Nowadays, baseball fans (the more analytical ones anyway) tend to snicker at the idea of “veteran presence.” And they probably have a point. There are plenty of players right now in the majors who became stars early in their careers, and it makes sense that if you have the talent to do well at the highest level, you can do it no matter your age. But there is something to be said for having a veteran who can help guide young, talented players on and off the field.
The 1984 Royals captured a surprising division title with several young pitchers (Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson, and Bret Saberhagen leading the way). Frankly, they weren’t that good as a team—an 84-win squad that was outscored on the season. But those pitchers were promising. A veteran catcher might help them become special. Enter Jim Sundberg.
James Howard Sundberg was born on May 18, 1951, in Galesburg, Illinois. After graduating from Galesburg High School, he was drafted by Oakland in the sixth round of the 1969 amateur draft. However, he spurned the A’s and headed off to the University of Iowa. Three years later, Texas drafted him in the eighth round of the draft, but Sundberg decided to stay in school for one more year. The Rangers were undeterred; they picked him again in the 1973 January draft. This time, with no college career left, Sundberg signed with Texas. When he hit .298/.421/.417 at Class AA Pittsfield that year, he was immediately on the radar of Rangers manager Billy Martin. And so it was not a surprise that on Opening Day 1974, Sundberg was behind the plate.
Texas had lost 105 games in 1973, firing Whitey Herzog and hiring Martin in the process. But in 1974, they finished a respectable 84-76, just five games behind Oakland. Sundberg hit .247/.354/.323 and impressed everyone with his defense.
“Frankly, I think we’re going to have one of the best catchers in baseball for years to come. And the other teams in this league know that as well as I do. They respect that arm already. No team is going to take any base-stealing liberties with him.”—Martin, quoted by Randy Galloway in The Sporting News, June 22, 1974
He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind teammate Mike Hargrove, Bucky Dent, and some guy named George Brett. He also made the All-Star team, although he didn’t get to appear in the game.
The next two seasons were offensive struggles for Sundberg, as he hit just .213/.284/283 combined. But the Rangers kept running him out there nearly every day (he caught 155 games in 1975, starting 148 of them). The defense was too good to ignore—he threw out 46% of would-be basestealers in 1975 and became the first AL catcher since the 1940s to have more than 100 assists in a season. He won his first Gold Glove in 1976.
When Sundberg’s offense bounced back in 1977 (a .291/.365/.389 line), he received some MVP votes and another Gold Glove. In 1978, he again finished 15th in the MVP vote, won another Gold Glove, and made the All-Star team again, this time getting to catch three innings. And Sundberg’s glove stayed golden, as he won the award again in 1979, 1980, and 1981. It took Bob Boone moving to the American League to break Sundberg’s six-year streak in 1982.
Up to this point, Sundberg’s career could be summed up as steady. He would play almost 150 games, hit about .275 or .280, play great defense, throw out basestealers at a better-than-league-average clip, and not make waves off the field. He lived in Arlington in the offseason and apparently would have been satisfied to be a Ranger for the rest of his career.
But things started to change in 1982. The Rangers, as usual in those days, were in flux—they would fire manager Don Zimmer and general manager Eddie Robinson during the season. But before that happened, they took pitch-calling responsibilities away from their six-time Gold Glove winner. Sundberg started making noise about a trade. Before the 1983 season, two things happened: the Rangers tried to trade Sundberg to the Dodgers for Orel Hershiser, Dave Stewart, Burt Hooton, and a minor-league outfielder. That trade fell through, but then new Rangers manager Doug Rader publicly said Sundberg didn’t play hard enough, and mentioned that Sundberg’s backup would be given every chance to win the starting job. Later, Rader would intimate that Sundberg wasn’t tough enough and wouldn’t block home plate (meanwhile, Sundberg would miss three games in April 1983 with thigh and elbow bruises after a collision with Toronto’s Willie Upshaw at home plate). Understandably, Sundberg suffered through his worst offensive season in years, hitting just .201/.272/.254.
