Sutter, who turned 53 on Sunday, received 76.9 percent of the vote in balloting by the Baseball Writers Association of America (75 percent is the minimum required for induction). The only player elected in this year's BBWAA balloting, Sutter will be inducted on July 30 in the annual ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"When the phone call came and the caller ID said New York," Sutter said, "I thought, 'Oh, maybe this is it.' And then when Mr. O'Connell came on the phone, I gave the thumbs-up to my boys and my wife and my daughters-in-law. They started screaming and actually I started crying."
Sutter's induction ceremony will bring together two groups of people not known for having much in common: Cardinals fans and Cubs fans. Sutter made his name with the Cubs in the late 1970s before pitching four years in St. Louis -- where he won a World Series ring. He finished his career with three seasons in Atlanta, fighting injuries before hanging it up at age 35.
As for the question surely running through the heads of Cubs and Cards fans, Sutter wasn't ready to say what color hat he expects to wear next summer.
"I'll say something [Wednesday]," Sutter said. "I've got to think about that. These things weren't something that I've been thinking about. I didn't have my bags packed. I've got to head to New York tonight. I haven't really even thought about that."
Sutter becomes the fourth relief pitcher in the Hall of Fame, and the second elected in three years. But he is the first pitcher in the Hall who never started a single big league game. Dennis Eckersley was inducted in 2004, following Rollie Fingers (1992) and Hoyt Wilhelm (1985).
Rich Gossage and Lee Smith, contemporaries of Sutter's, both gained ground in the voting, but will have to wait at least one more year. Gossage, in his seventh year on the ballot, climbed from 55.2 percent to 64.6 percent, and appears likely to be enshrined one day. Smith, in his fourth year, climbed from 38.8 percent to 45.0 percent.
"I hope closers get in," Sutter said. "Goose Gossage, a friend of mine, definitely a Hall of Fame pitcher in my mind. Lee Smith, friend of mine, teammate, definitely a Hall of Fame pitcher in my mind. I just think sometimes the voters try to compare us with the starting pitchers. We can't compete with their statistics, their innings and their strikeouts.
"It's like comparing a shortstop's numbers against a first baseman or an outfielder. We're just playing a different position. But I think without us, it's tough to win."
Known as the man who pioneered the split-fingered fastball, Sutter was one of the most dominant relievers of the late 1970s and early '80s. Injuries knocked him out of the game at age 35, or else he might already be enshrined in Cooperstown. Sutter pitched much of the latter stages of his career in intense pain before he finally called it a career.
Sutter's share of the vote climbed every year, and he received 66.7 percent in 2005. Every player who has ever received two-thirds of the votes in a single BBWAA Hall of Fame election has eventually been inducted, either by the writers or by the Veterans' Committee. In 2005, Sutter was the top vote-getter who was not inducted.
The last player to wait as long as Sutter before being inducted by the writers was Ralph Kiner, who was elected in his 13th year in 1975. It took Bill Terry 14 years before he was inducted in 1954.
When the phone rang at Sutter's Georgia home, he had a hunch as to who might be calling -- but he wasn't entirely sure he believed it.
"I had to keep asking them," Sutter said. "And then when the Commissioner [of baseball] called me, I said, 'Well, then I must be in.' But then when the announcement came on ESPN at 2:00, I was watching with my sons and I said, 'Wouldn't it be something if they came on and said nobody got in?'
"It's a dream come true. Every player, I don't think you consciously think about it, but every player would like to be part of the Baseball Hall of Fame."
Sutter made his Major League debut with the Cubs in 1976, and a year later he turned in one of the greatest relief seasons in history: 107 1/3 innings, 31 saves, a 1.34 ERA, 129 strikeouts, 69 hits and five homers allowed. He earned All-Star berths with the Cubs each year from 1977 to 1980, and a Cy Young Award in '79, before being shipped to St. Louis after the 1980 season.
In four seasons in St. Louis, Sutter was twice more an All-Star. He racked up 127 saves wearing the "birds on the bat" and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times. Sutter closed out Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, the only world championship for the Cardinals in the past 38 years.
Sutter enjoyed one last brilliant season in 1984, amassing 122 2/3 innings, a 1.54 ERA and 45 saves in his final year as a Cardinal. After that, he departed as a free agent for Atlanta, but injuries limited him to 112 games and 40 saves over four years with the Braves. He pitched his last game before his 36th birthday, then had to wait until he was 53 to join the immortals.
"I don't think you give up," said Sutter. "The Hall of Fame is for the best of the best. There's 260 guys in the history of baseball that are in the Hall of Fame. There's going to be a lot of good players -- great players -- that don't get in for one reason or another. Were my stats good enough? I didn't know. I had an injury that shortened my career, but you always keep your fingers crossed. It's one of those deals that I had no control over it. You keep hoping, but it's not something that was going to affect me."
Much of Sutter's support in the voting likely came not merely for his performance but for his famous splitter. Nearly everyone throws it these days, but Sutter was one of the first to turn it into the weapon it is today.
There's also the issue of his impact on the game. Sutter, along with Gossage, came along at a turning point in the history of the relief pitcher. They heralded the beginning of the modern closer role, but Sutter wasn't like today's closers.
Sutter often pitched more than an inning at a time, and more than 60-70 innings in a season. Sutter topped 100 innings five times, with one more year at 99. From 1976-85, he averaged just under 98 innings per season, all in relief, and tallied 283 of his 300 saves. Those types of innings totals are almost unheard of from relievers these days, and especially from the guys who close out games.