Larger than life. Mythic. Practically God-like.
That’s how Zeeland-born-and-raised pitcher Jim Kaat describes his first wide-eyed visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where legends of the game are enshrined.
It was the Thanksgiving break of Kaat’s freshman year at Hope College. His roommate, Al Kober, was from Herkimer, New York, not far from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, so feasting with Kober’s family was the perfect excuse for Kaat to see the hall. Both young men were starting pitchers for the Flying Dutch, who won the conference championship the following season. Kaat, a left-handed hurler, pitched one game of a doubleheader, and Kober, a right-hander, pitched the other.
While Kober went on to a career in the insurance industry, Kaat went on to have a long and successful career in major league baseball, first as a pitcher and then as a television broadcaster.
On July 24 — 39 years after his playing days ended — Kaat will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a selection of the Golden Era Veterans Committee. Kober will be among Kaat’s special guests at the festivities. Both men are now 83.
“I am humbled and grateful to be getting this honor, especially at this time of my life,” Kaat said in a phone interview from his summer home in Vermont. “When it didn’t happen in my first years of eligibility, I just put the matter in my rearview mirror, thinking it would never happen. But, if ever I was to get a thorough hearing, this was the year because there were guys serving on the selection committee that I had played with and against.”
In only three of Kaat’s major league seasons could he be considered a “dominant” pitcher, but his durability and reliability over 25 years were off the charts. Only Nolan Ryan and Tommy John pitched longer than Kaat.
Some quip that it’s easier to be elected president of the United States than it is to be selected for the Hall of Fame. In the initial round, baseball writers cast all of the votes, and a 75 percent majority is required.
The 16-member Golden Days Era committee of baseball veterans, executives, historians and journalists was created to rectify past snubs of deserving players who current sportswriters may never have seen play. Committee members decided Kaat’s 283 career wins and 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards for fielding were deserving of the Hall of Fame.
A summer of highlights
Kaat says his summer this year will be made special by a series of reunions in recognition of his baseball accomplishments. He agreed to broadcast only early-season MLB Network and Minnesota Twins games to keep most of his summer open for Hall of Fame-related fun.
He’s also co-authored a fourth book, “Good as Gold: My Eight Decades in Baseball,” published by Triumph Books, triumphbooks.com, in which he reflects on his upbringing in Zeeland and 63 years in two MLB careers that touch eight decades.
Kaat, whose nickname is Kitty, is designating proceeds from the sale of the book to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation. His daughter Jill died of neuroendocrine cancer in 2021.
He has carefully pared down his Hall of Fame acceptance speech to just under 15 minutes on the advice of Hall of Fame hurler Sandy Koufax, who in a congratulatory call in January (when Kaat’s selection was announced) warned against being “one of those guys who ramble on and on.”
Kaat invited mostly East Coast friends to the Hall of Fame festivities. He invited friends and family living in the western United States to a July 16 pregame ceremony in Minneapolis, where the Minnesota Twins retired his uniform number, 36. Kaat, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis with the Twins in 1961, remains the winningest pitcher in franchise history.
Because both of those ceremonies are held outside, Kaat says he didn’t want to subject his only surviving sibling, Esther DePree, 95, to the travel or summer’s heat. Esther, who lives at Freedom Village in Holland, and her four children, who all live in West Michigan, will host a local reception for Jim in late August.
Sister Mildred Vander Beek died in Holland in 2018 at age 92. Brother William Kaat, a longtime resident of Grand Rapids, died in Florida in 2004 at age 73.
The local reception will take place after a mid-August 40th anniversary celebration of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1982 World Series championship. Kaat was a relief pitcher in the Cards’ bullpen near the end of his playing career. He is proud that his father, John Kaat, an avid baseball fan of modest means, got to see his son finally wear a World Series championship ring the year before he died. John Kaat also attended games of the 1965 World Series, in which his son started three games against Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers, besting them with a complete-game performance in Game 2.
Looking back, feeling thankful
Kaat says he never knew how idyllic his childhood in Zeeland was until he signed a contract as an amateur with baseball’s Washington Senators, left West Michigan and met people who “had it rough as kids.”
“Zeeland was a safe community, as caring and loving as it was strict,” Kaat says. “There were no theaters and no bars. If anybody saw you playing on a city playground on a Sunday, they would send you home. Toby’s Pool Hall was the closest there was to a den of iniquity because you might go home smelling like (cigarette) smoke. That was about the most trouble you could get into.”
Kaat muses that he doubts his parents were expecting him. His sister Mildred was 13, Esther was 11 and brother Bill was 8 when he was born at home on Nov. 7, 1938. The Kaats’ home, at 44 Wall St., also served for a short time as the headquarters of East Limits Dairy, which John Kaat owned and operated. He also worked for a biscuit company in Grand Rapids before taking a job at a hatchery, chicken being the largest industry in Zeeland.
Zeeland’s premier Little League complex at Helder Park is named for Jim Kaat, but Kaat himself had no opportunity to play Little League baseball. Neighborhood kids would take it upon themselves to pull together pickup baseball games in city parks, but the only organized league before American Legion Baseball for boys around 16 years old was a town-based fast-pitch softball team that would play against teams from nearby towns.
From Zeeland, Kaat could listen to radio broadcasts from Milwaukee and Detroit. His father took him to a doubleheader at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in 1946 that, for young Jim, was a magical experience. He started collecting baseball cards and telling aunts and uncles that he was going to be a baseball player when he grew up.
While Kaat was always athletic and excelled on the Zeeland Chix high school team, family members quietly doubted that his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player would be realized because he was on the small side — “a skinny 5 feet, 10½ inches at graduation.”
But a physical transformation came the summer between his high school graduation and freshman year at Hope College.
