When Don Sutton broke into the major leagues in 1966, the 21-year-old right-hander joined a Dodger rotation that included future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
Thirty-two years, 324 victories, 3,574 strikeouts and numerous doubts later, Sutton, a self-proclaimed "working-class guy," joined Koufax and Drysdale by being elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.
"I just went numb at first," said Sutton, who got the news Monday during a round of golf in suburban Atlanta. "I went through a multitude of emotions, from instant tears to joy to excitement to numbness.
"There were so many people who are no longer with us who I would have given anything to share this with--my late mother, [former Dodger manager] Walter Alston, the Big D [Drysdale].
"After that, I was playing golf, but I don't remember swinging the clubs."
After induction ceremonies at Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer--the date has not been set--Sutton, Koufax and Drysdale will be the only players in the Hall wearing Los Angeles Dodger caps. They are believed to be the first trio of Hall of Famers from the same rotation since Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Bob Lemon pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the late 1940s and early '50s.
"I was darn lucky to be a part of that group," Sutton, 51, said in a conference call. "To be 21 and joining a staff like that? You can't ask to pitch with anyone better."
Sutton, a model of consistency during a 23-year career with the Dodgers, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics and Angels, received 386 votes, 31 more than the 355 needed.
Former Cincinnati Red slugger Tony Perez, who hit 379 home runs and drove in 1,652 runs in 23 years, came up short again, finishing with 321 votes. He was followed by Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs, who had 204 votes in his 15th and final appearance on the BBWAA ballot.
Jim Rice was fourth with 203, followed by Gary Carter with 200 and Steve Garvey with 195. Pete Rose, not on the ballot because of his lifetime ban from baseball, received 12 write-in votes, eight fewer than in 1997.
Sutton came within nine votes of making the Hall of Fame last year, his fourth year of eligibility, and though he would have been eligible for another 10 years, there was a sense of urgency about his 1998 candidacy because next year's ballot will include Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount, all considered locks for Cooperstown.
"I'm aware of who's coming out next year, but I never thought of it in relation to my situation," Sutton said. "I just thought they are the cream of the crop and wondered how anyone could leave them off the ballot. . . .
"I revere Cooperstown. To me, it's a sacred place. It's where the Holy Grail of baseball is. There are people there who inspired me, including Sandy Koufax."
Sutton, though, was never considered in Koufax's class. Sutton never won a Cy Young Award or pitched a no-hitter, and he had only one 20-victory season, 1976, when he went 21-10 with a 3.06 earned-run average for the Dodgers.
Before Monday, Sutton was the only eligible pitcher to have won 300 games and not have been elected to the Hall of Fame, and some critics believe his 324-256 record was more the result of longevity than superiority.
But Sutton was a standout in five league championship series, pitched in four World Series and had a lifetime 3.26 ERA. He won more games than all but 10 of the 63 pitchers in Cooperstown, and 45 of his victories came after his 40th birthday.
He was in an Angel uniform when he won his 300th game, on June 18, 1986, a moment he ranks at the top of his achievement list.
"On the inside page of Walter Alston's book, which he sent me, he wrote that when the game was on the line he wanted me to have the ball," Sutton said. "That's the ultimate thing anyone in sports would want his manager to say about him. I didn't always come through for him, but I always gave my best."
Sutton spent most of his career--1966-80 and '88--with the Dodgers, for whom he set franchise records for wins with 233, games pitched with 550, games started with 533, strikeouts with 2,696, innings pitched with 3,814 and shutouts with 52. Sutton said he did not miss a start because of injury between 1966 and '80.
"What was special about him is he went to the mound," former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda said. "That's what was different about him. He logged a lot of innings. He was a winner. He was a competitor.
"When you gave him the ball, you knew one thing: your pitcher was going to give you everything he had. You win as many games as he did, to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame."
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Career at a Glance
CATEGORY NO. RANK Wins 324 T-12 Strikeouts 3,574 5th Shutouts 58 10th Losses 256 7th Games started 756 3rd Seasons pitched 23 T-7th 200-inning seasons 20 1st
Record with Dodgers: 233-181, 3.09 ERA
Record with Angels: 28-24, 4.11 ERA
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By the Numbers
Houston: 24-17, 2.82 ERA