Bruce Sutter

December 9, 1980: Cubs trade Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals

In October 1982, Bruce Sutter closed the door on the Cardinals’ first world championship since 1967. His path to that moment began almost three years earlier, shortly after he was named the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner.

Sutter had a contract with the Cubs for the 1980 season, but the agreement included a clause that allowed him to renegotiate that year’s salary.[1] With the contract negotiations hovering in the background, trade rumors began to swirl around Sutter.

They began with reports in December 1979 that a Phillies scout had approached Kennedy with an offer that included pitchers Larry Christenson and Tug McGraw and outfielder Greg Luzinski for Sutter. The Chicago Tribune hinted that Kennedy responded by asking the Phillies to add Mike Schmidt to the deal,[2] and Kennedy later clarified that the Phillies had not offered a package of players but instead offered Luzinski in a one-for-one trade for Sutter.

“We certainly aren’t going to make that deal,” Kennedy said.[3]

With spring training looming in February 1980, the Cubs and Sutter went to arbitration to determine his salary for the season. Going into the hearing, Sutter asked for $700,000 while the Cubs countered with an offer of $350,000.[4] The arbitrator, Thomas G. Christenson, could only select one figure or the other. In the end, he sided with Sutter.

“I didn’t want to go to arbitration,” Sutter said. “I was willing to call it off at the last minute, and when I went in and asked for $700,000, I never dreamed I would get it.”[5]

By the end of March, the Cubs had reportedly received a wide variety of offers for Sutter’s services. According to those reports, the Dodgers had offered third baseman Ron Cey, outfielder/infielder Derrel Thomas, and catcher Joe Ferguson, though Kennedy disputed this report and insisted that Dodgers vice president Al Campanis had called simply to ask for the opportunity to bid on Sutter if a deal became imminent.

The Astros reportedly offered pitcher Joaquin Andujar and outfielder/first baseman Cesar Cedeno, and the Cardinals were believed to have offered Kennedy’s son, catching prospect Terry Kennedy; infielder Ken Oberkfell; and relief pitcher Mark Littell. Kennedy was particularly annoyed by the report regarding the Cardinals’ offer and denied that such an offer had ever been made.[6]

Ultimately, the Cubs held onto Sutter for the 1980 season, though the shutdown closer, who saved a league-high 28 games with a 2.64 ERA, represented a luxury on a 98-loss Cubs team.

“There’s no doubt Sutter is on the market this fall,” said Expos manager Dick Williams. “Everybody has heard that, everybody knows that. The Cubs are looking for the best offer and, believe me, when it comes to that, there are a lot of teams that are going to have their names up on the wall in the Cub offices.

“From what I hear, the deal isn’t going to involve just Sutter. It will be him and others for several players; it will be a tremendous package. This is one guy who can take a strong team to a pennant. He has one heck of a great pitch. There isn’t anything like it in baseball today. The one thing I’m not sure of, though, is the salary. I wonder if the team that gets him will have to pay him 700 grand or more.”[7]

In November, Cubs general manager Bob Kennedy said he had heard from several teams inquiring about Sutter’s availability, but a few had been frightened off by Sutter’s salary expectations.

“We need young talent, especially a second baseman and a third baseman, and if we can get young players like that, we’ll trade one of our name guys,” Kennedy said.[8]

Brewers general manager Harry Dalton, who felt his team was just a few pieces away after finishing third in the American League East in 1980, believed Sutter was destined to become a St. Louis Cardinal.

“We’ve made a good offer to the Cubs,” he said, “but every time we talk to them, it’s like Kennedy’s eyes kind of glaze over and he isn’t hearing what we’re saying. I think it’s just a question of time before they put together the pieces of a Sutter deal with the Cardinals.”[9]

In St. Louis, Whitey Herzog had just taken over general manager duties and was working quickly to rebuild a roster that had gone 74-88 to finish one spot ahead of the Cubs in the National League East. To transform the Cardinals’ fortunes, he was seeking an elite closer and had two in mind – Sutter and the San Diego Padres’ Rollie Fingers.

Herzog’s desire for Sutter was so well-known that Kennedy was driving into the office on Dec. 3 when a news flash came on the radio to say that a deal between the Cardinals and Cubs was nearly complete. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was reporting that the Cardinals were sending Leon “Bull” Durham, an infielder (either Ken Reitz or  Oberkfell), and a minor leaguer to the Cubs in exchange for Sutter. When Kennedy got to Wrigley Field, he called Herzog to chastise the Cardinals’ general manager about tampering.

“I didn’t mention Sutter’s name,” Herzog told Kennedy. “I just said we wanted a top relief pitcher and that I hoped to have him by Friday.”[10]

In Herzog’s autobiography, White Rat: A Life in Baseball, he wrote that Kennedy had been seeking three of the Cardinals’ top prospects: Durham, second baseman Tom Herr, and outfielder Ty Waller. Ultimately, Bob Kennedy and Herzog compromised, with Durham, Reitz, and Waller headed to Chicago in exchange for Sutter.[11]

The deal would hit a snag, however, when Reitz, who had a no-trade clause, refused to sign off.

