There was a time when all big leaguers signed the same three-page contract, and they had no leverage until after ten years. The players continued as semi-chattels through the 1960s, the time when I as a wide-eyed boy was fascinated with baseball.
A way with words
Conformity has its limits in all spheres. Along came Jim Kaat who was articulate and analytical. Had he been a black player, he would have been described as uppity. Our society had a word for people like Kaat at that time: "outspoken." Remember how that word once had a rather derisive ring? It doesn't any more. Had the door opened for people to be freely opinionated and questioning, well my goodness, we might have turned against the Viet Nam war. I mean, to turn against the war wholesale, to give our political leaders no wiggle room to talk about "light at the end of the tunnel."
I'll make a parallel with astronauts of the time. They were quintessential heroes of the time. Because of that, they were guided into cookie cutter conformity, but there was an exception. Like I say, there are always exceptions. In the case of the astronauts it was Wally Schirra. Wally had distinctive ways of looking at things. He wasn't like the athletes who'd say "you have to take games one at a time."
Flourish with the language
Eventually the analytical people push through barriers. They win our respect. Kaat had a lengthy playing career that set the table for a glittering broadcasting career. That articulateness became a ticket for him. He called four American League Championship Series for CBS from 1990 to 1993. He was a field reporter for the World Series, working with Lesley Visser and Andrea Joyce. ESPN was opening the door for wider media opportunities. Kaat had the tools to excel perfectly, thus he was the lead analyst on Baseball Tonight for the heady young network. He was nominated for a New York Emmy Award in 1995. His resume kept building.
In 1967, the U.S. was mired worse then ever in Viet Nam. My generation was striving to do something about that. Unfortunately, much time and patience would be needed. At 12 years of age I could see the total folly of Viet Nam. So very strange. Our nation was hindered by the kind of conformity that rendered baseball players wooden and one-dimensional when at an interviewer's microphone.
We were told "America, love it or leave it."
The bleak times could be countered by an embrace of baseball. We loved it even though only one team from each league qualified for the post-season. Divisions weren't created until 1969.
In '67 the Twins were continuing with the kind of outstanding sheen they displayed in '65, the year we won the pennant. The Twins were really pretty outstanding throughout the 1960s. In '67 we might have had a better team than in '65. Alas, we were left pondering the "what might have beens." Kaat was at the absolute peak of his powers for a time. In September he was the American League Sandy Koufax. Problem was, we just couldn't tuck away the pennant. And as a result, Kaat reached the point where his arm was over-taxed. So he got hurt, with repercussions that may have lasted a very long time. The exact same type of thing happened two years later with a Twins phenom, name of Dave Boswell. Boswell was forced to overwork his arm in an extra innings game against Baltimore, a game we lost.
Well, Twins fans ended up feeling heartbreak both in '67 and '69. In '67 the pennant slipped away to Boston. Of all the heartbreak us Twins fans were dealt in that period, I think the '67 episode was the worst. Combined with the Viet Nam nightmare, I think I put on some quite skeptical or cynical goggles for a very long time. What's the use?
The American League in '67 might have had the greatest pennant race of all time. Over the last two weeks of the regular season, it's almost impossible that any race could keep as many fans so energized. Four teams grappled for the prize. The Twins were in that scrap with the Tigers, White Sox and Red Sox. Carl Yastrzemski loomed for the Red Sox. With a week left to play, the four teams were all within a game of first. From September 15 until the last day of the season, all remained within two games of each other.
"Yaz" would win the triple crown. He was awesome in September. He garnered considerable fame with all he did in '67. But had his team stopped short, and had the Griffith crew from Minny taken the prize, my, the big hero would have been Jim Kaat, the big lefty who dispensed words so well at the microphone. The previous season had seen him with 25 games. Had the Cy Young Award been given in each league back then, Kaat would have won.
