Dave Stultz put it right down the middle with his statement to the Elks about Don Gullett being honored on Sports Day.
“I think you hit the biggest grand slam you’ve ever hit by choosing Don Gullett as the 2014 honoree,” he said. “It’s an honor well deserved and past due.”
Stultz, a contemporary of Gullett, was the speaker for the ceremony. He was two years older and a left-hander, like the honoree, who pitched for rival Greenup High School.
The respect he had for Gullett bubbled over during his speech.
“From beginning about 10 years old he was better than anybody he played with,” Stultz said. “God does not make many athletes like Don Gullett.”
Gullett, who began being followed by major league scouts at the age of 14, was a three-sport star at McKell High School before bursting into the major leagues as a 19-year-old rookie with the Cincinnati Reds.
Gullett could have chosen any direction – football (where he had 35 scholarship offers, including Alabama and Notre Dame), basketball (17 college offers) or baseball.
Needless to say, Gullett is regarded as the best athlete in northeastern Kentucky history.
“I’ve known Don for most of my 65 years,” Stultz said. “I was fortunate enough to play on All-Star teams with him. Obviously, from day one, he was special.”
Gullett was indeed special enough to win 109 games in the major leagues with the Reds and Yankees and he was a part of four consecutive World Series champions from 1975-78.
His teams played in the World Series in six of his nine seasons. A career that was cut short by a shoulder injury at 27 was still full of amazing highlights and even some oddities.
For instance, the first home run he gave up was to Willie Mays. The first strikeout he record was against Mays. And the last home run that Mays hit in his career came off Gullett.
He was also the last pitcher to face Roberto Clemente before his untimely death.
Even though Gullett’s baseball career was full of amazing moments and a big money multi-year deal with the Yankees in 1977, he never changed, Stultz said.
“Don was, is, and always has been a gentleman,” Stultz said. “Don was a leader. He led by example on and off the field.”
Gullett, who doesn’t do much public speaking, was truly appreciative of the recognition from his neighboring hometown.
“It’s like a reunion to me,” he said. “I’m as comfortable speaking here as I’ve ever been anywhere. I see so much family, personal friends, teammates. All we can do is look back and savor these moments.”
Gullett was treated with high praise from a good crowd in the Elks Lodge.
“He’s the best athlete ever in our area,” said Dale Sexton. “I know, I’ve seen them all. He’s the best. Easily the best.”
That refrain could be heard over and over again from those gathered.
Gullett also recognized Gene Bennett, the longtime Reds scout who began watching the 14-year-old Gullett when he was an eighth-grader at Wurtland.
“He was like a second father to me,” Gullett said.
The Lynn native, who was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2002, had many of his friends in attendance as well.
He said the honors received from the area have been the most special to him and he includes the Sports Day recognition among the best.
The first such honor came in 1970 when the town of Greenup had a Don Gullett Day. They also had a monument erected outside the courthouse with “Don Gullett Country” on it.
That was after his rookie season with the Reds after he’d just turned 20. Joe Nuxhall came to serve as the emcee.
“Don never did anything to embarrass himself or his county,” Stultz said.
Gullett was the first Greenup County native to receive the Sports Day honor.
Gullett entertained the crowd with a question-and-answer session and talked about the 1970s era he played in, managers Sparky Anderson and Billy Martin, how Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for what he did on the field and about how Hank Aaron “owned me.”
With wife Cathy by his side, Gullett slipped on the Sports Day green jacket from last year’s honoree, Vic Marsh, and a big smile came across his face.
It was most definitely a great night for the greatest athlete to ever play in the area.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.