Born March 14, 1960, in Chicago, IL; died of a stroke, March 6, 2006, in Phoenix, AZ. Professional baseball player. Kirby Puckett, a member of baseball's Hall of Fame, was one of the most popular, all-around talented players of the 1980s and 1990s. In Minnesota, where he played his entire major-league career for the Twins, he may be the most popular athlete ever. The center fielder led his team not only with his batting skills, but also through his enthusiasm and effort. His plaque at baseball's Hall of Fame commemorates his "everpresent smile and infectious exuberance," according to SI.com . He retired from baseball at age 35 because eye diseases made it impossible for him to play, and his image was tarnished a few years later by accusations of domestic violence and sexual misconduct. When he died of a stroke at 45, after years of unhealthy weight gain, fans and fellow players focused on their memories of him in his prime, not the tragedies of his later years.
Puckett was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1960. He grew up the youngest of nine children in a three-room apartment in a housing project. His father was a postal worker. Puckett played baseball as a kid, and after high school he installed carpet at an automotive plant, then attended a baseball tryout camp, where a college coach recruited him. He played for Bradley University and Triton College, both in Illinois. The Minnesota Twins selected him in the first round of the 1982 draft, and on May 8, 1984, he played his first major league game for the Twins and had four hits.
Puckett quickly claimed the third spot in the Twins' batting order and developed a reputation as "a free-swinging outfielder with a strong arm and a flair for nifty catches," a journalist for SI.com wrote. In 1986, Puckett was named to the American League's all-star team, an honor he received in ten straight seasons. He helped lead the team to victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series. The next year was his personal best: He batted .356 with 24 home runs and 121 runs batted in. In 1989, his .339 batting average won him the league batting title. Beyond his measurable accomplishments, he became hugely popular for leading his team by example and exuberance. "The players around him couldn't dog it because he's running out ground-outs in spring training games," Andy MacPhail, who was general manager of the Twins in the late 1980s, told SI.com . "It was impossible for people to give half an effort when the best player on the team was going full bore at all times."
When the Twins returned to the playoffs in 1991, Puckett led the team to victory in the American League Championship Series and was named the series' Most Valuable Player. The greatest game of his career was Game 6 of that year's World Series against Atlanta. The Twins had lost Game 5 by a score of 14-5, but Puckett arrived at the clubhouse for Game 6 and told his teammates they could jump on his back and he would carry them to victory. That night, he hit a single and a triple, stole a base, and in the third inning, made a leaping catch against the center-field wall to prevent Ron Gant from hitting either a home run or an extra-base hit. Then, in the 11th inning, with the score tied, Puckett hit a home run to win the game and tie the series. The Twins went on to beat the Braves, 1-0, in Game 7.
In 1995, Puckett batted a strong .314, but a pitch broke his jaw late in the season. At spring training in 1996, he awoke one morning in late March and found that he could not see when he looked straight ahead. Doctors found he had glaucoma in both eyes and a central retina vein occlusion in his right eye. He underwent three eye surgeries, but during the third, doctors discovered the damage to his eye was irreversible. He announced his retirement in July and bade goodbye to fans at a sold-out Twins game in September. The Twins made him an executive vice-president of the team soon after, and he received the 1996 Roberto Clemente Award for community service. He had 2,304 hits in his career, including 207 home runs, and batted in 1,085 runs. His career batting average was a dominating .318. He won six Gold Gloves for his play in center field.
Puckett was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 2001, the first year he was eligible for admission. "I played every game like it was my last," he said in his induction speech, according to Richard Goldstein of the New York Times . "I think I'm one of the few guys who can say I left my blood, sweat, and tears on the field."
Later that year, Puckett's life took a turn for the worse. In late December of 2001, his wife, Tonya, filed a police report accusing him of abusing her and threatening to kill her. Puckett denied the accusations, which did not result in criminal charges. He and his wife soon divorced amid charges he had also been unfaithful. In October of 2002, a woman accused him of forcing her into a bathroom at a Minnesota restaurant and groping her. He resigned from his post with the Twins the following month. A jury found him not guilty in April of 2003. But Puckett did not return to the Twins, declining invitations to rejoin the team as a guest coach.
The normally outgoing Puckett retreated from public view in the last few years of his life. He had already been somewhat overweight during his playing years, often weighing in at 210 pounds (with a height of 5 foot 8). He was strikingly overweight when he appeared at the Hall of Fame induction in 2001 and was said to have gained 100 pounds after his playing years, leading friends to grow concerned about his health.
Puckett died on March 6, 2006, after being felled by a stroke at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He underwent neurosurgery on March 5 at Scottdale Osborne Hospital, then was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where he died the next day. He was 45. He was engaged to be married that summer. He is survived by his son, Kirby Jr., and his daughter, Catherine.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/03/06/obit.puckett/index.html (March 7, 2006); Los Angeles Times , March 7, 2006, p. B10; New York Times , March 7, 2006, p. A23; SI.com , http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/baseball/mlb/03/06/obit.puckett.ap/index.html (March 7, 2006); SI.com , http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/baseball/mlb/03/06/puckett ; SI.com , http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/writers/john_donovan/03/06/remembering.puckett/index.html (March 7, 2006).