Kirby Puckett, the roly-poly center fielder whose exuberant love of the game made him one of the best-loved players in baseball history, batted .318 over his 12-year career and led the Minnesota Twins to two unlikely World Championships.
Kirby Puckett was born on March 14, 1960, in Chicago, Illinois. The youngest of nine children, Puckett grew up in the housing projects of Chicago's South Side, playing baseball with makeshift balls of rolled-up aluminum foil. After graduating from high school, Puckett worked on an auto assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, then got another job as a census taker. While playing baseball in a recreational league, he attended a Kansas City Royals tryout camp. The Royals weren't interested, but the baseball coach from Bradley University was, and Puckett signed to play college baseball. He played one year at Bradley before transferring to Triton College near Chicago to be closer to home. The Minnesota Twins made Puckett the third pick of the January 1982 draft, and after batting .472 with 16 homers in his final season at Triton, he signed a minor league contract.
Puckett was called up to the majors on May 8, 1984, and he proceeded to tie a major league record with four hits in his first major league game. Though he had no home runs and just 31 RBI, he batted .296 and finished third in 1984 Rookie of the Year balloting. As a rookie Puckett had more bunt singles (a league-leading 25) than extra base hits (17). But in 1986, when Tom Kelly was named manager and Tony Oliva hitting coach, Puckett found his power stroke and blossomed into one of the best all-around players in the game. Puckett and Kelly would work together for the next decade, winning World Championships in 1987 and 1991. The short, stocky Puckett did not let his unusual physique deter him. He won six Gold Glove Awards for his defense, and kept a picture of rotund Hall of Famer Hack Wilson who was 5'6", 190 lbs. taped above his locker for inspiration.
In 1987, the Twins' first championship season, Puckett finished third in MVP voting after batting .332 with 28 homers, 99 RBI, and a league-leading 207 hits. The next year he finished third again after enjoying his finest season: .356 with 24 home runs, 121 RBI, and 234 hits. In 1991 Puckett was named MVP of the Twins' American League Championship Series victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, batting .429 with 6 RBI. In Game Six of the ensuing World Series, he had perhaps the greatest individual game in Series history: an RBI triple in the first inning, a memorable leaping catch in the third, a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the fifth, a single and stolen base in the eighth, and a game-winning homer in the 11th.
After the 1989 season Puckett became the first player in baseball history to sign a contract for \\$3 million per year, but his longtime loyalty to the small-market Minnesota franchise inspired fierce devotion from Twins fans. In 1992 he passed up more lucrative offers to re-sign with the Twins, and in 1995 he turned down the opportunity to become a free agent altogether. His enthusiasm and humility he drove to the ballpark every day in an old pickup truck made him one of the most universally respected players of his generation.
On September 28, 1995, Puckett was hit in the face by a Dennis Martinez fastball, leaving him bloodied with a shattered jaw. The injury marked the end of both his season and, as it turned out, his career. The following spring Puckett batted .360, but on March 28, the last day of training camp, he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and four eye surgeries in a four-month span did nothing to improve his vision. On July 12, 1996, Puckett, wearing a white patch over his right eye, announced his retirement from baseball. He was 36 years old. "I was told I would never make it because I'm too short," the 5'8" Puckett said at his retirement press conference. "Well, I'm still too short, but I've got 10 All-Star games, two World Series championships, and I'm a very happy and contented guy. It doesn't matter what your height is, it's what's in your heart."
Puckett ended his career with a .318 batting average, the best mark by a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio. His impressive legacy also includes a batting title, an RBI title, five seasons of more than 200 hits, and seven seasons in the top 10 in MVP voting. Since 1996 Puckett has served as executive vice president of Baseball for the Twins, and in 1997 the team retired his number 34. In his retirement Puckett has continued the charitable work he began as a player , raising money for glaucoma prevention and children's charities. For the past 10 winters he has sponsored a celebrity billiards tournament to benefit the Children's Heart Fund. He has won both the Branch Rickey Award (1993) and the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award (1996) for his community service.
Kirby Puckett becomes the twentieth center fielder elected to the Hall of Fame, and he is the 44th Hall of Fame player to spend his entire career with one franchise. Of the players alive at the time of their election, Puckett is the third-youngest to have been voted into the Hall of Fame, behind only Lou Gehrig and Sandy Koufax.