A tribute to Bert Blyleven, Part One: The Minnesota Twins Player

With Bert Blyleven finishing his legendary career as a key face of the Minnesota Twins, we look back on his playing days.

With Bert Blyleven announcing he finished working as a color broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins and moving into a Special Assistant Role with the Minnesota Twins organization, a common role for individuals who are important to the franchise:

With Blyleven hanging up the microphone and ending his public career as part of the Minnesota Twins, we at Puckett’s Pond thought it appropriate to pay tribute to his iconic Twins career, both on the field and in the booth.

Younger fans may only remember Bert’s often comedic banter in the booth with Dick Bremer and his iconic Circling of Fans, but Blyleven was also one of the greatest pitchers in Twins history and a key piece of a title run.

Because of that this tribute will be broken down into three parts: the first part will focus on his playing career, the second will center on his broadcasting career, and the third installment will talk about his legacy within the organization. With that being said, here is a tribute to Bert Blyleven: The Player.

 

Minnesota Twins

Bert Blyleven of the Minnesota Twins winds up for a pitch during Game Five of the 1987 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Fiery First Stint with the Minnesota Twins

Bert Blyleven’s career with the Twins began when they drafted him in the third round of the 1969 MLB Draft. It wasn’t a particularly strong draft class, as he was one of just two players in that daft to make the Hall of Fame. The other player? St. Paul’s own: Dave Winfield.

Blyleven was sent to the minors, where he started 21 games in the between rookie ball and Class A before being called up to the majors. At just 19 years of age, Blyleven lit up the majors en route to winning the 1970 American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year award from Sporting News.

In 1973, he led the league with nine shutouts, a number that is truly unimaginable today. Despite his early success with the Twins, Blyleven’s fiery personality and frustrations with the team boiled over.

Things began to break down between Blyleven and the Twins front office in 1976, with Calvin Griffith as his main nemesis. Blyleven was unhappy with his contract, and was looking to earn more money, but Griffith was utterly uninterested in signing him to a better one.

Because free agency was just starting in 1976, players had little power (especially compared to today. Blyleven’s performance to this point showed he deserved a better contract, but with Griffith unyielding, this led to a fallout between the two.

When rumors of the divide leaked to the media, and Blyleven became a villain. Fans heckled him, both saying and singing “Bye Bye Bertie” at games. This really frustrated Bert, who was still pitching well.

This frustration, bolstered by his strong personality led to the “one-finger salute”, when one particularly loud group of fans caught his attention and his anger. Blyleven raised his middle finger to them, sending the clear message a “one-finger salute” sends, right toward those fans. This quickly triggered the Twins to push for a trade, sending Blyleven to the Texas Rangers.

In return, the Twins received journeyman pitcher Bill Singer, utility infielders Mike Cubbage and fellow Twins broadcaster, Roy Smalley. It was an okay trade for the Twins, as Smalley and Cubbage were solid major league players, but it wasn’t the type of haul a team expects when trading a future Hall of Fame player.

 

Minnesota Twins

Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven is introduced during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Return to the Minnesota Twins and the 1987 World Series run

After leaving the Twins in 1976, Blyleven’s “one-finger salute” made another appearance for the Rangers on national TV leading him to be traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. After just two seasons with the Pirates, the fiery version of Bert showed up again. He threatened to retire if not traded, because Pirates manager Chuck Tanner pulled him late in games too often.

This led Blyleven to be traded AGAIN to the Indians in 1981. By 1985, he was fed up with losing and forced another trade (that’s four now) back to the Twins. By this time he was considered one of the best pitchers in the league and well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

He was also known for his often hot-headed and competitive nature, which made him the perfect fit for what would be a World Series-winning rotation. In 1985, that’s exactly what the Twins were building.

His first full year after returning to the Minnesota Twins was a mixed bag, where he still was one of the top pitchers in the league. He lead the league in innings pitched and posted 16 complete games, but he also lead the league in home runs surrendered.

By 1987, Blyleven wasn’t in his prime anymore, but he did provide World Series experience and was a formidable force on the mound. In the playoffs that season, he went 3-1, pitching 26.1 innings and allowing 11 runs in four starts while striking out 21 batters, helping the Twins win their first World Series in Minnesota.

I’m a child of the 1980s, and I remember watching Blyleven that season in awe. Watching some of the best hitters uselessly swinging at Blylven’s curve in the World Series is something every baseball fan should experience.

He was a key to bringing the Twins their first World Series win, and even though he was traded away after the 1988 season, he had established a truly great legacy worthy of being enshrined in both the Twins Hall of Fame and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

For most of his playing career, the public misunderstood Blyleven. This may have been in part due to his personality, but the media loved to make a bad boy. I genuinely believe that most of this perception of being a fiery bad boy comes from Bert wanting nothing more than to pitch every inning, of every game and win every game.

It was that passion for the game that drove him to become one of the best pitchers in Twins history, and that, above all else is how I remember his time with Twins. As we went on to see, Bert became a lovable Twins homer, which is more akin to the real Bert.

 

 

Next: The Minnesota Twins must use farm system to stay in contention