Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

June 9, 2014

MARK MAYNARD: Gullett played them all well

ASHLAND — There was never a sport that Don Gullett couldn’t master. He loved them all — at least, baseball, football and basketball.

Gullett is not only the greatest athlete in northeastern Kentucky history but also the greatest three-sport athlete.

Just call him The Natural.

Consider this: Gullett had 17 major college basketball scholarship offers, 35 major college football offers (including Notre Dame, Ohio State and Alabama) and was a projected No. 1 professional baseball draft choice as a senior at McKell High School in 1969.

“I remember playing softball in grade school at Lynn Elementary, out there competing with the older boys. I was in the second grade and playing against sixth- to eighth-graders,” he said.

And he was playing barehanded.

“Walter Willis, who was in the educational field in Greenup, he was the guy who gave me my first glove,’’ Gullett said. “I remember that black glove he gave me. He said, ‘Here, you need a glove.’ I was out there barehanded playing softball.”

Gullett wasn’t big for his age either but he was talented for his age.

“I loved it all really,” he said when asked about his favorite sport. “Baseball was the game I first started playing in the second grade. We didn’t have any organized football or basketball, so I played baseball a longer period of time.”

Gullett learned the lessons of sports from his older brother Jack, who never played high school sports but knew how to play them all.

“We’d play backyard community ball — football, basketball, baseball,” Gullett said. “He never played any organized sport at all but he certainly knew a lot about the game and helped me a lot.”

Gullett began playing organized and competitive football and basketball when he became a sixth-grader and fell in love with those sports, too. Gullett was a natural at whatever he did. Gullett is mostly remembered for his blazing fastball that took him to 109 major league victories in an injury-shortened career. But those who played football and basketball against him remember a competitor who was always tough to beat.

Gullett played on two of McKell’s greatest teams in 1967 and 1968. It was during that ‘68 season that McKell trampled Wurtland 72-7 and Gullett scored every point in the game. It was not uncommon for him to score in the upper 30s during basketball games and, of course, there was no more dominating pitcher than Gullett, even as an eighth-grader at Wurtland.

The late Larry Jordan invited the late Malcolm Conley, then the sports editor at the Ashland Daily Independent, to come out and watch this eighth-grade pitching phenom throw. It was that same year that Reds scout Gene Bennett first feasted his eyes on the prized left-hander. He left practically drooling over what he had witnessed.

Gullett’s legend grew throughout his high school days in all sports, but especially in baseball.

Bennett said it was a game between McKell and Portsmouth Clay right before the postseason tournaments in 1969 that secured Gullett’s legacy.

He struck out 20 of 21 Clay batters in the perfect game effort. The last batter bunted the ball back sharply to him and he threw out the runner for the third out.

That sensational effort came with “23 or 24 major league scouts watching,” Gullett said.

His last game in high school was a 1-0 loss to Ashland in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals in Morehead.

Dave Damron had the only hit for the Tomcats, a triple, and he came home on Mike Tackett’s sacrifice fly. Gullett struck out 11 and walked only one in six innings. However, Tomcat pitcher Tim Huff matched Gullett practically pitch for pitch in shutting out the Bulldogs on three hits.

Ashland was a thorn in McKell’s side, although Gullett performed well in big moments.

As a junior in 1967, he had 80 yards rushing and scored all three touchdowns in McKell’s 21-20 loss to the eventual state champions.

As a senior, he scored 21 points in the region basketball tournament against the Tomcats and then pitched the semifinal gem but was on the losing end.

“They had some great teams, championship teams,” Gullett said of the Tomcats. “Two particular individuals, Bobby Lynch and Bill Lynch, those were great baseball players. We met them in Little League and through high school, all the way through. It’s something I’ll always remember. They weren’t the only two guys on the team. They had some really good players.”

By the time he was a senior, Gullett was considered the possible No. 1 overall draft choice in the June amateur draft. He went in the first round with the 14th overall selection to the Cincinnati Reds. Slugger Jeff Burroughs was taken first by the Washington Senators at the urging of the great Ted Williams. The second player chosen was fireballing J.R. Richard by the Astros. He won 107 games with a 3.15 ERA before having his career cut short by heart issues.

However, only two players from the first round had a better WAR (wins above replacement) ranking than Gullett — Richard and Gorman Thomas of the Brewers, who had 268 home runs in a lengthy career.

Gullett won 109 games with the Reds and Yankees, including six World Series appearances. He was on a World Series champion from 1975 to 1978 — two apiece with the Reds and Yankees.

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