Over the course of February, which is Black History Month, MLB Network and MLB.com are looking back at some of the most prominent African-American players in MLB history. Today, we look back on the career of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, a 10-time All-Star who retired with the highest-career batting average of .318 for a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio.
Waking up on Opening Day in Minnesota during the late 1980s meant looking forward to seeing Kirby Puckett take the field again. His warm smile was infectious. His unforgiving grit was jaw-dropping. His ability to overcome obstacles and become one of the Twins' greatest players in franchise history was exceptionally inspiring.
Puckett grew up as the youngest of nine children in Chicago. He was an All-American third baseman in high school, but didn't receive any baseball offers following graduation. He picked up his bat for a free-agent tryout, gaining a scholarship and recognition.
Puckett, an undersized 5-foot-8, was selected by the Twins in the first round of the 1982 Draft. In just 65 games, he batted .381 with three home runs, 35 RBIs and 43 steals for the Elizabethton Twins in the Appalachian League. After continually turning heads during his first two years in the organization, he was promoted to the Majors in 1984, making his big league debut on May 8 that year.
In his rookie season, Puckett batted .296/.320/.336 in 128 games, finishing third in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting.
Puckett compiled a long list of accolades over the course of his 12-year career, the brightest of them coming early. He led the AL in hits every year from 1987-89. He won a Gold Glove Award and Silver Slugger Award every season from 1986-89. And overall, Puckett won six Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers in his career.
Puckett led the Twins to two World Series championships, in 1987 and '91, before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. He won the Most Valuable Player Award in the 1991 AL Championship Series, helping the Twins beat the Blue Jays in five games.
Puckett was remembered for emphatically pumping his fist as he rounded the bases after hitting a walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series against the Braves, forcing a Game 7, which Minnesota went on to win. The Twins unveiled a bronze statue of Puckett making that gesture at Target Field on April 12, 2010, at Gate 34, in honor of Puckett's No. 34.
In 1996, Puckett earned the Roberto Clemente Award. This honor, given to a player combining good play and strong work in the community, exemplified his character.
Puckett retired after waking up with blindness in his right eye during Spring Training in 1996. He capped a monumental career as the Twins' all-time leader in hits (2,304), doubles (414), total bases (3,453), at-bats (7,244) and runs (1,071). Puckett owned a career .318 average with 207 home runs and 1,085 RBIs.
Puckett died from a stroke on March 6, 2006, in Phoenix at 45. He was the second-youngest player to die after being inducted into the Hall of Fame behind only Lou Gehrig, who died at 37.