“I thought about it and I ain’t going to Chicago,” Reitz said.[12]

Herzog spoke to Reitz’s agent, Larue Harcourt, regarding the deal and Harcourt recommended to Reitz that he accept the trade. Additionally, the Cardinals gave Bob Kennedy, who had been the Cardinals’ farm director when Reitz was in their minor-league system, permission to speak to Reitz.

“He wants me to be a regular and I’d hit in the heart of their lineup,” Reitz said of his conversations with Kennedy. “It’s a hard decision for me because he’s done a lot for me.”[13]

As the Cardinals and Cubs worked to convince Reitz to accept the trade, the Brewers continued to lurk in the background. According to reports, they had offered third baseman Jim Gantner and left-handed pitcher Mike Caldwell, but the Cubs wanted second baseman Paul Molitor included in any deal.[14]

When Kennedy arrived in Dallas for the winter meetings, he told reporters he was optimistic that Reitz would change his mind regarding the trade.

“Don’t count us out on getting Reitz,” he said. “I think it was a matter of his pride being hurt by the fact the Cardinals wanted to trade him, but he didn’t sound anywhere near that negative Saturday.”[15]

Herzog wasn’t about to allow Reitz’s indecision to delay his rebuild. On December 7, he signed Darrell Porter, his former catcher with the Kansas City Royals, as a free agent. The following day, he traded Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher, and John Urrea to the Padres for Fingers, Bob Shirley, Gene Tenace, and a player to be named later (Bob Geren).

On December 9, the Cubs and Cardinals finally completed the Sutter deal when Reitz agreed to a $150,000 payment to approve the trade, with $75,000 coming from each team.[16] At the time the trade was completed, Sutter was out hunting and staying in a cabin with no telephone. Reached at the family home, Sutter’s wife Jayme had just one question for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who called for a comment regarding the trade: “Are they going to keep Rollie Fingers too?”[17]

Herzog admitted that he was unlikely to keep both future Hall of Famers in his bullpen. When asked which he would keep, his answer was simple.

“In my eight years of managing, I’ve never had a reliever like Sutter,” he said.[18]

In Chicago, the loss of Sutter was softened by the acquisition of Durham, who hit eight homers and drove in 42 RBIs in 330 plate appearances in St. Louis in 1980. Durham would go on to play eight seasons in Chicago, eclipsing 20 home runs five times and making two all-star appearances.

“The Cardinals have a chance to win the pennant with Bruce, but we have to rebuild and he couldn’t win the pennant for us,” Kennedy said.[19]

Nonetheless, the Cubs’ optimism regarding Durham’s future couldn’t match St. Louis’s excitement for Sutter. A few days after the trade was completed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared that, “St. Louis has the Arch, the zoo, and the Muny Opera, assets of incalculable worth, but now it’s got something really valuable. It’s got Bruce Sutter’s game-saving arm.”[20]

“I didn’t come here for recognition,” Sutter said. “I didn’t come here to be the highest-paid player. I came here to help the team and to win.”[21]

In another interview, he said, “The ballclub I’m going to is going to be a winner and that matters more than anything. All the other stuff, you can have. I’ll get just as many saves in St. Louis as I did in Chicago. Only difference is they’ll mean more.”[22]

With his time in Chicago at an end, Sutter had mixed feelings about the experience. On the one hand, he had spent the past eight years with the organization, transforming himself from a low-level fastball/curveball pitcher with dim prospects for a major league future into the game’s top relief pitcher. Along the way, he’d met Fred Martin, who had made the single greatest impact on his career of any coach he would ever work with, and spent four seasons working with pitching coach Mike Roarke, who would prove more effective than anyone in assisting Sutter with his mechanics.

On the other hand, Sutter found himself questioning Chicago’s commitment to excellence.

“It was getting depressing,” he said. “I never felt like they wanted to win. The salary negotiations and some of the things they did … I never got the real sense that they were trying to win … and I’m an optimist. There were a lot of problems, a lot of griping, a lot of excuses last year. Guys would never admit to making mistakes. They always would blame someone else.”[23]

While Sutter credited the Cubs for making a good trade, he was left with a bad taste in his mouth regarding how the team handled the news after the deal was finalized.

Bob Kennedy didn’t talk to me until a week after I got traded,” he said. “He had my phone number. I missed a whole day of hunting waiting for him to call, and then the first thing that came out (in the media) was he said they wanted to get rid of my salary. That made me mad. They gave me a little slap in the face as a going-away present and I didn’t appreciate that. That’s all Mr. Wrigley needs is another $100,000. What are they going to do, put $100 bills out there at second base and in center field?”[24]

On December 12, Herzog traded Fingers, Ted Simmons, and Pete Vuckovich to the Brewers for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano, and Lary Sorensen. With Fingers in Milwaukee, Herzog sent a clear signal that Sutter was his closer.

