Original publish date: April 16, 2018
Chances are, if I asked you to name the most successful pitcher of the 1970s, you’d choose a lot of names before you got to my pick. Baseball being the stat driven sport that it is, you could argue all summer long about the question itself, let alone the answer. And don’t even get me started on sabernetrics — those guys are nuts. But for my money, the best pitcher of the 1970s was Don Gullett.
If you were a late stage baby boomer growing up in central Indiana, you were a fan of the 1970s Cincinnati Reds. Those Big Red Machine teams were fun to watch. At least a few of those players started out with the Indianapolis Indians, the AAA farm club of the Reds. Any Reds fan worth his pine tar can name the Reds “Great 8” starting line-up: Bench, Rose, Morgan, Pérez, Concepción, Foster, Griffey, and Gerónimo.
That Great 8 included baseball’s all-time hit leader, three Hall of Famers, six NL MVPs, four NL home run season leaders; three NL Batting Champions; 25 Gold Glovers and 63 All-Star Game appearances. Those 1975 and 1976 World Series championship teams are considered the greatest teams of our generation. Ask any Reds fan who’s on the mound, the answer is always Don Gullett.
Donald Edward Gullett was born the sixth of eight children from tiny Lynn, Kentucky, (in the northeastern part of the state across the Ohio River from Portsmouth, Ohio) on January 6, 1951. As a teenager Gullett worked on neighboring farms pitching bales of hay to supplement the family income. It should come as no surprise that Gullett was so good, so young that he began taking the high school mound while just an eighth grader. The pro scouts began visiting Greenup County to watch the phenom before he was old enough to drive.
A three-sport star in high school, Gullett attended McKell High School. As a senior he was All-State in baseball, basketball, and football. Although forever associated with baseball, his exploits on the gridiron made him a Kentucky schoolboy legend. In one game alone against Wurtland High School Gullett scored 72 points, scoring 11 touchdowns and 6 extra points. Later he scored 47 points in a basketball game against Wurtland. Needless to say, he was heavily recruited by major colleges for all 3 sports. But Gullett’s first love was baseball. He won 30 games for McKell High School as a senior including a perfect game where he struck out 20 of the 21 batters he faced.
The Reds selected 18-year-old Don Gullett in the first round of the 1969 Major League draft, number 14 overall. He signed for a $25,000 bonus. He bought his first car with that bonus, an orange Plymouth Roadrunner. He pitched for the Northern League’s Sioux Falls Packers, going 7-2 with a 1.96 ERA in 11 starts that season. He made his big league debut on April 10, 1970 against Mays, Bonds and McCovey’s San Francisco Giants. The left-hander relieved Ray Washburn in the fifth inning with the bases loaded and two outs. Don retired Tito Fuentes on a fly ball to the shortstop. Gullett struck out Willie Mays to end the next inning before being replaced. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, those Bay City bombers didn’t bother Gullet a bit.
The rookie spent most of 1970 in the bullpen, relieving 42 times and starting twice. On August 23 against the New York Mets, he struck out six batters in a row, tying the NL record for consecutive strikeouts by a relief pitcher. Gullett struck out eight of the twelve batters he faced in that game. Gullett’s success was due to his blazing fastball, deceptive change-up, and excellent control. By now, sportswriters were comparing the young lefty to Sandy Koufax.
Cincinnati won the NL West in 1970, then swept Pittsburgh in the NLCS, Gullett picked up two saves along the way by retiring Wiilie Stargell and Roberto Clemente respectively. In the World Series the Reds lost to the Baltimore Orioles in five games but Gullett pitched well, appearing in three games and giving up only one run in 6⅔ innings. After Pirate slugger Willie Stargell faced Gullett for the first time and struck out on three pitches, he described Gullett as “Wall-to-wall heat.” Gullett earned the nickname “Smokin’ Don” for his white-hot fastball and his bad habit: cigarettes.
In 1971 Gullett became a full-time starter, winning 16 games while losing six, leading the league in winning percentage with .727 and posting a 2.64 earned-run average. Despite his stellar pitching, the Reds had a losing record (79-83) and didn’t make the 1971 postseason.
Bad luck struck Gullett in 1972 when he was diagnosed with hepatitis. When he returned, Manager Sparky Anderson assigned him to the bullpen. That year Gullett had his only losing season (9-10) of his entire career but the Reds still won the NL West. The Reds beat the Pirates and again headed to the World Series against the Oakland A’s but lost the Series in seven games.
Gullett, not yet fully recovered from hepatitis, spent the first month of the 1973 season in the bullpen. He again took the bump as a starter and finished the season with nine consecutive victories and posted a career high 18 wins against eight losses. On August 18, Gullett surrendered the 660th and final career home run hit by Willie Mays. The Reds won the NL West again in 1973, but lost the NLCS to Mays and the New York Mets three games to two.
By 1974 Don had added a forkball (later called a split-fingered fastball) to his pitching repertoire. That season, manager Sparky Anderson said, “It’s the only Hall of Fame battery active in baseball today.” The manager was speaking of Johnny Bench and Don Gullett.
“Barring an injury, (Gullett) is almost sure of making the Hall of Fame. I know he’s going to win at least 250 games with the start he has.” Sparky had good reason to expect great things for his young left-hander. After all, the three best southpaws of the previous generation — Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax — were in the Hall of Fame. In 1976, when Gullett turned 25, he had already won 91 games — many more than Spahn (8), Ford (43), and Koufax (53) had won by that age.
