In 2001, when Kirby Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame, I was asked to write a short biography of him for the Hall's website. Puckett was always one of my favorites and I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the piece, which was written before a darker side of his personality was revealed.
Kirby Puckett can no longer see out of his right eye, but that’s okay with him. He’s always had a different way of looking at the world anyway.
The best-loved player of his generation, Puckett was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side, a ghetto project that Newsweek once dubbed the “place where hope died.” But Puckett’s hope thrived. Growing up in the shadow of old Comiskey Park, he learned to play baseball using rolled-up balls of aluminum foil. He loved the game but drew no attention from scouts, so after high school he went to work in a Ford auto factory, then as a census taker. He played baseball in a recreational league with the guys from the auto plant. Just for the heck of it, he attended a Kansas City Royals open tryout – the kind where nobody ever gets signed – and caught the eye of the baseball coach from Bradley University. Puckett signed to play college baseball, and he was on his way.
In 1984 Puckett arrived in the big leagues with a splash, collecting a record-tying four hits in his debut game. He finished his rookie season at .296, but with no power – he had more bunt singles (a league-leading 25) than extra-base hits (16). But in 1986, the year Tony Oliva took over as Twins batting coach, Puckett suddenly began hitting home runs. For the next decade he was one of the best players in baseball, with outstanding power (207 career homers), speed (134 steals) and defense (six Gold Gloves). He led the Twins to two unlikely World Championships on little more than the force of his personality, and in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, he had arguably the greatest individual game in Series history: An RBI triple in the first inning, a memorable leaping catch in the third, a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the fifth, a single and stolen base in the eighth, and a game-winning homer in the 11th.
A five-foot-eight bundle of joy, Puckett resembled a walking, talking Bobbin’ Head doll. Instead of letting his unusual physique deter him, Puckett used it for inspiration, keeping a picture of pudgy Hall of Famer Hack Wilson taped to his locker as proof that great things can come in strange-looking packages. One of the least pretentious superstars in the game, Puckett drove to the ballpark every day in his old pickup truck. That, in addition to his wacky name and fire hydrant body, won him many fans. But most of all, Puckett was lovable because he was the ultimate gamer. He loved to play baseball, and it showed. America embraced him, so much so that he once even got his own David Letterman list, “Top Ten Ways to Mispronounce Kirby Puckett.” (Number seven: Turkey Bucket.)
Puckett’s critics – and there weren’t many during his active career – point out that his career was shorter than most players in the Hall of Fame, and that his head-to-heels strike zone lowered his on-base percentage. Maybe so, but it didn’t lower his batting average: Puckett retired with a lifetime average of .318, the highest by a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio, and his 2,040 hits in his first ten seasons are the most in the 125-year history of Major League Baseball.
On September 28, 1995, Puckett was hit in the face by a Dennis Martínez fastball, leaving him with a bloody face and a shattered jaw. The beaning ended his season and, as it turned out, his career. The next spring he batted .360 and appeared to be recovered, but on the last day of training camp he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and five eye operations did nothing to improve his vision. On July 12, 1996, Puckett, wearing a white patch over his right eye, announced his retirement at age 35. “I was told I would never make it because I'm too short,” he said at his retirement press conference. “Well, I’m still too short, but I’ve got 10 All-Star games, two World Series championships, and I’m a very happy and contented guy. It doesn’t matter what your height is, it’s what’s in your heart.”