Retire 36 for Jim Kaat!

The Twins made a praiseworthy move when they announced Thursday night that they would retire Tom Kelly’s number 10 jersey. The only way it could have been better is if they had announced the retirement of Jim Kaat’s number 36 at the same time. The lefty came within two votes of being elected to the Hall of Fame this offseason, but there appears to be no indication that the Twins plan to retire his number.

I’ve already made the case for Kaat, but I think this is a great opportunity to make it again.

Kaat is 31st on baseball’s all time list with 283 career wins. That’s right – out of the nearly 20,000 men who have played Major League baseball, only 30 have won more games than Jim Kaat. In the 51 year history of the Minnesota Twins, Kaat is number one. No Twin has topped his 189 wins. The next closest is Bert Blyleven, who deservedly had his number retired next year. Blyleven is a whopping 41 victories behind Kaat on the team list.

If you’re not a fan of victories as a stat, how about strikeouts? Kaat was never a strikeout pitcher (in his era, the strikeout was not emphasized the way it is now), but he accumulated 2,461 of them, good enough for 34th on the all-time MLB list. With the Twins, he had 1,824 Ks: second in team history behind Blyleven.

Not a fan of pitching stats in general? Okay, let’s take a look at his hitting line, which was excellent for a pitcher. Kaat had a career .185/.227/.267 line, and he hit an impressive 44 doubles and 16 home runs in 1,362 plate appearances. I know it’s unfair to compare a pitcher’s hitting stats to a manager’s, but I can’t resist, because it’s amusing. Kelly had a career .181/.262/.244 line with five doubles and a single homer. So Kaat actually beat out the guy whose number is being retired this year in batting average and slugging percentage, and he had 16 times as many round-trippers.

So why was Kaat’s number not retired long ago? It probably has something to do with Calvin Griffith. Kaat had a less than perfect relationship with the former Twins owner, who was a notorious penny-pincher (as well as a racist, but that’s a different story). The constant contract squabbles probably had something to do with Kaat being released via waivers in 1973, despite the fact that he had another decade left in his pitching career. If Griffith really did have a grudge against Kaat, it’s not surprising that his number wasn’t retired right away.

But it is surprising that the Twins have failed to retire Kaat’s number at some point during the nearly three decades since Griffith sold the team. Kaat certainly is not in the same echelon as Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, or Harmon Killebrew, but his career compares favorably with those of Blyleven, Kent Hrbek, and Tony Oliva, all of whom have retired numbers.

Kaat played 13 seasons with the Twins (15 if you count his two seasons in Washington before the team moved to Minnesota), and his contribution to the Twins baseball lasted even longer. A generation of Twins fans (including myself) grew up listening to Kaat providing the color commentary for Minnesota’s televised games. His friendly voice and insightful comments were a valuable addition to the telecasts.

The only possible explanation for the Twins’ failure to retire Kaat’s number is that they might be waiting to do so until he is elected to the Hall of Fame. His near miss on this year’s Veterans Committee ballot indicates that he’s likely to make it three years from now when he is up for consideration again. But I think it would be a mistake to wait that long.

The team’s all time win leader is 73 years old. He has waited long enough.

Topics: Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Tom Kelly

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