A star-studded baseball lineup is parading out of Iowa’s most famous cornfield.
Hank Aaron and Don Sutton just joined Shoeless Joe, Night Train Lane and the rest of the Field of Dreams Gang.
Seven other Baseball Hall of Famers died in 2020, the most ever during a calendar year. Aaron completes an outfield of Lou Brock and Al Kaline. Joe Morgan is now manning heaven’s infield. Sutton joins the recently recruited pitching rotation of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro and Whitey Ford.
Tommy Lasorda must’ve felt they needed a manager to depart this good earth two weeks ago.
But you just know the Good Lord Almighty is arranging a game for the heavens when He calls up two of baseball’s most durable stars during the same week.
Aaron, who passed away Friday at age 86, steeled himself against racist death threats for 23 seasons to set baseball’s home run record of 755. Sutton, who died Tuesday at age 75, never missed his pitching turn while making 756 starts — the third-most in Major League Baseball history.
They were both heroes of my hometown heart.
Aaron caught my attention because of the company he kept — Santa Barbara’s Eddie Mathews — during 13 seasons with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. No two teammates ever hit more home runs together. Their 863 blasts — 442 by Aaron and 421 by Mathews — broke the old record of 859 set by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The New York Yankee legends took a barnstorming tour together in 1927 which even brought them to Santa Barbara. They were more rivals than pals, however. Ruth once admitted that he and Gehrig “didn’t talk for years.”
But the opposite was true of Aaron and Mathews, the one-two punch that beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series.
“We weren’t jealous of each other at all,” Aaron once said. “That’s one reason we were so successful.”
Mathews, who passed away in 2001, once told me that his old teammate was “the best player there ever was.”
Although Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s home-run mark, Hammerin’ Hank still holds major league records for RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra-base hits (1,477). He also ranks third in hits (3,771).
“He wasn’t flashy like Willie Mays, but he did everything well,” Mathews said. “I never saw Aaron throw to the wrong base, never saw him overthrow the cutoff man, but he did it so easily that nobody noticed.
“Maybe because his cap didn’t fly off.”
Mathews hit 512 career home runs — more than any third baseman in history until Mike Schmidt came along — and he was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1978. But in his heart, neither of those feats matched the record he set with Aaron.
“I would have to say that was my proudest accomplishment in baseball,” he said, “not just because of the number or because no one else did it, but because I shared the accomplishment with Hank.”
They were teammates during an era when white players rarely associated with black teammates. And yet, Mathews became Aaron’s mentor in Milwaukee.
“Their relationship was like 14-karat gold,” Braves’ outfielder Wes Covington once said.
Mathews, two years Aaron’s senior, did admit regret for not speaking out when Aaron was barred from joining him at the same eating and lodging establishments.
“It makes me angry that I didn’t stand up and be counted,” he told me.
Mathews returned to the Braves as Aaron’s manager when the Hall of Fame slugger broke Ruth’s record of 714 home runs. He stood up for him then, shielding Aaron from much of the abuse and attention that came his way during that 1973 season.
“I don’t think a manager ever meant more to a player than Eddie Mathews meant to me during those times,” Aaron said. “He knew me and understood me as well as anybody in baseball, and he did all he could to take the pressure off me.”
Sutton didn’t grow up in Santa Barbara like Mathews. His two-month, professional debut here in 1965 seemed more like a barn-storming tour than a season. But he did leave a lastingly good, first impression.
He was 20 and I was 10 when I watched him pitch Opening Day for the Santa Barbara Dodgers on a sunny, Easter Sunday.
The Class A, California League contest went by in a flash as he retired 19 of the first 20 batters he faced. He put up seven straight Easter eggs on the scoreboard and wound up with a five-hit, 11-strikeout, no-walk, 5-2 victory over the San Jose Bees.
A rave review from club manager Norm Sherry filled the notebook of my father, News-Press sports editor Phil Patton. The quote I remember most was, “He could have pitched anywhere in baseball today.”
Sutton was a precursor to Cleveland Indians’ ace Shane Bieber, last year’s winner of the American League Cy Young Award. Sutton, like the former UCSB ace, rarely walked a batter while disguising his curveball with the same pitching motion as his fastball.
“Don is a real competitor,” Sherry said on that Easter Sunday of 1965. “He has the ability, I feel, to make it up to the major leagues in a couple of years.”
That assessment wound up as a bit of an underestimation.
Sutton was leading the California League in every pitching category — wins (8-1 record), ERA (1.50), strikeouts (101), complete games (eight), and innings pitched (94) — when the Dodgers promoted him to the Double-A Texas League in early June.
You didn’t have to read between the lines in the News-Press the next day to feel Dad’s disappointment:
“While the Dodgers left by bus this morning for San Jose, Sutton was on his way south by plane to Albuquerque,” he wrote. “The calling up of Sutton by the Dodger organization is a disastrous blow to Santa Barbara’s pennant ambitions.
“It’s going to be mighty difficult for any pitcher to try and fill the shoes of Sutton who had established himself as the league’s top pitcher here in the first two months of the campaign.”
Some sportswriter in Albuquerque probably felt the same after Sutton was called up to the big leagues just three months later. He didn’t get to pitch for the World Series champions — the Dodgers were in too hot of a pennant race with the San Francisco Giants — but he did win 12 games the following year when Los Angeles reclaimed the National League pennant.
Sutton continued on to win 324 games in 23 seasons, tying Nolan Ryan for 14th most in MLB history. His 3,574 strikeouts rank seventh all-time, right behind his new Field of Dreams teammate, Tom Seaver.
His tenure spanned an era of Dodger aces that went from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1966 to Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela in 1988. Near the end of that last World Series season, Sutton noted how his career had passed as rapidly as a 100-mph fastball.
“It’s amazing how fast you grow old in this game,” he said. “At first you’re the rookie right-hander. Next season you’re that promising right-hander. Then suddenly you’re the old man.”
And then you’re on some diamond that’s been cut out of an Iowa cornfield … pitching to Hank Aaron and Night Train Lane and the rest of the gang.