Ten-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner Kirby Puckett was born the youngest of nine children on March 14, 1960. He grew up in Robert Taylor Homes, the same Chicago public housing project as Mr. T.
Puckett was an All-American third baseman at Calumet City High School in Chicago.
After high school he got a good job at a local Ford plant, installing carpeting in Thunderbirds. After unexpectedly losing that job, however, he attended a free agent tryout in Chicago, and was offered a scholarship to play at Bradley University in Peoria, IL, where he was converted to an outfielder. Puckett’s father passed away during his year at Bradley, and he transferred to Triton Junior College for the next season to be nearer to his widowed mother. Meanwhile, he played in a collegiate league that summer, where he caught the attention of Twins assistant farm director Jim Rantz, who was at a game watching his son playing for the other team.
The Twins selected the stocky, 5-foot-8 outfielder in the first round (3rd overall) of the January 1982 draft, but he did not sign. That spring he hit .472 with 16 home runs (including four in one game) in 69 games for Triton, en route to being named Region IV Junior College Player of the Year. His performance convinced the Twins to up their offer. He signed and reported to Elizabethton where he hit .382 and was named Appalachian League Player of the Year by Baseball America. Not a bad year!
In 1983 he played for the Single-A Visalia Oaks where he was named California League Player of the Year. He skipped Double-A and started the 1984 season with the Triple-A Toledo Mudhens.
He made his major league debut in Anaheim on May 8, 1984 at age 24, going 4-for-5 with a run scored as the Twins beat the first-place Angels 5-0. Frank Viola pitched a four-hit shutout. Puckett was the sixth player in American League history to debut with a four-hit performance. He went 16-for-33 (.485) with one walk over his first seven games.
Twins catcher Wilson Ramos also went 4-for-5 in his major league debut on May 2, 2010. He went 3-for-4 the next day, making him just the third player in major league history with seven hits in his first two games, and the first since Nanny Fernandez in 1942.
Puckett led the Twins with 14 stolen bases, and tied for the lead with 5 triples his rookie season. In 1985 he led the team with 21 stolen bases and 13 triples.
On May 2–3, 1986, Puckett led off back-to-back games in Detroit by homering on Jack Morris and Walt Terrell’s first pitch of the game, giving him 11 in the team’s first 24 games.
He hit for the sixth cycle in Twins history in a 10-1 win versus Oakland at the Metrodome on August 1, 1986. Bert Blyleven had a decent day, too, pitching a two-hitter, tying a team record with 15 strikeouts (since broken), and becoming the tenth player in major league history to reach 3,000 strikeouts. The next Twins cycle wouldn’t come until Carlos Gomez in 2008 (22 years later).
After not homering his rookie season, and hitting only four in 1985, Puckett hit a career-high 31 home runs in 1986. He would hit 83 from 1986 to 1988. According to Stew Thornley‘s SABR BioProject essay, Puckett was the first player in major league history to go homerless in a season (minimum 500 at-bats) and later hit 30.
On Opening Day 1987, Puckett went 3-for-5 with a home run, double, two RBI, two runs scored, and robbed Oakland’s Mickey Tettleton of a home run in the top of the tenth of a 5-4 Twins win.
After being lectured by Tony Oliva to be more aggressive with his bat (per Stew Thornley‘s essay), Puckett had a weekend for the ages on August 29-30, 1987 in Milwaukee, going 10-for-11 with four home runs, two doubles, six RBI, and seven runs scored. He went 6-for-6 in the August 30 game, and robbed Robin Yount of a grand slam in the bottom of the fifth. He also collected six hits in an 11-inning game on May 23, 1991, becoming just the fourth player in major league history with two six-hit games, and the first since 1935.
After struggling in the 1987 ALCS, Puckett went 10-for-28 (.357) with two walks, one double, one triple, three RBI, and five runs scored in the World Series. He scored four runs in Game 6, tying a World Series record.
On September 16, 1988, Puckett doubled home Tommy frickin’ Herr and Randy Bush to become the fourth player in major league history to reach 1,000 hits in his first five seasons.
He had eight four-hit games in 1988, tying the Twins record set by Rod Carew in 1977. Puckett finished the season with a career-high .356 batting average, the highest American League batting average for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941. Left-handed hitting Wade Boggs won the AL Batting Championship that year with a .366 average.
Puckett set a team record with four doubles on May 13, 1989. He set another team record with his 74th multi-hit game on the final day of the 1989 season, finishing with a major league-leading .339 average with 215 hits, making him one of eight players to lead their league in hits for three consecutive seasons (Tony Oliva led the AL in hits from 1964 to ’66). 1989 was Puckett’s third season with 215+ hits, making him the ninth of eleven players in major league history with three such seasons. That offseason the Twins signed Puckett to an epic new three-year, $9-million contract.
He went 9-for-21 (.429) with a walk, two home runs, five RBI, and four runs scored en route to being named the Most Valuable Player of the 1991 American League Championship Series.
