The Royals, and the baseball world, lost one of the great ones on Monday. Mark Littell, who pitched for the Royals from 1973 to 1977 and for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1978 to 1982, passed away from complications of heart surgery at the age of 69. Littell, who was affectionately known as “Country”, and later “Ramrod”, was drafted by the Royals in the 12th round of the 1971 draft.
Littell had been a star pitcher in the Gideon, Missouri area prior to being selected by the Royals. Littell shot through the Royals minor league system, spending the 1971 season in Rookie ball at Billings and the 1972 season at Class A Waterloo (IA.). After a strong camp, he started 1973 at AAA Omaha before being called up to Kansas City and making his debut on June 14th with a start at Baltimore. He was in Kansas City for good by 1975, part of the Royals youth movement that led to three consecutive Western Division titles.
His best season as a pro came in 1976, when he went 8-4 with a sparkling 2.08 ERA. He made 60 appearances that summer, throwing 104 innings while leading the Royals with 16 saves. He entered games to the John Denver song, Thank God I’m a Country Boy, while tens of thousands of fans sang along. Much like his nickname, there was nothing fancy about Littell’s approach to pitching. A classic fireballer, he gave you his best stuff with every pitch. Hum baby, rock and fire.
He only gave up two home runs that 1976 season. The first came on July 10th to Pedro Garcia, a light-hitting second baseman for the Detroit Tigers. The second home run was one of the more infamous home runs in Royals history, the Chris Chambliss 9th inning ALCS walk-off.
I’d asked Mark once about that home run and he said, “I felt good coming out of the pen, but the fans started throwing crap on the field and by the time they got it all cleared off, I’d gotten a little chilly. I threw him (Chambliss) a high fastball and he went up and got it!” Video shows the pitch was high, probably a ball, but no matter. It sent the Yankees to the World Series. Littell, who never met a stranger, harbored no ill feelings about the home run. He gave it his best, as did Chambliss and that’s just how it turned out.
After the 1977 season, the Royals sent Littell and catcher Buck Martinez to St. Louis for their closer, Al Hrabosky. While Hrabosky struggled at times in Kansas City, Littell fit right in with the Cardinals, which were basically his hometown team. He had a stellar year in 1979, finishing 9-4 with 13 saves in 63 appearances and a 2.19 ERA. On August 10th, 1981, Pete Rose singled off Mark for his 3,631st career hit, which was good for the National League record.
Country retired after the 1982 season ended, doing what very few athletes do: he went out on top. The Cardinals, led by former Royals skipper Whitey Herzog, won the World Series in 1982, besting the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games. Another former Royal, the late Darrell Porter, was the MVP of that series. The Cardinals held a 40-year anniversary reunion for that team on August 13th at Busch Stadium, and Country was there, telling stories and cracking jokes. I last spoke with him on August 18th, when he messaged me about his surgery, and I wished him the best on a speedy recovery. Like many others, I was 100% certain that he would sail through the surgery and come out wisecracking.
After baseball, Mark wore many hats. He did some coaching, including a stint in Australia. He invented a cup called the Nutty Buddy, which has enjoyed some success. One of the best ways to remember the essence of Mark is to watch the YouTube video of him promoting the Nutty Buddy. I cringe every time I see him take a shot from the pitching machine. The video is pure Country: Mark, wearing compression shorts, goggles and some sort of funny helmet, balanced on a wooden crate and two Gatorade jugs, full of confidence and bravado, and funny as hell. The second Nutty Buddy video is much more scientific and slicker but still just as funny as Mark takes a 90 MPH pitch from six feet away. He doesn’t even flinch.
Mark also wrote three books, telling stories of growing up in the Bootheel of Missouri and of his major league adventures. The books: On the 8th day, God made Baseball; What’s up Ramrod; and Country Boy: Conveniently Wild are must-reads for baseball fans.
One thing that made Mark different was his ability to connect to just about anyone, from the young men he coached to the casual fan and to his teammates. His enthusiasm was contagious, and Mark made everyone he met a better person. He was a rare bird who had the ability to connect with everyone, from Hall of Fame teammates to casual fans to lowly scribes.
Mix in a strike Country. Better yet, mix in an out. Mark is survived by his wife Sanna and more friends than one can count. Mark Littell, gone too soon at the age of 69.