The baseball sat for decades nestled in the corner of the closet in the home of Kent Lauer’s mother in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
It hadn’t moved in more than 40 years, from the time that Lauer put it there after getting it in a promotion with the Sioux Falls Packers baseball team in 1969 when he was 12 years old.
“I’ve always known about the ball and I knew that my mom kept it at my house in Sioux Falls,” Lauer said. “My mom was one of those people who didn’t throw away anything. So I knew it was there. On one of my trips back home, I knew that ball was in the closet. I grabbed it.”
Lauer became the owner of the baseball 48 years ago. Anybody who caught a foul ball could exchange it for one autographed by the Packers’ players.
Lauer said he didn’t go to many Packers’ games, but he went enough to know there were more chances for foul balls on the outside of the stadium than the inside.
“I didn’t know about the promotion,” he said. “I got there and found out about it. I positioned myself out there rather than trying to catch one in the stands.”
Sure enough Lauer was able to collect one of the foul balls that lifted outside the stadium and he returned it for the autographed ball, which was a Little League ball signed by all the players on the Packers’ team, including Don Gullett.
After gathering the baseball from his mother’s closest, its home for nearly five decades, Lauer took it to his home in Reno, Nevada. The baseball has been sitting on Lauer’s nightstand for several years.
He pondered what to do with the ball – keep it or send it to Gullett? – and eventually decided Gullett’s home should be the final destination.
“It was probably the first team ball he ever signed,” Lauer said.
Gullett couldn’t remember the first baseball he signed, so it may have been that as well. “It’s definitely the first team ball,” he said. “I really appreciate getting it.”
The 18-year-old arrived in Sioux Falls almost immediately after the Cincinnati Reds made him their No. 1 selection in the 1969 June Amateur Draft. Gullett’s high school season at McKell had ended only a few weeks before in a 1-0 loss to Ashland in the regional semifinals in Morehead.
Now he was pitching in professional baseball. Gullett was getting paid to play.
Professional scouts were visiting in Greenup County before Gullett was old enough to drive. He was also recruited by dozens of major colleges wanting him to play basketball and football.
Where Gullett was selected in the baseball draft would decide his future. If the Reds, or someone else, hadn’t taken him with a high pick, Gullett said he might have taken a different route.
“I would have entertained playing college football,” he said. “My physical stature may have kept me from playing basketball.”
He was not only a good athlete, but a good student. The options were endless. The Reds took out the mystery by taking him with the 14th overall selection in the first round.
“They sent a bunch of us to Florida for mini-camp for a week to 10 days,” he said. “Then we flew out to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.”
Gullett roomed with four others who stayed together in a house owned by one of the Packer boosters. One of his roommate-teammates was Steve Miller of Huntington.
“A bunch of us stayed in the house together,” he said. “We had a good time.”
Gullett was away from home for the first time. It was a long way from Lynn, Kentucky. The bus rides were long and cold, he said. “On one trip to Duluth we were playing and the stadium was by the lake. The fog was settling in over the water and coming toward the stadium. It was glistening ice crystals falling on the ground. I’d never seen anything like that.”
The longest trip McKell made in high school was from South Shore to Morehead. Now he was making much longer bus rides almost daily but it wouldn’t be for long.
The Reds invited Gullett to the big-league camp in 1970, but he wasn’t expected to make the club.
“I stayed off campus in the minor league players’ hotel and drove over to the major league training facility,” Gullett said. “The (minor league) guys were saying, ‘You don’t really think you’re going to make it do you?’ I said, ‘I do. Why would I be down here wasting my time?’’’
Even though Gullett’s blazing fastball was raising eyebrows throughout the Grapefruit League, it still didn’t seem likely he’d be going north with the Reds.
“Pitching coach Larry Shepard told me two days before camp was over, ‘No way we can take you.’ Then I got the word I was going. I got the opportunity and I made the most of it. I had that type of confidence.”
Gullett married high school sweetheart Cathy Holcomb on Jan. 24, 1970 and they moved into an apartment in northern Kentucky once he had made the Reds’ roster later that spring.
“That’s a lot of change,” he said. “Being married, moving into an apartment and pitching for the Reds. I had to get used to a lot of new things.”
One thing that never changed was his ability to throw a baseball hard.
Gullett pitched out of the bullpen and appeared in 44 games as a rookie in 1970 when he pitched in Crosley Field and the first year of Riverfront Stadium. He made two starts but was mostly used in middle and long relief. Gullett was 5-2 with a 2.42 ERA but was even better in the postseason.
He pitched 10 1/3 innings and allowed only one run in the National League playoffs against the Pirates and the World Series against the Orioles. He saved two of the three wins over the Pirates in the NL Championship Series.
The Reds moved him into the rotation the following year and he went 16-6 – leading the NL with a .727 winning percentage – with a 2.65 ERA. He remained the ace of the staff until departing the Reds for the New York Yankees after the 1976 World Series.
Only stop in minors
Gullett’s stop in Sioux Falls for the Short-A season in 1969 was his only time in the minor leagues. The next spring he made the Reds and took off on a star-crossed career that ended far too soon.
