In a recent phone interview with MLB.com, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Jim Kaat answered questions on a wide range of topics about his 25-year playing career. He also spoke about how proud he is to be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer, following his election to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee.
MLB.com: Has it hit you that you are going to be enshrined in Cooperstown?
Jim Kaat: It hits me every day. I never realized the magnitude of being in the Baseball Hall of Fame because between calls from friends, texts and everything, it’s overwhelming in a good way. It continues to hit me a little bit differently every day.
MLB.com: How so?
Kaat: When some people say how many players actually played [in the Major Leagues] and then you hear the [low] percentage that gets in the Hall of Fame. And then when you get a call from Sandy Koufax congratulating you and saying, "It’s long overdue." Every day, it seems to kind of hit me and you say, "Wow, this is a humbling experience."
MLB.com: Your best game in the big leagues was against Sandy Koufax in Game 2 of the 1965 World Series. Could you explain the feeling you had when you beat him?
Kaat: Sandy started Game 2 and a lot of people like to say [I] beat Sandy Koufax in the World Series. No, I didn’t beat Sandy Koufax. We got one earned run off Sandy in six innings. … It’s the only run we scored off him in three starts. I remember saying to Johnny Sain, who was our pitching coach, "If I give up a run, this game is over because I don’t see anybody hitting this guy." Koufax is famous for so many things -- no-hitters, perfect games. To be able to get a call from him is pretty awesome stuff.
MLB.com: After you were elected to the Hall of Fame, who was the first person you thought of?
Kaat: My dad [John]. I have a picture on my desk of my dad standing in front of the Hall of Fame in 1947. My parents drove to Cooperstown so my dad could see his favorite player, Lefty Grove, inducted into the Hall of Fame. My dad was such an avid baseball fan. … My dad wasn’t an emotional guy, but this [current moment] would be pretty cool for him.
From the time I was 8 years old, I thought about being a baseball player. We didn’t have Pac-Man or Fortnite. We played baseball trivia. I was asked this question [by my dad]. Before the words got out of his mouth, [the answer] was Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. They were the first five inductees in the Hall of Fame. I’ve known that since I was 8. My dad was the one that piqued my interest in the game of baseball.
MLB.com: Did your father see you play in the big leagues?
Kaat: Oh, yeah. Living in a town in Michigan, he would come to Chicago or Detroit occasionally. He went to the World Series games in 1965.
MLB.com: He must have been one proud man.
Kaat: I think he was, but he kept it hidden. When people would ask him, "How does it feel to have a son be a baseball player?" he would be quick to point out and talk about my brother, who had a successful career in the trucking business. My dad was a person who wanted to make sure the entire family was treated the same and not put me on a pedestal. He kept his pride pretty quiet.
MLB.com: Every time I listen to your interviews, Sain is a person you often talk about. What does he mean to you?
Kaat: Johnny Sain and Eddie Lopat were my two pitching coaches that were the most influential during my career. If people knew about them, neither one were power pitchers. They did the job with offspeed stuff, guile and control. Johnny said to me, "There are pitchers that could get hitters out like Koufax [because they] are power guys. But pitchers like you have to give hitters opportunities to get themselves out. You can do it with control, change of speed and movement." He helped me recognize what kind of pitcher I was, how important it was to look ahead in the count. If you are not a power pitcher, you can’t be going 2-0, 3-1. You have to gamble early in the count, get ahead of the hitters. That’s really the philosophy that Johnny instilled in me. The four best years of my career were by far when Johnny was my coach.
MLB.com: You mentioned Eddie Lopat.
Kaat: He was the one in the early ‘60s that told me, "Make your pitches work for you. Don’t get in a hole." He taught me little nuances of pitching. It’s pitching that analytic and sabermetric guys wouldn’t understand. Eddie taught me the art of pitching.
MLB.com: You have a book coming out this spring called, "Good as Gold: My Eight Decades in Baseball." What do you want people to get out of the book?
Kaat: I look at each decade, the highlights of it and some of the things that happened, the way the game was played early in my career and the way it’s played today, some of the things I like and dislike.
MLB.com: The last time American League pitchers hit on a regular basis was in 1972. That year, you hit .289 with two homers. Did you like hitting?
Kaat: I loved hitting. This comes from Johnny Sain, who used to say if you are a better hitter than the guy from the other team, you can have an advantage. If you can be responsible for one run a game, some way to say you helped your team to score one run, the other team has to score two to get ahead of you. It’s a big advantage to be a better hitter than the pitcher on the other team.
MLB.com: What is your best baseball moment?
Kaat: My best baseball moment was when [Cardinals closer] Bruce Sutter threw strike three past [Brewers slugger] Gorman Thomas to win the 1982 World Series.
I went to the World Series with the Twins in 1965. Later, I found out a trivia question that is still true: Tim McCarver asked in 1997, "Who has the most time between World Series appearances?" So I scratched my head and I said, "Wow, I must be the answer to that question." I was. It was 17 years between appearances and getting the ring overshadows any individual accomplishments, by far.
MLB.com: What is your biggest disappointment?
Kaat: It was probably a start on Sept. 30, 1967. My record during the month of September [was] 7-0, a lot of complete games. We had a one-run lead against the Red Sox. We needed that win to win the pennant. I popped my elbow ligament, the same kind of injury we call Tommy John, but they didn’t have the surgery. I had to leave that game and we ended up losing that game, and the next game we lost the pennant [to the Red Sox]. I was pretty pumped up to pitch that game on Saturday, which would have won the pennant for us.
MLB.com: With Tommy John surgery not around in ‘67, were you surprised you lasted another 16 years?
Kaat: It was the last start of the season. Those days, when you had surgery, pitchers seldom came back. Even though he wasn’t my coach that year, Johnny Sain said to me, "The only way surgeons make their money is when they cut. Pitchers don’t come back from it." I rested my arm all winter and I came back and I could tell I was pretty compromised from a power standpoint. But I still pitched 200 innings each year for the next four years, but I was a much different pitcher then. But I got the strength back in that arm. Then I bounced back and really had a couple of dominant years in ‘74 and ‘75 [with the White Sox]. With the lack of long-term contracts in those days, you just figured out a way that you were able to pitch whether you were injured or not because you had to. That was our motivation.
MLB.com: Is there anyone you think belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Kaat: There are several people. Curt Flood comes to mind. Tommy John, of course. The guy I felt bad for this year was my friend, Dick Allen. We were teammates in Chicago and we became close friends in Philadelphia. … In due time, he is going to get in. I’m sad Dick passed away before he could get in. It would have been cool to go in with Dick and Tony [Oliva] in the same year.