“Hey, I’m Ron Kittle. I’m the only guy in the country who wrote a book that never read a book.”
That is a commonplace motivational-talk opener for the former Chicago White Sox masher who was and continues to be a fan favorite. The line, when accompanied by a cheeky grin, is also representative of Kittle then and now. He’s painfully honest, bursting with pride, insistent on recognition, and always trying to improve, in one way or another.
A modest but nonetheless impressive home in Mokena, Illinois, a suburb about forty miles southwest of Chicago, is furnished, at least much of it, with Kittle’s resourceful but still polished creations—we conversed at an eighty-by-eighty-inch dining table, the two-and-a-quarter-inch thick wood platform supported by treated rebar. At fifty-eight, Kittle complains that his new, trendy eyeglasses make his hair look grayer, but it’s not the case. The frames make the man, who sported trademark, face-covering circular glasses during his playing days. His current rectangular, thick black frames suit him well, balancing out his more-white-than-gray, well-managed hair. His substantial goatee is of the same color and groomed. He’s a Harley Davidson enthusiast, evident through the multiple mentions of the iconic motorcycle brand and by the Henley longsleeve he wears.
Built like a conversion van, balanced strength all the way around, Kittle is everything you’d expect to see from a former Major League ballplayer known for destroying baseballs. In Mokena, his grand frame now wields carpentry tools instead of baseball bats; though, appropriately, he often uses baseball bats in his woodworking, making benches, shadow boxes, and more out of them. Most of the artistry is woodwork, but Kittle quips, “There isn’t anything I can’t make,” his claim supported by a plethora of diverse customs in and around his workshop—metal cutouts of the Blackhawks logo, Spanish cedar humidors, a refurbished prison table, and an immense headboard, made with baseball bats. With each item, Kittle points and over-explains, the details flying from his lips with untamed pride.
The side projects are his working joy, but much of Kittle’s time is also dedicated to motivational speaking, travel, charity, and the Chicago White Sox, who have employed Kittle as an ambassador for years. “I can spend a day in my shop. I can put a suit on and speak. I can go to the ballpark. I can ride my motorcycle. I can do landscaping,” Kittle kept on. “If I had to sit in a cubicle, I would probably just [flips his index finger back and forth on his lips] make goofy sounds.”
His constant movement has been a lifelong trait. “I like doing things,” he said. “I say jokingly I have CDO, it’s like OCD but it’s in the right order. If I saw one blade of grass or dandelion out of order, I would go and cut it.” And so goes a conversation with Ron Kittle, his anecdotes laced with color and his stories finished with compelling punchlines, which he’s surely said many times before. Thanks to fifty speaking appearances a year, Kittle has organized his life story into index cards, the made-for-speech versions have turned them into tall tales, complete with morals. The narratives are wildly entertaining and toe the line of believability.
First, the unbelievable: “I learned lessons from my dad. I saw him break his arm one time when I was a kid, and he had a cast on. In the morning, I woke up and I saw him taking a steak knife and cutting the cast off. … He goes, ‘They don’t pay me for staying home.’” Then, the punchline: “From that day, I thought he was the toughest person I’d ever seen in my life. I became the toughest person. I took that role over.”
As Kittle summarizes his rise to Major League Baseball and the ensuing triumphs and tribulations, his sentences constantly form this structure. It’s why so many in White Sox nation revere the blue-collared boy from Gary, Indiana. Kittle was not drafted—ever. A multi-sport star at Gary’s William A. Wirt High School (now closed), he graduated into a life of ironworking with his father. And that was fine.
The unbelievable: “Everyone gets something when they graduate; my dad gave me a piece of paper that said you’re an apprentice ironworker. So Friday night after graduation you’d stay out late partying at the beach. I went to work at five o’ clock in the morning. I didn’t get in until 4:30.” The punchline: “I wound up working sixty days in a row without a day off.”
When a Los Angeles Dodgers’ tryout came to LaPorte, Indiana, Kittle got word, but said he, at first, would rather take the double-time pay on the Saturday. His dad supposedly gave him the day’s pay and told him to try out, which he did, and he was one of five out of about two hundred sixty to be asked to stay. And then:
The unbelievable: “I was hitting balls to center field—they were pouring concrete out there—that were hitting the concrete sidewalk like five hundred feet away.” The punchline: “They said, we gotta sign this kid.”