Now all that remained was to complete the step that had created such animosity between Sutter and the Cubs – his contract. However, whereas the Cubs were hesitant to sign Sutter to a long-term deal, Herzog and the Cardinals were eager to lock the big right-hander down.

In January 1981, Sutter and the Cardinals agreed to a four-year, $3.5 million contract. Per the agreement, Sutter would earn $975,000 the first two years and $1.55 million each of the last two years. In addition, Sutter would receive a $125,000 bonus for winning the Rolaids Fireman of the Year Award, an $82,000 bonus for placing second, or a $41,000 bonus for placing third.[25]

“I never thought I’d make that kind of money,” Sutter said. “When you’re growing up, the money wasn’t the same as it is now. The money is just unbelievable.”[26]

For Herzog, the cost was worth having the man he considered to be the best reliever in baseball residing in his bullpen.

“This signing gives our bullpen the kind of quality and stability we need,” he said. “We know what kind of job Bruce can do.”[27]

Sutter went on to save 127 games for the Cardinals, leading the league in three of his four seasons with the birds on the bat. While he helped St. Louis win the World Series in 1982, his best season may have been his final season with the Cardinals in 1984, when he saved 45 games with a 1.54 ERA. He placed third in the Cy Young and sixth in the National League MVP voting that season.

After the 1984 season, Sutter signed a six-year contract with the Braves that paid him $4.5 million and placed another $4.8 million into a deferred payment account that would pay him $1.3 million per year for 30 years after the contract expired. Sutter pitched two seasons in Atlanta, saving 26 games to give him an even 300 for his career before a torn rotator cuff ended his career.

In 2006, Sutter was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That September, his number 42 was retired by the Cardinals.

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[1] Dozer, Richard. “Cubs sign Krukow; Foote Next?” Chicago Tribune, 12 Feb. 1980.

[2] Dozer, Richard. “Cubs reject Luzinski, 2 Phillie pitchers for Sutter,” Chicago Tribune, 7 Dec. 1979.

[3] Edes, Gordon. “Cost of Sutter.” Chicago Tribune, 11 Dec. 1979.

[4] Nidetz, Steve. “Sutter victory worth $700,000.” Chicago Tribune, 25 Feb. 1980.

[5] Nightingale, Dave. “Sutter relieved to escape pressure of Cub ‘stupidity.’” Chicago Tribune, 27 July 1980.

[6] Dozer, Richard. “Cubs hear a clamor for Sutter.” Chicago Tribune, 28 March 1980.

[7] Nightingale, Dave. “Sutter and his pitch probably will split,” Chicago Tribune, 10 Oct. 1980.

[8] Nightingale, Dave. “Cub stars on block: Kennedy,” Chicago Tribune, 13 Nov. 1980.

[9] Nightingale, Dave. “Cub stars on block: Kennedy,” Chicago Tribune, 13 Nov. 1980.

[10] Jones, Dave. “A Sutter suitor,” Chicago Tribune, 4 Dec. 1980.

[11] Herzog, Whitey & Horrigan, Kevin (1987). White Rat: A Life in Baseball. New York, N.Y.; Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 127-128.

[12] “Cardinals’ Reitz refuses to go to Cubs in Sutter deal,” Chicago Tribune, 6 Dec. 1980.

[13] “Cardinals’ Reitz refuses to go to Cubs in Sutter deal,” Chicago Tribune, 6 Dec. 1980.

[14] “Cardinals’ Reitz refuses to go to Cubs in Sutter deal,” Chicago Tribune, 6 Dec. 1980.

[15] Nightingale, Dave. “Kennedy still pursuing Sutter deal with Cards,” Chicago Tribune, 7 Dec. 1980.

[16] Nightingale, Dave. “Getting Durham in Sutter deal has Kennedy gloating,” Chicago Tribune, 10 Dec. 1980.

[17] Hummel, Rick. “Reitz Harbors No Resentment,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10 Dec. 1980.

[18] Nightingale, Dave. “Getting Durham in Sutter deal has Kennedy gloating,” Chicago Tribune, 10 Dec. 1980.

[19] Nightingale, Dave. “Getting Durham in Sutter deal has Kennedy gloating,” Chicago Tribune, 10 Dec. 1980.

[20] Barnidge, Tom. “‘I Came Here To Win’ – Sutter,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 14 Jan. 1981.

[21] Barnidge, Tom. “‘I Came Here To Win’ – Sutter,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 14 Jan. 1981.

[22] Verdi, Bob. “Penny-pinching Cubs make Sutter sad,” Chicago Tribune, 16 Dec. 1980.

[23] Hummel, Rick. “Bruce Sutter,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 18 March 1981.

[24] Hummel, Rick. “Bruce Sutter,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 18 March 1981.

[25] Hummel, Rick. “Sutter Near $1 Million A Year,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Jan. 1981.

[26] Hummel, Rick. “Sutter Near $1 Million A Year,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Jan. 1981.

[27] Hummel, Rick. “Sutter Near $1 Million A Year,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Jan. 1981.