Gullett won 109 games and four World Series rings in a career that was cut short by a shoulder injury while pitching for the Reds and the New York Yankees.
He is the only man to pitch the opening game in successive World Series for two different teams.
Lauer did some research on the left-hander who leads the conversation of the greatest athletes in northeastern Kentucky history. He knew about the 72 points scored in a single football game at Wurtland (“The football thing stood out in my mind,” he said) and how his pitching career came to a premature end, that he was a pitching coach for the Reds and that he had retired to his family farm in Kentucky.
“I knew he had a good career,” Lauer said. “I knew his signature was on the ball and I thought ‘Maybe he’d like to have that ball.’ It would have to have much more meaning and value to him and his family than it could ever have for me.”
Lauer said he went back and forth trying to decide if he was going to seek out Gullett to send him the baseball. “I finally decided, I’m going to send it to him.”
A Google search directed him to stories about Gullett in The Daily Independent so he contacted the newspaper for help. “I came across a column on the website and knew that’s how I was going to get him the ball.”
Lauer, who is 63, said the youth league fields in the area were clustered near the Sioux Falls Packers Stadium. The town still has an independent American Association baseball team – the Sioux Falls Canaries – and play in the same stadium. It was built in 1964, five years before Gullett, who turned 66 in January, made his professional debut there.
The stadium underwent major renovations in the late 1990s and has a seating capacity of 4,462 fans with a walkway splitting two levels of seating for the ultimate baseball-watching experience.
Lauer wanted Gullett to have the baseball because of the career he ended up fashioning in the major leagues.
Of the 25-man roster for the 1969 Sioux Falls Packers, five played in the majors and another player managed for three years.
Gullett looked at the roster on an iPhone and rattled off name after name after name. He smiled as he called them out, “Carl Barnes, shortstop; Glenn Bisbing, catcher. Kent Burdick, Nardi Contreras from Tampa (Florida) and and Jimmy Hoff, he was a great baseball man who worked in the Reds’ minor league system for years.”
Since learning about the autographed ball, Gullett said he began thinking a lot about his first professional team. “I was thinking about that team the other day,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories.”
And at least one scary one.
Gullett made the Northern League All-Star Game and was flying there with Burdick and manager Jimmy Snyder on a flight to Winnipeg, Canada.
“I had a good year and made the Northern League All-Star team,” he said. “I don’t recall getting into the game. But the plane ride we had – it was a single-engine plane that I called the Knucklehead Express. I’ve never told anybody but that gave me something of a scare.”
Others who made it
The best known of the group, besides Gullett, was left-handed pitcher Ross Grimsley, who fashioned an 11-year major league career including a three-year stint with the Reds from 1971 to 1973. He won 124 and lost 99, fashioning a 3.81 earned run average.
“We (the Reds) traded him to Baltimore and he had a real good career,” Gullett said. “Once he learned to throw the changeup he was tough to hit. He won a lot of games.”
Gene Locklear played five seasons in the major leagues and finished with a .274 career batting average with nine home runs. He played for the Reds, Padres and Yankees.
Two other pitchers, Contreras and Mike Johnson, had “cups of coffee” careers. Contreras played eight games with the White Sox in 1980 and Johnson pitched in 18 games for the Padres in 1974.
Greg Riddoch, a player on the ’69 Packers, never made it as a player in the big leagues but managed the San Diego Padres from 1990 to 1992. He had a 16-year coaching career in professional baseball. “Riddoch was a good baseball man,” Gullett said.
Gullett was the most famous alum of the Northern League of 1969. He was 109-50 with a 3.11 earned run average and 921 strikeouts in a nine-year career. He was on four consecutive World Series champions – 1975 and 1976 with the Reds and 1977 and 1978 with the Yankees (although pitching in only eight games in ’78 because of the shoulder injury).
Packers in ‘69
Grimsley and Gullett were the aces of the Sioux Falls Packers, who finished 45-25 and 1½ games out of first place behind the Duloth-Superior Dukes (White Sox).
Grimsley was 9-4 with a 2.80 ERA and 97 strikeouts and Gullett went 7-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 87 strikeouts. Gullett pitched two shutouts and averaged 10 strikeouts a game.
Locklear hit .303 with seven home runs and 28 RBI while Thomas Dittmar (.282, 10 HR, 37 RBI) and Burdick (.228, 10 HR, 40 RBI) provided some pop, too. The Packers blasted 49 home runs as a team. Players ranged in age from 17 to 25.
The rest of the league included the St. Cloud Rox (Twins), Huron Cubs (Cubs), Aberdeen Pheasants (Orioles) and Winnipeg Goldeyes (Royals).
There were a few other players who made it to the major leagues from the 1969 Northern League, but none nearly as significantly as Gullett, whose shoulder injury at 27 cut short a career that looked destined for Cooperstown.
“I could have made the Hall of Fame,” he said.
For one season, though, he was a Packer, just not one in Green Bay.
Now he has an autographed team ball to remember it.