So it was not a surprise, and probably some relief, when the Rangers came up with a deal with Milwaukee after the 1983 season. Sundberg headed to the Brewers, while the Rangers received a minor-league pitcher and Milwaukee’s backup catcher, a young man named Ned Yost.*
*If you’re keeping track at home, that means Jim Sundberg lost his Gold Glove streak to future Royals manager Bob Boone, was a longtime teammate of future Royals manager Buddy Bell, and traded for future Royals manager Ned Yost. And of course he was a teammate of Hal McRae and John Wathan in Kansas City. He doesn’t seem to have had any connection to Trey Hillman or Tony Muser, though.
Freed from all that drama, Sundberg hit .261/.332/.399 for the Brewers in 1984. And on a team with Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Rollie Fingers, he emerged as Milwaukee’s lone All-Star Game representative.
“The situation last year angered me, and I don’t think I’ve completely gotten over that anger. But I don’t think vindication is the key, the right thing. I think before healing takes place, you’ve got to be able to forgive. So I really look at the All-Star Game as something that eases the pain and makes it easier to forgive.”—Sundberg, quoted by Tom Flaherty, The Sporting News, July 23, 1984
Under the CBA rules at the time, Sundberg had a right to request a trade, or he could become a free agent in March 1985. He wanted to go somewhere he could play full time as he attempted to become the first player to catch 2,000 games in the majors. He asked Milwaukee to trade him at the end of the 1984 season, then began the waiting game. Oddly, the Rangers expressed interest in bringing him back, with Rader going so far as to have lunch with Sundberg and apologize for the way he had treated the veteran catcher. And eventually the Rangers were involved in a Sundberg trade: on January 18, 1985, they joined the Royals, Brewers, and Mets in a four-team deal. Kansas City sent Don Slaught to Texas and Frank Wills to New York. The Royals’ only return was Sundberg. And it was completely worth it.
“We have a staff…which is young and inexperienced. Bringing in an experienced catcher like Sundberg, we believe, will help the young staff tremendously.”—Royals general manager John Schuerholz, quoted by the Associated Press, January 19, 1985
After battling a sore right shoulder in spring training and missing quite a few preseason games, Sundberg started 1985 slowly, hitting just .213/.273/.328 in April. He fared much better in May, hitting .288/.310/.500, including four home runs. From May 12 through May 31, he enjoyed a stretch where he collected hits in 16 of 17 games. He followed that with a decent June showing (.237/.301/.434), salvaged by three home runs, two doubles, and two triples. He struggled in July, hitting .216/.306/.216, but appeared to be turning it around in August. From August 2 to August 17, he hit .323/.417/.548. But then he suffered torn cartilage in his rib cage. Sundberg missed three weeks, returning in early September to find his team in first place by 1.5 games. He would hit .222/.286/.311 the rest of the way, but the Royals still won the division. Sundberg did collect two hits in the October 3 game that gave the Royals a one-game lead with three to play, then one hit the next night as they clinched a tie, and two more hits in the Oct. 5 win that sent KC to the playoffs. He ended the season with a .245/.308/.381 line. That was about the same as Slaught’s .264/.297/.379 line in 1984. Of course, Sundberg was brought in for his defense and ability to handle an inexperienced pitching staff more than for his bat. So how did that work out?
The 1984 Royals allowed 686 runs; they gave up 639 in 1985. In 1984, the league average ERA was 3.99, with the Royals coming in just under that at 3.92. In 1985 the league average ERA climbed to 4.15, but the Royals team ERA dropped to 3.49, second in the league behind Toronto. Kansas City’s home runs allowed dropped from 136 to a league-low 103. They did walk more batters in 1985 (433 to 463) but their strikeout total jumped from 724 to 846. So by practically every statistical measure, adding Sundberg to the team was a success.
But, of course, the 1985 Royals’ story—and Sundberg’s—was not complete just yet. There was a postseason to play.
