Don Gullett, who is generally regarded as the greatest athlete in northeastern Kentucky history, will be the honoree for the 40th annual Elks Sports Day next summer.
Gullett starred in three sports at McKell High School where he was named All-State in football, basketball and baseball. He once scored 72 points in a single football game and struck out 20 of 21 batters in a baseball game. The Cincinnati Reds selected him in the first round of the 1969 amateur draft and he made his major league debut on April 10, 1970.
Gullett played for the Reds from 1970 through 1976 and for the Yankees in 1977 and 1978 before shoulder problems brought a promising career to a premature end. Gullett won 109 games and posted a 3.11 ERA and was a member of six World Series teams and four consecutive world champions (’75 and ’76 Reds and ’77 and ’78 Yankees).
If Gullett’s left rotator cuff hadn’t exploded on him in June 1978, his plaque might be hanging in Cooperstown. He was only 27 years old and one of the best pitchers in the game when his shoulder gave out.
He was well on the way to Hall of Fame numbers had he been able to pitch into his late 30s instead of his late 20s.
The late Sparky Anderson, his manager with the Reds, always said he thought Gullett had a chance to be in Cooperstown.
“He was awfully, awfully good. He had a great arm,” Anderson said.
Gullett’s .686 winning percentage in nine seasons was better than contemporaries Jim Palmer (.652), Nolan Ryan (.517), Tom Seaver (.636) and Don Sutton during their nine-year career points.
Gullett is often compared to Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, a Yankee lefthander who had a .690 winning percentage and career 2.75 ERA.
As a high school athlete in northeastern Kentucky, Gullett had few who compared to him ever. He was a star at whatever sport he tried at McKell High School and burst onto the high school scene as a fireballing eighth-grade pitcher.
Gullett had offers to play football for Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama and numerous basketball offers, too. Of course, he chose baseball and the Reds selected him first in the 1969 draft at the urging of scout Gene Bennett.
Gullett’s minor-league apprenticeship lasted a half season when he pitched 11 games at Class A Sioux Falls in 1969. He was invited to spring training the next year and made the team, appearing in 44 games as a rookie in 1970 but made only two starts. He was 5-2 with a 2.42 ERA. But he was even better in the postseason, pitching 10 1/3 innings and allowing only one run on six hits in the National League playoffs and World Series. He saved two of the three wins in the sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He became a starter the next year and remained that way throughout the rest of his career. The shoulder injury was the only thing that slowed him down. It was an injury with today’s medicine that probably could have been fixed.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.