During that fateful 1975 Big Red Machine Championship season. Don was already 8-3 by June 11 with a 2.09 earned-run average. He seemed on track to a 20-win season. But on June 16 in the ninth inning of a game against Atlanta, Larvell Blanks hit a line shot back up the box that fractured the pitcher’s left thumb. Gullett earned his ninth victory, but was out for two months. He returned on August 18 under the watchful eye of manager Sparky Anderson. Gullett`s arm snapped like a whip, and the ball popped Bench’s catcher’s mitt at 96 m.p.h. Don Gullett was back. He won five more games (losing only one) to finish the year at 15-4.
The Reds captured the West and once again met the Pirates again in the NLCS. Gullett started the first game for the Reds, winning 8-3 but the big story was his hitting. He had a single, a home run and three RBI’s. The homer was the first, and only, of his major-league career and the first ever by a pitcher in an NLCS game. The Reds ousted the Pirates 3- straight and beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1975 World Series. Everybody knows that story and many call it the greatest World Series ever played.
After the Series was over, Gullett returned to his 75-acre Greenup County farm on Ky. Hwy. 7 to raise Black Angus cattle, it was one of the same farms where Don had baled hay as a teenager. The deeply religious Gullett eschewed drinking, carousing, and womanizing. He preferred hunting, fishing, and listening to country music. The only change in Gullett after he became a World Series champ was that the Roadrunner became a Lincoln Continental.
Sparky’s Reds expected great things from Gullett in 1976. The manager said “Barring another injury, I figure Don’s a cinch to win 20 or more this season.” However, once again, the injury bug caught up with Don Gullett. On May 20 muscle spasms in the neck plagued him until the end of August. Despite the pain, Gullett went 11-3, for a winning percentage of .786 and a 3.00 ERA. The Reds won their division again and swept Philadelphia in the NLCS, three games to none.
The New York Yankees won the AL pennant, and faced the Reds in the World Series. Despite tearing tendons in his ankle during his game 1 victory, the Reds swept the Yankees in four games, becoming the first NL team to win back-to-back world championships since the New York Giants of 1921 and 1922.
In 1976 free agency hit baseball and Don Gullett was right in the middle of it. For the first time ever, veteran players with expiring contracts could play out their options and sign with any team they wanted. The Reds were unwilling to offer Gullet a long term contract. As a result, a dozen clubs bid for his services with the New York Yankees signing Gullet to a six-year $2 million contract. Despite Gullett’s injuries, he still had the best winning percentage in baseball and the Yanks were willing to gamble on his health.
On April 10, 1977, “The Two Million Dollar Man” made his debut as a Yankee. Even though injuries plagued Gullett for most of the season resulting in missed starts, he managed to win 14 games while losing only four to lead the American League with a .778 winning percentage. The Yankees won the AL East and beat Kansas City in the ALCS three games to two. Gullett earned another trip to the World Series where the Yanks beat the NL champ Dodgers 4 games to 2.
An aching left shoulder limited Gullett to only eight appearances in 1978. He won four of his first six starts, and pitched two complete games. On July 9 he faced the Milwaukee Brewers and could not get out of the first inning. He allowed four runs on three hits and four walks and was charged with the loss. It was the last time he ever pitched in the majors, his playing career over at the age of 27. On September 29 he underwent surgery for a double tear of his rotator cuff. Although unable to play in the 1978 World Series, he was on the Yankees’ roster. Gullett is one of the few men in the history of baseball to be on the roster of four consecutive World Series champions — Cincinnati in 1975 and 1976 and the Yankees in 1977 and 1978.
The Yankees released him on October 30, 1980. He finished his career with 109 wins/50 losses, for a winning percentage of .686, second only to Whitey Ford (.690) among all left-handed pitchers (minimum of 100 wins).
After his release Gullett returned to farming. He had a heart attack at age 35 that nearly killed him. Gullett stopped smoking and continued working on his farm, but he was still drinking lots of coffee. In 1989 he suffered another heart attack. In June 1990 he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. He served as pitching coach for the Cincinnati Reds from 1993 to 2005, a career longer than he had as a player.
Don Gullett played for the Reds from 1970-76 and the New York Yankees from 1977-78. His nine-year career spanned the 1970s, during which Gullett was a member of six World Series teams (1970, 72, 75, 76, 77, 78), including four consecutive World Champions. In nine Big League seasons, Gullett played in the post season seven times. His career ended 40 years ago. While he may not be the pitcher most fans remember as the best of the best, at least for the seventies, he was the most successful pitcher in the Big Leagues.
The courthouse in Gullett’s hometown has two stone markers out front, one that reads: “This is Gullett Country” and another honoring Greenup County’s poet laureate Jesse Hilton Stuart. You’ve likely never heard of Stuart, heck you may not even remember Don Gullett. But perhaps it was Stuart who summed up the career of Smokin’ Don Gullett best when he wrote: “Time will go on as time will. New people will be born into the world. The old people go from the world and give place to the new. Children grow up, and babies are born. And the world goes on. There is not any turning back the hand on the clock.”
Original publish date: April 16, 2018