In his 12th major-league season, Sundberg was finally in the playoffs. Although he hit just .167/.200/.417 in the ALCS against Toronto, he had a couple of highlight moments. In Game Three, with Kansas City facing a 2-0 deficit in the series, he hit a solo home run in the fifth inning of the Royals’ 6-5 win. And in Game Seven, Sundberg came to bat in the sixth inning against Toronto ace Dave Stieb. With the bases loaded and the Royals clinging to a 2-1 lead, Sundberg hit a triple, missing a grand slam by inches. That gave the Royals all the cushion they needed to win and advance to the World Series.
In that Series, Sundberg hit .250/.400/.333, but is mostly remembered for one of the key plays in Royals history. As Kansas City came to bat in the ninth inning of Game Six, they faced a 1-0 deficit. With only three outs left in their season, the pressure was on. You know the start of the inning: Jorge Orta safe on a controversial call at first. Steve Balboni singled, and Sundberg stepped up, looking to bunt. It wasn’t a great bunt, and Orta was forced out at third. After a passed ball, Sundberg wound up at second, representing the winning run. Dane Iorg dumped a single into right field. Pinch-runner Onix Concepcion scored easily to tie the game, and here came Sundberg, chugging around third. As the throw came in from right field, Sundberg dove headfirst into the right-handed batter’s box, reaching his left hand across home plate just before catcher Darrell Porter could tag him. Sundberg leaped to his feet and was mobbed by several teammates while many more Royals surrounded Iorg between first and second base. The celebration lasted all through the night, all through Game Seven, and into the winter.
“I’ve been watching baserunners use headfirst slides to beat my throws for years. So I figured, why not me? I’ve got one more slide left.”—Sundberg, quoted by Paul Attner, The Sporting News, November 4, 1985
Sundberg would play one more season in Kansas City, hitting just .212/.303/.322, although he did set a career high with 12 home runs, and the Royals led the league in ERA. Just days before the 1987 season, the Royals made a trade, acquiring catcher Ed Hearn for pitching prospect David Cone. Although Sundberg thought he would be staying with the Royals, he was wrong. Three days later, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Thad Bosley and pitcher Dave Gumpert. After a year and a half with the Cubs, he was released, then signed once again by Texas. Sundberg played there the remainder of the 1988 season and again in 1989 before retiring, just shy of his goal of 2,000 games as a catcher. He finished with 1,927, which is still good for ninth place all-time.
After his playing days were over, as you might expect from a catcher who was almost impossible to get out of the lineup, Sundberg stayed busy. He worked in the Rangers’ front office, did color commentary on Rangers TV broadcasts, started a company to sell baseball/softball training products, and wrote a book with his wife about sports parenting. He still makes appearances as a motivational speaker and is heavily involved with the Dallas/Fort Worth Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.
Jim Sundberg had a short Royals career, but there is a lasting legacy of his time in Kansas City. You can see it every time you visit Kauffman Stadium and see that 1985 World Series flag on the Hall of Fame building. Quite simply, if Sundberg wasn’t a Royal that year, I don’t believe they win the division, let alone the World Series.
Jim Sundberg’s best games of 1985:
6/28 vs. CAL: Went 4-7 with a double and triple and scored one run in 14-inning 6-5 win.
4/27 @ BOS: Had two doubles and a single, scored two runs and drove in one in 5-4 win.
5/14 @BAL: Cracked three-run home run in 5-2 win.
6/18 vs. MIN: Had two hits, scored two runs, drove in one in 10-1 win.
5/17 @ MIL: Collected three hits, scored two runs in 3-0 win.
About the card:
Ah, the Traded Set. The bane of my childhood existence. While I didn’t live in a poor household growing up, there wasn’t a lot of extra money for baseball cards. So there was little chance I was going to be able to buy a whole new box of cards at the end of the summer. But now, as an adult with expendable income and an internet connection, I can afford to buy these. What a time to be alive. Anyway, it’s a good thing Topps produced those Traded Sets, or else this card wouldn’t be here, right? I assume this was taken in spring training 1985, but it could be anywhere against any team. Good action shot, though. On the back…a travel agency. How quaint. And it’s nice that Sundberg liked scuba diving and Egyptian Arabian horses, although I presume not at the same time.