Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

June 18, 2014

MARK MAYNARD: Catching Heat

Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson ... and Bill Gullett

ASHLAND — Don Gullett’s smokin’ fastball always had a good place to land.

His catchers in the big leagues were legends Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson.

His other catcher was Bill Gullett.

Don’s younger brother by one year and a few months caught him from Little League to American Legion and every stop in between.

He caught him more innings than Bench and Munson combined.

When the battery of Gullett and Gullett was put down on the McKell High School lineup card, it usually meant trouble for the opposing team.

Few others caught Don Gullett in high school because few others could do it. As a matter of fact, that’s how Bill Gullett got into the McKell lineup as a freshman in the first place.

“We were up at Ashland and there was a senior who hadn’t caught Don a whole lot,” he said. “The guy catching just couldn’t catch him. The ball was in the strike zone but he couldn’t get a glove on it.”

Tom Simms, the McKell coach, turned to Bill Gullett in the dugout and asked: “Can you catch him?”

“I told  him I’ve been catching  him all my life so I’m sure I could,” Bill Gullett said.

It’s true. Since the youngest of the three Gullett brothers — Don is 63 and Bill is 62 — were old enough for a game of toss in the backyard, Bill Gullett had been catching Don Gullett.

“For me it wasn’t difficult at all,” he said. “I saw guys trying to catch him. He was quick. The ball was leaving his hand and you didn’t know what was coming. He was pretty difficult to catch.”

Except for Bill Gullett, who said he and Don would throw at least every other day in the back yard on the farm their father owned in Lynn.

“We threw all the time,” Bill said. “I think that’s why he had pretty good control.”

Bill Gullett said the only mitt he owned for the longest time was a catcher’s mitt. “I didn’t own a fielder’s mitt until I went to Bristol (in the minor leagues) for one season,” he said.

Gullett caught four years at McKell, the first three when his brother was the ace and one of the best high school pitchers in the country.

Bill saw batters be intimidated by the sight and sound of Gullett’s heaters buzzing past them at nearly 100 miles per hour.

Legend has it that one player even urinated down his leg at home plate while facing Don Gullett.

“That happened,” Bill said. “But I’d never mention any name. There was a puddle at home plate.”

When Don was on the mound, he and Bill mostly managed the game themselves. They thought like each other.

“Most of the time he’d go along with whatever I called. It was mostly fastball, fastball,” Bill said. “A decent hitter would come up and we’d give him something else to look at. Most of the hitters couldn’t touch him anyway.”

Bill Gullett’s booming bat kept him from being too overlooked in the McKell lineup. He hit for average and power for the Bulldogs, estimating his average hovered around .500 as a senior.

Wayne Blackburn, a longtime scout of the Detroit Tigers, kept a close eye on both Gulletts. He signed Bill to a minor league contract where he played one year at Bristol. He played under Jim Leyland, who later managed in the big leagues with the Pirates, Marlins and Tigers, winning a couple of World Series titles.

Bill Gullett played one year in the minors, one year of winter ball and then went back to spring training. He did get to hit against Don in some exhibition games and actually ripped some singles and belted a long shot that tailed foul.

“I was a little bit ahead of it,” he said.

Bill Gullett wasn’t signed more for his hitting ability than catching ability. He actually didn’t catch much but remembered warming up knuckleball specialist Joe Niekro one time.

“It was tough,” he said. “That was my biggest highlight.”

A bad back that later required two surgeries ended Bill Gullett’s professional dreams almost before they got started.

Meanwhile, Don was rising up the ranks with the Cincinnati Reds.

When it looked like baseball may have its first players strike in April of 1972, Don came home for a few days and asked Bill if he could throw some with him.

“I’d never caught him since he went pro,” Bill said. “It was amazing what he learned; the offspeed pitches especially. The fastball may have been a little quicker. I don’t think I even had a mask on. I let the hillside be the backstop for ones that got away.”

Bill Gullett said the brothers never played a game of burn-out and his hands were never bruised from catching Don.

They played Little League for the Wurtland Pirates and Harland Fritz Jr. was the manager. Coaches were given so many points in a draft and he saved his up to get Don Gullett.

“He took a beating on some of the other players so he could have Don,” Bill said. “He got me the following year but it didn’t cost him as much.”

As Bill recalls, the Pirates were a good Little League team. Bruce Fritz and Bill Rister were two other strong players.

Bill Gullett remembers the 1-0 loss to Ashland in the 1969 regional tournament semifinals in Morehead.

He says a running catch in right field prevented him for knocking in two runs against the Tomcats.

“I hit a ball that 99 percent of the time wouldn’t have been caught,” he said. “I’m not saying it was luck but the right fielder happened to stick his glove up.”

He also remembered catching the game when Gullett struck out 20 of 21 Portsmouth Clay batters in 1969.

“He was having a good day, a better day than normal,” Bill said. “Four or five pitchers and they were done. He was in the groove.”

Nobody — not even Bench or Munson — knew that groove any better than Bill Gullett.

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.

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