Kittle inked a small minor-league contract in July 1976, at age eighteen, and in 1977, was with the Dodgers in spring training. He started the season with the Clinton Dodgers out of Iowa, doubling in his first at-bat and scoring on a base hit. An auspicious start and innocent on paper, the run-scoring play would impact the rest of Kittle’s career. “Mike Scioscia hits a bloop single to right field, I slide across the plate,” Kittle recalled. “First game, first at-bat, and the catcher lands on me and breaks my neck, paralyzes me at home plate.”
Kittle was taken off on a stretcher, but, he said, doctors couldn’t find the cause for his pain. He hurt most everywhere on his body, except his neck, so doctors never checked. He even came back to play midseason, which didn’t work out too well, and again near the end of the season in a different league, where he socked his first professional home runs (seven in thirty-four games). But, Kittle says, he was nowhere near himself, playing at a meager “fifty percent.” After the season, he returned home with an aching body and bleeding teeth. A parent-urged doctor visit led to an X-ray revealing three smashed neck vertebrae and a broken spinal cord. Spinal fusion surgery put Kittle out of baseball and made him a bitter man before he turned nineteen years old. “My career’s over with—signed at eighteen and out of baseball at eighteen-and-a-half,” he said, reflecting on the darkest time of his life, a time when he “didn’t like anybody.”
That’s when the Paul Bunyan-esque story of Ron Kittle kicked into second gear, becoming the stuff of comic books.
The unbelievable: “I’m done. I’m bitter. I went back to ironworking with [my dad], and I’m about one hundred eighty pounds. And I’m working and working and working and working, lifting steel, settling tanks, welding rods every day. I used to carry a fifty-pound box of welding rods up a flight of stairs and I’d have to stop ten times to get to the top, thirtieth, floor. It got to the point at the end of the summer I was carrying two fifty-pound boxes of welding rods underneath my arms, running up the stairs and beating the elevator, and betting guys I could beat them.” The punchline: “Everything became a competition.”
The legend built more when Kittle joined a semi-pro summer league when he was twenty-one. His first at-bat, after he said the pitcher threw at his head, he walloped a home run onto an adjacent expressway. The blast allegedly bounced in front of a car that was carrying White Sox then-owner Bill Veeck and former great Billy Pierce. The duo turned off the freeway and sped to the field in search of whoever clobbered that baseball. “I’m hiding thinking I hit a car and I have to pay for a window or a dented car,” he said. “Back then, I had money, but I liked to keep my money. That was on a Tuesday night and they said, ‘We want to see you try out for the White Sox.’ So I went for a personal tryout that Friday at Sox park.”
During the tryout, he took flyballs from White Sox legend Minnie Monoso, who called the tanned and muscle-bound ironworker “movie star” that day and for the rest of his life. Kittle said, that day, after a first-pitch swing and miss, he clubbed twelve balls over the fence in twenty-five pitches, the last of which he sent into the atmosphere and onto the roof at old Comiskey Park, a monumental feat not accomplished by many. Over the next few years, Kittle became one of the brightest up-and-comers in the game. In the minor leagues, he hit forty home runs in just one hundred nine games in 1981, and followed that with fifty home runs and one hundred forty-four runs batted in through one hundred twenty-seven games in 1982. That was enough for the White Sox to call up the twenty-four-year-old. Kittle was steady to finish the ’82 season, but broke out as a rookie in 1983, finishing with thirty-five home runs (a then team record), one hundred runs batted in, and the American League Rookie of the Year award.
More importantly, the Chicago White Sox were the toast of the town. The club, nicknamed Winning Ugly, made the postseason, winning the West Division by a full twenty games, before losing to the World Series-champion Baltimore Orioles. Under manager Tony LaRussa, and alongside talents like Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Greg Walker, LaMarr Hoyt, and Richard Dotson, Kittle loved going to work, saying, “I drove one hundred miles per hour every day to the ballpark, just to be there.”