“Hope didn’t offer athletic scholarships, but they did help me earn money for tuition by getting me a summer job in a laundry,” Kaat says. “I was lifting big gray bags of dirty linens that came in from motels booked with summer tourists. It was heavy work, I was burning a lot of calories, and my mother (Nancy Kaat) says she worked hard to keep enough food on the table to satisfy me. It’s also a good thing she was a good seamstress, because she had to alter my clothes a couple of times that summer.”
Astonishingly, by that fall, Kaat was 6-foot-3 and weighed 220 pounds. By the time he entered the major leagues, Kaat had reached 6 feet, 4 inches.
In 1957, Kaat went undefeated for Hope College’s Flying Dutch and gave up only a couple of runs in six outings. That drew the attention of a Washington Senators scout, who was at a game to scout a Kalamazoo College player. Kaat was invited to try out for the Senators during their upcoming road trip to Chicago.
Rumors started swirling that Kaat might become a Senators’ “bonus baby.” In the years before the MLB had a draft in which teams select up-and-coming talent, it had the “bonus baby rule,” which said players who received a bonus at signing and a salary of more than $4,000 had to be added to the team’s 25-player major league roster for two years. The rule was enacted to prevent rich teams like the New York Yankees from buying up the top prospects and stashing them in the minor leagues to prevent competitors from signing them.
Signing bonuses often ran about $35,000 — about six years of wages for John Kaat.
Still, John Kaat — a careful reader of baseball’s “bible,” The Sporting News — knew the world of baseball well enough to see that most bonus babies sat on the big league sidelines for two years, not yet possessing the advanced skills needed to contribute to their teams.
John Kaat successfully advised against accepting a signing bonus, believing it would be better for Jim to start in baseball’s minor leagues and learn to play the game from the bottom up.
“Big money did not tempt my dad one iota,” Jim Kaat says. “He was more interested in developing me and my career. Not taking a bonus was an important decision for me. And it was a good one because, when I got to the big leagues, I was ready to be there.”
A career to remember
Kaat racked up 283 victories for six teams, if the Twins and the Senators are counted separately, in a career that spanned 1959 to 1983. Only 16 other pitchers in baseball history started more games than Kaat, who was a starting pitcher for 18 years. He pitched 180 complete games – an awe-inspiring number in the modern era when starting pitchers are often lifted after six or seven innings to guard against injury to their throwing arm.
He never had a blazing fastball, but he usually had pinpoint control of his pitches, which he threw at varying speeds. He was a quick worker, sometimes taking just a few seconds between pitches, and his work ethic kept hitters on edge.
He was selected to the All-Star team three times.
As the game of baseball evolves, players have become increasingly specialized in a single aspect of the game. But Kaat said his goal was always to be well-rounded. His conditioning regimen included practicing skills like hitting and base-running, which pitchers today seldom use. It was not uncommon for managers to summon him from the bullpen and insert him into the game as a pinch runner. He also helped himself as a hitter, getting 232 hits – including 16 home runs – in 1,251 at-bats.
Kaat’s best year was 1966 when he pitched 304 innings and posted a 25-13 win-loss record for the Twins. He certainly would have won the Cy Young Award that year for being the top pitcher in the American League if rules were as they are today. But 1966 was the final year that only one Cy Young Award was given to the best pitcher in the major leagues. That was Koufax from the National League.
Kaat is regarded as perhaps the best-fielding pitcher in the history of the game, having won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves awards (1962-1977). Because his agile, darting movements on the mound were unmistakably cat-like, teammates called him “Kitty” Kaat – a nickname that didn’t fade away when his playing and coaching days ended and his career in broadcasting started.
Moving behind the microphone
Kaat’s career in broadcasting was even longer than his playing career, but he insists it was mostly happenstance.
He said he liked speech class at Zeeland High School and enjoyed participating in oratory competitions as a teenager. But he never considered public speaking as a way to make money until his early days as a major leaguer, when player salaries were so meager that one had to get a paying job in the off-season to cover living expenses.
Kaat’s off-season job was broadcasting high school football and basketball games on local radio stations.
In the 1960s, stations seldom had canned programming they could turn to in case of a rain delay, so they often would ask a player to come up from the clubhouse and tell a few stories. Kaat, a natural storyteller with wide-angle perspectives of the game that didn’t just focus on his personal experiences, became a broadcaster favorite by entertaining and enlightening fans when there wasn’t much action on the field.
Network executives liked Kaat’s style with color analysis and play-by-play, told him he had a future in broadcasting, and kept feeding him work broadcasting college, Olympic and MLB games. He honed his craft from Bill White, Ken Singleton, Bob Costas, and others. His television career includes long stints announcing for the Twins and Yankees. He’s worked on CBS, ESPN and MLB Network, among others.
Kaat said he enjoys broadcasting games so much that sometimes he feels like it's “legal robbery” for cashing the checks he is paid for doing it.
If only Dad could share the moment
Kaat’s Hall of Fame induction speech will include the story of how his dad told him not to accept a signing bonus, and instead sign as an amateur free agent who would start at the bottom – in his case a minor league in rural Nebraska.
An ardent Philadelphia Athletics fan, John Kaat and wife Nancy made a pilgrimage to Cooperstown in 1947 to see John’s favorite player, Lefty Grove, be inducted to the hall on his sixth try. Jim, who was 8 at the time, said his parents didn’t get to see or meet Grove in person that weekend, yet his father treasured the experience of being at the Hall for that occasion.
John Kaat often quizzed young Jim about baseball history. (Who were the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.) As good as his career was, Jim quickly says he doesn’t begin to measure up to any of those first five.
“My election to the Hall of Fame is the honor of a lifetime,” Kaat said, adding that it would be wonderful if his dad was alive and able to share the moment.