He had one of the most memorable performances in baseball history in Game 6 of the World Series, going 3-for-4 with a stolen base, three RBI, and two runs scored in a dramatic 4-3, 11-inning win. He tripled home Chuck Knoblauch and scored on a Shane Mack single to give the Twins a 2-0 first-inning lead. He made one heckuva catch in the third inning, put the Twins up 3-2 with a sacrifice fly in the fifth, driving in Dan Gladden, and singled and stole in the eighth. He led off the bottom of the 11th with probably the most famous walk-off home run in baseball history off Charlie Leibrandt. “Touch ’em all, Kirby Puckett!”
He went a combined 7-for-8 with four RBI and six runs scored in World Series Game 6’s. Overall, he hit .309 with five home runs in 24 postseason games.
He tied a team record with three grand slams in 1992, including two over a six-day span (May 29, and June 3). The other Twins to hit three grand slams in a season were Bob Allison (1961), Rod Carew (1976), Kent Hrbek (1985), and Torii Hunter (2007). Puckett finished the 1992 season with a 7.1 WAR (wins above replacement), second only to his 7.7 in 1988, and finished runner-up to Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in AL MVP balloting. (Kent Hrbek finished runner-up to Detroit closer Willie Hernandez in 1984). Puckett tested the free agent market following the ’92 season, but chose to resign with the Twins at a discount.
Puckett finished the 1992 season with a major league-leading 210 hits, becoming the 15th of 19 players in major league history with five or more 200-hit seasons.
Puckett started the 1994 season with a 15-game hitting streak, and hit safely in 24 of the first 25 games. He went 5-for-6 with a double, four RBI, and a run scored in the fourth game of the season (April 8) to join the 2,000 Hit Club. After striking out in his first at-bat, he collected five-straight hits, including number 2,000 with an opposite-field single driving in Pat Meares in the bottom of the third. Trailing 8-4 in the bottom of the eighth and Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley on the mound, Chuck Knoblauch hit a two-run double, and Puckett a two-run single in consecutive at-bats to tie the game, giving Eckersley his first blown save of the season. After Oakland took a 10-8 lead in the top of the tenth, Puckett drove in Knoblauch with a double, but the Athletics held on for a 10-9 win. 1980 New Ulm graduate and Golden Gophers all-time great Terry Steinbach homered in the game for Oakland.
The 36-year-old superstar appeared poised for a big year in 1996, hitting .344 in Spring Training, when, on the last day of camp, he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma and placed on the 15-day disabled list for the first time in his career. Four surgeries did nothing to improve his vision, and he official announced his retirement on July 12.
At the time of his retirement his .318 career average was the highest for a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio. He is still the Twins’ all-time hits (2,304) and doubles (414) leader.
The Twins named Puckett executive vice president of baseball on November 16, 1996.
Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame along with 1969 St. Paul Central graduate, Golden Gophers all-time great, and former Twins teammate Dave Winfield on January 16, 2001, both on their first ballots. They were inducted in Cooperstown on August 5 alongside Veterans Committee selections Bill Mazeroski and Negro League pitcher Hilton Smith, who, following his legendary Kansas City Monarchs career, played semi-pro ball in Fulda, MN in 1949.
In early 2002 it was revealed that Tonya Puckett (who Kirby married following the 1986 season) was seeking a divorce, citing disturbing instances of abuse over the years.
In September 2002 a woman accused Puckett of dragging her into the men’s room and groping her at a suburban Twin Cities restaurant. He was acquitted of felony charges in early 2003, but with all the ugly news piling up, his sterling reputation was irreparably tarnished.
Puckett, whose weight had reportedly ballooned to well over 300 pounds, suffered a massive stroke at the home he shared with his fiancé in Scottsdale, AZ on March 5, 2006. Old friend Ron Washington, in camp with the Athletics nearby, was one of the first at his bedside, while former teammates including Shane Mack and Kent Hrbek made their way to Arizona. After unsuccessful emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain, Puckett passed away on March 6. Ken Griffey Jr. was reportedly at his bedside when he passed.
Kirby Puckett was just 45 years old, the second-youngest person to pass away after having already been elected to the Hall of Fame. Lou Gehrig, elected by a special vote following his final season, was just 37.
15,000 fans, family, and friends including Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield, Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew, Dan Gladden, Al Newman, Ron Gardenhire, Tom Kelly, and more paid tribute to Kirby Puckett in a moving memorial service at the Metrodome on March 12. Mudcat Grant sang “What a Wonderful World.”
Everyone has a great Kirby Puckett story. Here’s a good one: Mike Trombley was called up to the majors in 1992. One day he was sitting at his locker, staring at his first check. Kirby walked by and said “first big league check, huh?” Trombley nodded with a proud smile. Puck reached into his pocket, pulled out a big roll of money, and asked “you want me to cash it for you?” Classic.