The year 2020 was an especially difficult one for devotees of Major League Baseball. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic delay the start of the season for nearly four months and then limit it to 60 games (rather than the usual 162), but for the most part fans weren’t allowed to attend any of those regular-season games. On top of that, the baseball world lost an astounding 10 Hall of Fame members who passed away in the nine-month period between April 2020 and January 2021: Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tom Lasorda, Don Sutton, and Hank Aaron.
Among that list of Hall of Famers, pitcher Don Sutton is one whom most fans would not rank among the superstars of the game such as Seaver, Gibson, and Aaron. Indeed, many purists deride Sutton as a “compiler” — someone who reached Hall of Fame status not because he was ever one of the game’s dominant players, but because he racked up impressive career statistics by being a very good player for a lengthy period of time.
It is true that Sutton won 20 games only once in his 23-year-career, never won a Cy Young Award (or ever came close to winning one), had but a single ERA title among his league-leading accomplishments, and never played for a World Series winner. Nonetheless, his lifetime stats are impressive by any measure, including 324 wins, 3,574 strikeouts, and 58 shutouts.
Part of the reason for Sutton’s superlative career stats was his durability. When the former Los Angeles Dodgers star passed away at age 75 in January 2021, many of his obituaries noted that he “never missed a turn in the rotation in 756 big league starts” — a rather remarkable feat for an athlete who spent the entirety of his 23 years in the big leagues as a starting pitcher, taking the ball every fourth or fifth day, without exception, for over two decades from 1966 to 1988.
But … is it really true that Sutton never, ever missed a start?
In a strictly literal sense, it’s not true. After Sutton began the 1966 season on the Dodgers roster as part of the club’s four-man pitching rotation (along with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen), he was briefly dropped out of the rotation for a start or two on occasion over the next few years while he was away from the team fulfilling military obligations with the US Army Reserve. Sutton also started the 1968 season with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Spokane, and then when he was recalled to the parent club he spent some time pitching out of the bullpen.
Ah, but most fans would say, those are too-literal nitpicks — times when Sutton wasn’t scheduled to start or wasn’t with the team for reasons beyond his control. The real, and reasonable, claim is that Sutton never missed a start due to injury or illness.
That more reasonable claim isn’t true either, however. Although Sutton rarely missed a start, it’s not the case that he never missed a start, as detailed below:
1) During his rookie year of 1966, Sutton pulled a muscle in his forearm in the third inning of a start on September 5 and had to leave the game. He missed a couple of starts, threw only 12 innings the remainder of the year, and sat out the World Series as the Dodgers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles.
2) On Aug. 7, 1973, Sutton came out of a game against the San Diego Padres in the 8th inning (even though he was pitching a two-hit shutout) due to shoulder stiffness and missed his next start.
3) Sutton came out of a game against the Montreal Expos on June 18, 1980, after facing only two batters due to a groin pull and missed his next start.
4) During a mid-August series in Montreal in 1980, Sutton “stepped on something” and “broke a bone in [his] foot under the big toe,” causing him to miss his next scheduled start against the Philadelphia Phillies.
5) In his final season, 1988, Sutton made fifteen starts before a back injury sidelined him at the end of June. He didn’t pitch again for six weeks and started only one more game before being released by the Dodgers on August 10, ending his major league career.
None of this analysis diminishes Sutton’s accomplishment, as missing only a mere handful of starts until the very end of a pitching career spanning 23 seasons is a truly remarkable feat. But as is often the case, the use of an absolute is inaccurate — the durable Sutton did fail to answer the call on at least a few occasions.