One of the most popular players of his (or any) time, Kirby Puckett radiated an effervescent joy both on and off the field that endeared him to fans, media and players alike. Built like a cross between a fireplug and a bowling ball, the 5’8″ 210-lb Puckett collected more hits in his first 10 years than (2,040) than any player in the 20th century. When glaucoma prematurely ended his career before the 1996 season, his .318 lifetime batting average ranked as the highest for any right-handed batter since World War II.
Puckett was Baseball America’s Appalachian League Player of the Year in 1982, California League Rookie of the Year in 1983, and Minnesota’s Rookie of the Year in 1984, becoming the ninth player in major league history to debut with four hits in a nine-inning game and leading AL outfielders with 16 assists.
The ballhawking center fielder went almost one year, until April 22, 1985, before hitting his first big league homer. He exploded for 31 homers in 1986 however, making him the first player ever with 0- and 30-home run seasons (500 or more at-bats) in a career. He was starting centerfielder in the 1986 All-Star Game, received Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, and was the Twins’ Most Valuable Player. His rise continued in 1987 with a .332 batting average (the best for Minnesota since Rod Carew’s .333 in 1978) a league-best (tied) 207 hits, an unofficial eight home run-saving catches, and a .357 average in the Fall Classic as he led the Twins to a seven-game World Series triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals. The following year he turned in arguably his best offensive season when he complimented his 24 circuit blasts by setting career highs with a .356 batting average, 234 hits and 121 RBIs. An unrepentant free swinger who hacked at anything in the same area code as the strike zone, Puckett drew just 23 walks that year. In 1989 he hit only eight HR but led the AL with a .339 batting average — only the second right-handed batter to do so in 20 years — and also topped the league in hits for the third straight season.
Puckett’s star burned brightest during Game Six of the 1991 World Series, which pitted the Twins against the Atlanta Braves in an unlikely matchup of teams that finished last in their division the season before. With the Twins trailing three games to two, Puckett collected three hits, three RBIs and two runs scored. He made a spectacular leaping catch against the Metrodome’s center field plexiglass to rob Ron Gant of extra bases, and then led off the bottom of the 11th inning with a game-winning home run. The Twins claimed their second championship in four years the next day as ace Jack Morris tossed 10 shutout innings in a dramatic 1-0 win.
While Minnesota fell on hard times in the seasons to come, Puckett continued to produce at a steady rate. He led the AL in hits (210) for the fourth and final time while batting .329 in 1992, and was leading the AL with 112 RBIs when the players’ strike ended the 1994 season in mid-August. Puckett would certainly have amassed more impressive career totals than his 2,304 safeties or 207 round-trippers (he batted .314 with 23 home runs in his final season) had he not awoken one day during spring training in 1996 with blurred vision that left him unable to continue playing the game he loved. In 2001 Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, becoming the third-youngest living player (behind Sandy Koufax and Lou Gehrig) to receive baseball’s highest honor.