So just how fast did Don Gullett throw his blazing fastball? Most say his best pitches touched on triple figures, as in 100 mph, but there’s no absolute proof.
Gullett said his fastest clocked time was 97 miles per hour but he’s sure he topped that on several occasions.
“They had the gun back then but I don’t know how it was calibrated compared to today’s gun,” he said. “I think the gun today reads on the high end, probably three miles per hour shorter.”
Gullett’s fastball always passed the look test. Batters took pitches because they could barely see them coming.
“Without a doubt, there were times when I threw the ball 100 miles an hour,” he said.
The 19-year-old rookie flamethrower struck out six Mets in a row on August 23, 1970 in the second game of a doubleheader, tying a relief record. In that same doubleheader, Nolan Ryan pitched for the Mets in the first game.
Talk about a night of blazing fastballs!
Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates once said Gullett “throws nothing but wall-to-wall heat.” It was also Stargell who claimed: “Gullett could throw a ball through a car wash without it ever getting wet.”
Gullett called himself a student of the game. His pitching idol was Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, who he met in his first season with the Reds.
“I got to meet him in Crosley Field my rookie year in 1970,” Gullett said. “He shook hands with me. That was a thrill. We had a great conversation. I’ll never forget that.”
It was Reds manager Sparky Anderson who hailed Gullett as a sure Hall of Famer and the next Sandy Koufax.
He was a crucial part of the Red Machine in the early 1970s that won back-to-back world championships in 1975 and 1976.
An shoulder injury midway through the 1978 season when he was with the Yankees ended Gullett’s career prematurely at the age of 27.
But the legend of Gullett’s fastball lives on nearly 50 years later.
“I would say he’s in a class with (Reds hard-throwing reliever Aroldis) Chapman,” said Gene Bennett, the Cincinnati Reds superscout who first saw him as an eighth-grader.
Bennett, who lived in nearby Portsmouth when he was scouting, has many Gullett stories in his treasure trove of a memory.
He first saw Gullett in a tryout camp in Ironton when he was in the eighth grade. Bennett did everything he could to keep the scouts away because he didn’t want the others to know about this gem.
“He was an eighth-grader with college ability,” Bennett said.
At the first tryout camp, he held back nine college players, including some from Marshall, Ohio University and the University of Kentucky, to bat against Gullett.
“He struck out the first five,” Bennett said. “I said, OK, that’s plenty. No more, that’s it. He said, I can get the others too. I let him throw and he struck out every single one of them.”
Even as an eighth-grader, that fastball was sizzling.
Bennett became close friends with Gullett’s parents, spending a lot of time cultivating a good relationship with them.
He went to many McKell baseball games in Gullett’s career. It didn’t matter who they were playing.
“Bobby Kouns was one of his coaches and he’s say ‘Gene, he’s only pitching five innings today.’ I say that’s OK. He struck out 15 of them.”
The secret was getting out about Gullett in baseball circles and 24 major league scouts came to watch McKell play Portsmouth Clay when he fanned 20 of 21 batters. The amateur baseball draft was only a few days away.
“He’s the best high school pitcher I ever saw and I saw a bunch of them,” Bennett said. “And, in my opinion, I believe he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he stayed healthy.”
Gullett won 109 games from 1970-78 before the injury finished his career. He has always been someone who kept to himself and certainly never talked about himself.
But make no mistake, Don Gullett could throw a baseball with the best of them. He played in an era of the fastball with contemporaries like Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan. None threw it any harder than he did.
Gullett was country boy strong from working on the family farm in Lynn, where he tossed bales of hay with his brothers, Jack and Bill.
His career path looked headed for big league baseball and his father, Buford, was bubbling over with pride after Gullett was drafted No. 1 by the Reds in 1969 with the 14th overall selection.
“Buford told me he can’t wait to see Don in the big leagues,” Bennett said.
Bennett went with the family to the airport to see Gullett off to Sioux Falls in the summer of 1969.
“When Don went through that airport gate, you could have heard a pin drop. He (Buford) watched that plane as long as he could see it. Then he turned to me and said, ‘How long will it take Don to make it to the big leagues?’ I said ‘Quicker than quick unless I’m dead wrong.’”
Gullett went to Sioux Falls where he was 7-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 78 innings during a three-month short season. That was his one and only stop in the minor leagues.
Gullett came to spring training in 1970 because Anderson was looking for somebody who could throw strikes and throw them hard like batting practice, Bennett said.
“I mentioned to Spark and Mr. (Bob) Howsam, ‘What about Don Gullett? You take that kid down there you might have him on a plane coming back to Cincinnati.”
Gullett pitched too well to keep off the Reds’ roster and he went 5-2 with a 2.42 ERA in a relief role. The next year he became a starter.
“It was almost like a dream come true,” Gullett said. “I came in my first game after Jim Maloney popped his Achilles tendon against the Dodgers. I came in relief of him.”
Gullett, who could also swing a bat, belted a triple in his first at-bat, sliding into third base to a standing ovation.
The Reds knew they had something special.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.