April 30, 1980: Cardinals acquire Jim Kaat to shore up their bullpen

Desperate to bolster their relief corps, the Cardinals purchased the rights to future Hall of Famer Jim Kaat from the Yankees on April 30, 1980. The three-time all-star and 16-time Gold Glove Award winner played the final four seasons of his career in St. Louis, including 62 appearances as a valuable bullpen piece for the 1982 World Series champion Cardinals.

In addition to signing Kaat, the Cardinals also signed free agent righthander Pedro Borbon, who had been serving as a batting practice pitcher for the club since being released from the Giants in spring training.[1] To make roster space, the Cardinals designated lefthanded reliever Darold Knowles for assignment and optioned Jim Lentine to Springfield.

“We want somebody who can put the lid on,” manager Ken Boyer said.[2]

Though the Cardinals were less than three weeks into the season, their bullpen already had reached the breaking point. In 35 1/3 innings, they were 0-5 with one save and a 7.46 ERA. Since returning from a nine-game road trip, the bullpen had twice allowed the Cubs to mount three-run, ninth-inning rallies. On each occasion, the Cubs’ own bullpen ace, Bruce Sutter, secured the save.

“If we had the relief pitching, we’d probably be in first place,” Cardinals general manager John Claiborne said.[3]

Boyer, who guided the club to 86 wins in his second season at the helm in 1979, was fully in support of the reinforcements.

“Kaat has always had good stuff and he’s a great competitor,” Boyer said. “I didn’t see him pitch this spring – we didn’t play the Yankees – but our scouts said he was throwing well and hitting good location. We need somebody – Kaat, Borbon, or whoever – to do for us what Sutter’s been doing for the Cubs. Last year we lost the lead in the eighth or ninth inning in something like 27 games and this spring it’s been the same way. It’s been demoralizing to the players and the fans to see it every day.”[4]

“One thing’s for sure: both Jim and Borbon will be given a chance to come in late,” Cardinals pitching coach Claude Osteen said. “It isn’t as if we haven’t tried everyone else down there. We’ve given everyone a chance to wear the crown.”[5]

Before the Cardinals purchased his contract, Kaat’s thoughts had turned more toward broadcasting baseball games than playing in them. He had pitched just five innings for the Yankees, allowing four earned runs, when New York designated him for assignment.

“I didn’t think this was it, the end of the line, but I kind of wanted it to be,” he said. “When (Yankees general manager) Cedric Tallis and John Claiborne of the Cardinals were trying to reach me, I was auditioning for a broadcasting job. Cutting a demonstration tape, really. There’s a lot of cable TV work around New York and we want to stay in the east.”[6]

A starter for most of his career, Kaat brought a 264-221 career record to St. Louis. Through much of the 1960s, Kaat had been a workhorse for the Twins. In 1962, he was selected for his first career all-star game on his way to 18 wins and 269 innings pitched. That season marked the first of 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. In 1965, he started Game 7 of the World Series against Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers, allowing both runs in a 2-0 loss. In 1966, he led the league with 25 wins, 19 complete games, and 304 2/3 innings pitched, placing fifth in the AL MVP vote.

Kaat continued to post double-digit win totals into the 1970s, but after acrimonious contract negotiations resulted in Kaat getting a $60,000 salary, the Twins placed him on waivers and he was picked up by the White Sox in August 1973.

Kaat’s two full seasons in Chicago ranked among his best, as he won 21 games with a 2.92 ERA in 1974 and won 20 more with a 3.11 ERA in 1975, placing fourth in the AL Cy Young Award vote. That December, Kaat was traded to the Phillies, where he pitched his final season of more than 200 innings.

In 1979, Kaat made 41 of his 43 appearances in relief. Claiborne said the Cardinals had explored trading for Kaat for about a week before the move was finalized.

“We’re starting to evaluate and make some changes, but it can’t be done overnight,” Cardinals general manager John Claiborne said. “Even though Kaat is 41 years old, Gaylor Perry won the Cy Young Award at 40. I’m not suggesting Kaat can win the Cy Young Award, but he can start and relieve in three areas – short, middle, and long.”[7]

Despite his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and his advancing age, Kaat remained uncannily athletic. Just three years earlier, in 1977, he had won his most recent Gold Glove.

“I was with Jim in 1975 at Chicago when he won 20 games for the White Sox and age doesn’t apply to Kaat,” Osteen said. “He’s probably as quick around the mound as anybody in baseball and he always has been. What’s more, he has the body of a younger man – certainly not someone in his 40s.”[8]

Earlier that season with the Yankees, Kaat had become the sixth major leaguer to play in four different decades, joining Willie McCovey, Minnie Minoso, Mickey Vernon, Ted Williams, and Early Wynn.[9]

“I don’t stay young, I stay in shape,” Kaat said. “I’ve always treated baseball as a year-round job. With all the weight machines and exercise facilities available to them, there is no reason for baseball players to be out of shape.”[10]

Apparently, when you acquire a 41-year-old pitcher, you don’t let them age much more before you put them to use. Kaat arrived at Busch Stadium the same day the trade was finalized, just in time to retire the final five batters in an 8-2 win over the Cubs. This time, there was no ninth-inning rally.

“It was nice to get my feet wet the first time in uniform, but I’d hesitate to say I’m the one reliever the Cardinals are away from,” Kaat said.[11]

The Cardinals wound up using Kaat as a swingman that season. His 41 appearances included 14 starts, as he went 8-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 129 2/3 innings.

“I still think I’m best as a starter, but you can make yourself believe you’re a good reliever,” Kaat said.[12]

In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Kaat made 40 of his 41 appearances in relief. In 1982, at age 43, he threw 75 innings, starting just two of his 62 appearances. In the 1982 World Series, Kaat appeared in four games, allowing one earned run in 2 1/3 innings. It was the first – and only – world championship of his career.

“It’s a fact of life – it’s not that easy to be part of a championship team,” Kaat said. “Who would’ve known this would be the team? When I came to the Cardinals, I didn’t even know I’d make it through 1980.”[13]

In 1983, he had a 3.89 ERA through 34 2/3 innings when the Cardinals released him in July. He retired with a 283-237 career record and 3.45 ERA over a 25-year major-league career.

Kaat become the pitching coach for the Reds under Pete Rose in 1984 before beginning that broadcasting career he was planning to begin when the Cardinals acquired him. From 1986 through 2009, he worked for CBS, NBC, ESPN, ABC, the MLB Network, and TBS, winning seven Emmy Awards for sports broadcasting.[14]

In 2022, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee.


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[1] Arnold Irish and Cal Fussman, “Cardinals Seek Relief: Sign Jim Kaat, Borbon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 1980.

[2] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[3] Arnold Irish and Cal Fussman, “Cardinals Seek Relief: Sign Jim Kaat, Borbon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 1980.

[4] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[5] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[6] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[7] Arnold Irish and Cal Fussman, “Cardinals Seek Relief: Sign Jim Kaat, Borbon,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 1980.

[8] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[9] Michael Kahn, “Cardinals bullpen additions,” Belleville News-Democrat, May 1, 1980.

[10] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[11] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[12] Arnold Irish, “Kaat Answers Boyer’s Plea, Puts Lid On Cubs,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 1, 1980.

[13] Mike Smith, “Kaat Remembers That Old Gang,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 21, 1982.

[14] Patrick Lethert, “Jim Kaat,” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jim-kaat/.