It wasn’t such a pleasure later in his career. Kittle, still hampered by effects from a fused neck, dislocated his shoulder the following season with the White Sox. Then, in 1986, LaRussa was let go and Ken “Hawk” Harrelson was brought in to manage. Mid-year, Kittle was shipped to the New York Yankees, for whom he only played fifty-nine games the following season. He played a year in Cleveland, hitting eighteen homers in seventy-five contests. Then, he went back to Chicago in 1989, was sent to Baltimore for a brief stint in 1990, and finished up with the Sox in 1991. Then, in one swing, it was all over.
The unbelievable: “In the last year, I hit a ball and popped up to second base and I blacked out. I didn’t know where I was. I sensed something was up. I wound up going to Detroit on our next road trip. I hit a game-winning home run up there. After the game, they gave me my release papers.” The punchline: “You just never want to stop. But I was told by some of the best physicians in the country if I continued to play, I’d be in a wheelchair at fifty years old.”
It got to the point where I was carrying two fifty-pound boxes of welding rods, running up the stairs, and beating the elevator—and betting guys I could.” — Ron Kittle
In retirement, Kittle got into management briefly, coaching independent Illinois ballclubs in the mid- and late-nineties. In his time with the independent Schaumburg Flyers, Kittle, who never shied from the spotlight, was part of a gimmicky but locally popular commercial campaign in which he played himself and his mother, “Ma Kittle.” Outside the ballpark he kept in front of a crowd, beginning his work as a motivational speaker. He also wrote a book, “Ron Kittle’s Tales from the White Sox Dugout,” with author Bob Logan, that elicited plenty of chatter. The book was a cascade of stories, many unrelated, making it a simple read meant to regale the sports fan looking for an insider’s perspective.
The former slugger also got into the nonprofit game, creating Indiana Sports Charities to host charitable golf outings and motorcycle rides. After twenty-nine years, the organization went on hiatus, Kittle said, and had its last event in 2013.
As an ambassador for the White Sox, Kittle goes to the ballpark, U.S. Cellular Field, he said, for about three games out of every homestand, which usually last a week. He visits suites, gives talks, and “does whatever they want me do,” Kittle said. It’s a common post-career gig for professional athletes, especially fan favorites. Former White Sox ambassadors include Bo Jackson and Carlton Fisk. This year, Kittle will be acting in the capacity with Harold Baines.
What appears to make him the happiest, obvious by his confidence in and self-promotion of the results, are his metal- and wood-working. With his children, Hayley and Dylan, grown-up professionals who live out of state, Kittle settled down with his love and friend, Barb Fernandez, on a sizable lot of land in Mokena, a relatively simple drive away from the home stadium.
A driveway back-ended with gravel works its way to a workshop that is chaotically filled with projects and “the best equipment out there.” Pride flows as Kittle points to his benches, his bats, his landscaping. The man who can’t sit still has proven his mettle with his multitude of achievements, all made while constant pain from a lifetime of wear and tear lingers. “I still hurt every day. I joke, but I’m honest about it, the last time I felt good was probably at twelve years old,” he said.
Not college educated, Kittle also aspires to knowledge, saying he likes to educate himself as often as possible, using travel and firsthand encounters in place of textbooks. All the activity fills holes presumably left by an injury-stained professional baseball career. That’s not to say Kittle didn’t leave his mark on the game. The goofy-glasses-wearing natural goes in the rare category of prodigious power hitters. The category features legends like Babe Ruth, but also folk heros like Dave Kingman. Kittle totaled one hundred seventy-six MLB home runs, a pedestrian number until you take into account his mere eight hundred forty-three games played and three thousand thirteen plate appearances. That’s a home run every five games and every seventeen-and-a-half plate appearances. Those numbers are among the best of all time, and he does hold one record all to himself: Kittle hit seven home runs on or off the roof at the original Comiskey Park.
The unbelievable: “You had to hit it five hundred fifty feet to get it to the top [of the roof]. Only twenty-three people ever did it. Babe Ruth was the first. I was the last.” he said. The punchline: “I can think in the back of my head, could I have hit five hundred home runs if I stayed healthy? Absolutely. Easy.”