Kaat came out of the starting gate struggling in 1967. He had a 1-7 record and an ERA of 6.00 at the time the beleaguered Twins manager, Sam Mele, got fired. Kaat already had a history of being up and down. He got up off the canvas after Mele left - coincidence? - as he fashioned a complete game win vs. world champion Baltimore, yielding a mere one run. He then shut out the second place Tigers in a matchup vs. Denny McLain. He won five of six starts with an ERA under 2.00. He was a cog as the Twins climbed into second place in early July. They looked for a time like they might separate themselves from the pack - really. However they fell into a pattern of hot/cold.
Kaat got his record to 8-8, then he had a spell of suffering from limited offensive support. Holy cow (as Halsey Hall would say), in a stretch of ten starts, "Kitty" went 1-5 while posting an ERA of 2.54. The Twins under manager Cal Ermer finished August in second, a half-game behind Boston but only a hair's breadth over the Tigers and White Sox. Kaat was going to have to bear down. Bear down he did, or to use the words of a scribe of the time, he went "apeshit." September saw "Kitty" go 7-0 while pitching 65.7 innings, striking out 65 batters and posting a 1.51 ERA. The high number of innings was a harbinger of something bad.
"Kitty" strode to the mound on September 13 to face the Washington Senators. The Twins were tied with "Yaz" and Boston. In his fourth consecutive quality start, Kaat allowed two runs over eight innings while striking out nine. He also gave up his first walk since the first of the month.
Three days later came a game so disastrous, maybe the gods on Mount Olympus were involved. We gave away a game against the White Sox who entered the day 1 1/2 games back. Dean Chance was our starting pitcher. Dean Chance? A pennant in '67 might have given Dean Chance a shot at immortality. At his best he was superlative. In this pivotal game against the White Sox, Chance took a 4-1 lead into the ninth. He let the first four batters reach base. But we led by two runs. There were no outs and the tying run was at second. In came Kaat for an unusual relief appearance. Was this a case of choking like what the Phillies did down the stretch in '64, when manager Gene Mauch "blinked?" Did the Twins depart from usual form with disastrous consequences? A wild pitch and sacrifice fly resulted in the score deadlocked 4-4.
Oh, but here comes Al Worthington, the Greek god of relief pitching. Omigod, Worthington allowed the implosion to reach its ugly conclusion. We fell out of first place.
Kaat wasn't done with his September heroics. Two days later he didn't allow a single batter past second base in a start vs. a young and talented A's team with the likes of Reggie Jackson. Kaat walked no one and got double digits in strikeouts. Catfish Hunter was brilliant for the A's so the game went into overtime. We scored in the tenth and Kaat bore down one more time to get a goose egg. It was probably the finest game of his career. The Twins were tied for first.
Coming down the stretch
Kaat faced the Yankees on September 22. He allowed two unearned runs in the Twins' 8-2 win. Over a three-week span he had walked one batter! We had a half-game lead with seven left to play. We dropped two of three before Kaat's next start. Kaat triumphed vs. the Angels, striking out 13, in a complete game win. We had a full game lead and the gods on Olympus seemed approving.
We faced the Red Sox for the final two games - quite the denouement. Kaat started the first of those games. Fenway Park was filled with fans to the brim. Kaat's left arm had been overtaxed. He couldn't finish the game. We lost 6-4. We lost again on the final day, completing a tragedy that looms in the minds of boomer-age Twins fans.
Did Kaat's injury result in a long-term "dead arm?" The theory has been floated. It's not certain, because he did have a rather inexplicable up-and-down history. Amazingly, he came back to post back-to-back 20-win seasons for the Chicago White Sox in 1974-75. He ended his career 17 wins shy of 300.
Kaat's dead arm period came when I was at my height of Twins interest, so I don't have the fondest memories of him. Many of his starts ended up as yawners. But looking back, I have to admire his resiliency, the fact his injured arm did not permanently throw him out of baseball, as would have happened with so many pitchers. The course of a pitcher's professional life can be mysterious.
Had the Twins been able to muster a little more oomph, Kaat's arm could have been preserved, and ditto with Boswell's arm in '69.
I'm happy for all of Kaat's success with the microphone after his playing days. He was active in describing our 1991 World Series triumph. There was "Kitty" with his trademark articulateness, which I'm sure would have made Mark Scott faint.