter, I came to know Kaat for three attributes. First, he loved to throw the quick pitch, often catching hitters off guard by throwing without a windup. Second, he was a skilled and highly conditioned athlete who could run and hit better than most pitchers. (In 1973, Topps issued a card for Kaat showing him batting—not pitching—in a game for the Twins.) And third, Kaat could field his position like no other moundsman. With catlike reflexes that reinforced his nickname of Kitty, Kaat snared a record 15 Gold Gloves.