Monday, June 9, 2014

Card #56: Mark Littell

Who Can It Be Now?
Mark Alan Littell was born on January 17, 1953, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.  He attended high school in tiny Gideon, Missouri, where he was one of around 45 graduates in the class of 1971.  I guess at such a small school, things like borrowing a photo of the Georgia Bulldogs Mascot UGA probably seems okay....anyway, Littell grew up to be a local hero but still retained all the country-boy trappings into his major league career.  Indeed, his nickname was "Country" and the Royals used to play "Country Boy" over the loudspeakers when he entered the game.  He also apparently had a nickname of "Air Head" as a Royal.

Littell was drafted in the 12th round of the June 1971 draft by the Kansas City Royals.  He signed nearly immediately, and, also nearly immediately, he started doing two things: striking out a ton of guys for the era -- 199 Ks in 153 innings over 25 games at Single-A Waterloo in the Midwest League must have got him some attention -- and, as a result, moving up quickly in the expansion Royals system.  

By the time Littell was 20 years old, he was called up in June by the Royals for a spot start against a 1973 Baltimore Orioles team that would win 97 games and the AL East.  He pitched pretty well in that game, but his next few starts were not as successful, leading him to be sent back down to Triple-A Omaha for a bit more seasoning.  As Littell put it in a news article in 1977, "I did pretty well in my first start, but they really bombed me after that."

Perhaps it was a bit too much too quick for such a young arm.  In 1974, he had elbow surgery which removed bone spurs and repositioned the nerve in his right elbow.  He was limited that year to just 89 innings, but he came back in 1975 to put up good numbers again in Omaha.  As a result, in 1976, he made the team straight out of spring training, and did not pitch in the minor leagues again until the 1982 season.

Littell thrived with the Royals in a relief role in 1976 and 1977.  He led the 1976 AL West winning team in saves with 16 and pitched 104 innings in relief for Whitey Herzog. He did not repeat the feat in 1977, though he finished just 2 saves behind Doug Bird on a team that had three pitchers with double digits in saves. Nonetheless, in the offseason after the 1977 season, the Royals decided to send Littell and catcher Buck Martinez to the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for the "Mad Hungarian," Al Hrabosky (whose act had worn thin on the conservative Busch family and on manager Vern Rapp.

Littell went from a perennial contender to a complete loser, but he did move closer to his childhood home.  Littell continued to pitch well in relief for the Cards.  Though he had a 4-8 win-loss record in 1978, he saved 11 games, finished fourth in the league with 51 games finished, and struck out 120 batters in 97-1/3 relief innings for the Cardinals. With those strikeouts, he set a team record he still holds today for most strikeouts in relief (he also had 10 Ks in his two starts).  In a league that averaged 5.1 K/9, Littell struck out 11.0 per nine innings.  His numbers dipped a bit in 1979 as a direct function of appearing in 9 fewer games, but also due to his strikeouts dropping as well.  

That 1979 season -- and the drop in strikeouts -- may have been a precursor to what happened in 1980.  He was awful -- appearing 14 times and finishing with a 9.28 ERA.  By the end of May, and in early June he was on Dr. Frank Jobe's operating table with his elbow opened up for the second time.  Once again, he had bone spurs and chips removed from his elbow, but there does not appear to be any reference to any ligament issues.  Indeed, Littell was throwing in the Florida Instructional League that fall with Dr. Jobe's approval.

Nonetheless, he was not the same pitcher after 1980.  In part because the Cardinals -- under the new direction of Littell's former boss in Kansas City, Whitey Herzog -- found that they could not rely on Littell, Herzog went out and acquired Bruce Sutter to be his closer.  Littell pitched poorly in 1981 and found himself back in the minor leagues as a starter at the age of 28.  His ability to strike batters out was gone with the bone chips -- he only struck out 6 batters in 19 Triple-A innings and 22 in 41 major league innings.  

1982 was not any better either.  He started one game on May 15 against the Braves, and that was the only game he appeared prior to his demotion to Triple-A that the Cardinals won. 

Littell hung up his spikes until 1994.  At that time and at the age of 41, Littell -- then the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers Single-A farm club in Stockton -- earned a win when manager Lamar Johnson had to put Littell into the ball game due to the club just not having anyone who could pitch in the ninth inning in an early August game.  Not a bad way to go out.

Nanu Nanu
This card is the last Topps card that Littell ever appeared on as a player.  He has a few later cards for his time as a minor league coach and even appeared in the 1990 Swell Baseball Greats set in a Cardinals uniform.

Trivial Pursuit
Littell has two unenviable bits of trivia in his history.  Well, maybe three if you count our topic of discussion below, but as a player, it's two:

1.  In Game 5 -- then the deciding game -- of the American League Championship Series in 1976, Littell came in to pitch in the seventh inning against the New York Yankees.  The Yankees led 6-3 when Littell came into the game, but the Royals tied the game on a three-run homer by George Brett in the top of the eighth.  The game remained tied until the bottom of the ninth.  In what can be described only as, "things were different in the 1970s", the Yankees fans kept throwing crap onto the field all night.  Apparently this was okay with the Yankees and the American League, but it did aggravate Whitey Herzog when Littell had to wait an additional 10 minutes to begin pitching in the bottom of the ninth.  

First baseman Chris Chambliss then stepped up to the plate and tomahawked a high fastball out of the park, and the Yankees went to the World Series with Littell being the walk-off loser in game 5.

2.  On August 10, 1981, shortly after the strike had ended, Littell faced Pete Rose in the bottom of the eighth inning.  Rose stroked a single to left field, which meant that Rose passed St. Louis hero Stan Musial for the all-time lead in number of hits in the National League.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
If you are a man with a weak stomach, I would advise caution before you watch this video.

I can't talk about Mark Littell's post-baseball career -- or, indeed, can you enter Mark Littell's name into a Google search -- without finding out about the Nutty Buddy.  The Nutty Buddy is Littell's attempt at a better mousetrap, but only if by mousetrap you mean "Protective Cup."  Littell has been featured on Fox & Friends on the Fox News Channel (the video above), on The Smoking Gun Presents: The World's Dumbest on the episode called, "Inventions 2," and on Deadspin as "Completely Nuts."  The design won a bronze award from the Industrial Designers Society of America in 2006.

Beyond putting his cojones in harm's way for the sake of science and money, Littell pretty much was just a baseball man.  He coached in Australia in 1988, for the Padres in 1989, for the Brewers in 1992 to 1996, for the Royals in 1997 and 1998, for the Dodgers in 1999, and back to the Brewers in 2000.  He later hooked up with a small university in North Dakota called Dickinson State University (enrollment: 2,572) in 2012 as an assistant coach.  

In addition to that position, he has also sponsored a competitive youth league baseball program for boys between the ages of 12 and 18 in Arizona called Team Nutty Buddy.

You can joke about that one if you would like.  I'm not touching that one with a 10-foot pole. Or a 90-MPH fastball in the nuts. 

But, I bet Beavis wishes Littell had come up with his invention 15 years earlier.


  1. Wow! You have to be brave to Google Nutty Buddy.

  2. I love those "world's greatest inventions" clips. I'll have to find the "nutty buddy" one.