Don Gullett, Ace for the Big Red Machine, Dies at 73

Don Gullett, a flame-throwing left-handed pitcher who starred for three World Series champion teams in the 1970s, first with the Cincinnati Reds and then with the New York Yankees, died on Wednesday. He was 73.

The Reds organization confirmed the death in a statement but did not cite a cause or say where he died.

The Reds during Gullett’s tenure were one of the great teams of all time. The Big Red Machine, as it was known, was famous for its lumber, with an era-defining lineup of hitters that included Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose.

While the team’s pitching rarely received top billing, Gullett established himself as a feared ace during the team’s run as a dynasty. Nicknamed Smokin’ Don, he blew away batters with a fastball whose velocity tickled triple digits, at times drawing comparisons to his idol, Sandy Koufax, the storied Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander.

Willie Stargell, the Hall of Fame slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates, once said that Gullett “could throw a ball through a carwash without it ever getting wet.”

Adding a nasty forkball that left batters waving at air, he went 17-11 with a 3.04 earned run average in 1974. Sparky Anderson, the Reds’ manager, predicted that, “barring an injury,” Gullett “is almost sure of making the Hall of Fame.”

Those words would turn out to be prophetic, but not in the way Anderson intended.

Gullett had the honor of starting Game 1 of the World Series for three straight years beginning in 1975 — the first two with the Reds, the third with the Yankees. In a thrilling seven-game triumph over the Boston Red Sox in 1975, Gullett lost the opener but came back to win Game 5, surrendering only two earned runs in 8 ⅔ innings.

After the Reds steamrolled the Yankees in a four-game sweep the next year, the Bronx Bombers’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner, had apparently seen enough: He signed Gullett to a six-year contract for $2.1 million (the equivalent of about $11 million today) as a free agent.

“He had to take it,” Bench was quoted as saying in Gullett’s obituary in The Cincinnati Enquirer. “It was the hardest decision I think Don Gullett ever made in his life, but for his family it was the only decision he could make.”

In his first year in pinstripes, in 1977, Gullett went 14-4, helping the team to its first World Series victory since 1962.

Surgery in 1978 for a double tear in the rotator cuff of his left shoulder would mark the end of his playing days. His efforts to rehabilitate his throwing arm failed. He sat out the 1979 season, and the Yankees released him in 1980.

Still, Gullett had tallied 109 wins against 50 losses during his career, finishing with a winning percentage of .686 — the seventh best in league history for pitchers who notched at least 1,000 innings.

On a Reds team stacked with stars, his athleticism had stood out to teammates — as had his humble manner. “He was a total athlete,” The Enquirer quoted Bench as saying. “He could hit and run like the wind and the nicest, nicest person. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad word ever said about Don.”

Donald Edward Gullett was born on Jan. 6, 1951, near Lynn, Ky., not far from the Ohio border, the sixth of eight children of Buford and Lettie Gullett.

As a teenager, Don built his strength baling hay on local farms while becoming a dazzling All-State star on the diamond, gridiron and hardwood at McKell High School. He became a local legend, known for feats like scoring 72 points in a football game and striking out 20 of 21 batters while pitching a perfect game.

Chosen 14th overall out of high school by Cincinnati in the 1969 draft, Gullett appeared in only 11 games in the minor leagues before being fast-tracked to the big leagues in 1970, when he was 19.

In the National League Championship Series in 1970, the Reds swept a powerful Pittsburgh Pirates team in three games, with Gullett, in relief, tallying saves in Games 2 and 3. Despite his youth, he was not awed by the experience.

“I wasn’t nervous a bit going in there,” he said during the series. “Talking to all these reporters is a lot tougher than facing Willie Stargell or Roberto Clemente.”

The Reds lost the World Series in five games to to the Baltimore Orioles that year and fell to the Oakland A’s (another dynasty of the 1970s) two years later. Still, the best years were yet to come, both for the team and for its star left-hander.

After his playing days were over, Gullett retired to a farm near his hometown, where, with his wife, Cathy, he grew tobacco and other crops.

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Interviewed in 1989 by The Los Angeles Times, Gullett said that it took time to get over his premature exit from baseball.

“I looked at myself and I was only 31, 32 years old,” he said. “It kind of bothered me mentally. It was mentally tough to watch games.”

Even in regret, however, he maintained his trademark humility.

“It was just unfortunate in my career,” he added. “If I had stayed healthy, there is the chance I could have been very successful.”