Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bob Cerv turned a late start into an All-Star baseball career

Bob Cerv was an unusual late-comer to professional baseball, signing his first minor league contract at the age of 25. His career was delayed due to his World War II service, which started in 1943 right after his high school graduation. After a three-year tour of duty, he became one of the University of Nebraska’s most decorated stars, winning back-to-back basketball championships, as well as garnering the Huskers’ first baseball All-American honors in 1950. Despite his accolades on the diamond, Cerv wasn’t sure the sport was going to be his calling.

“All at once I didn't think I was going into pro ball,” Cerv said during a phone interview with the author from his home in 2008. “I could have gone into pro basketball also. I played basketball and baseball at Nebraska. … Then they [the Yankees] offered me a deal, ‘Well we'll send you to Kansas City, and if you make it, we want to see how you do.’ I was 25 years old when I signed.”

When he arrived in Kansas City, the Yankees farm system was brimming with so much talent, that many including Cerv, eventually went on to stardom with other franchises. Cerv said that his 1951 AAA team in Kansas City was a prime example of just how rich the Yankees were with prospects.

“[Mickey] Mantle, Jackie Jensen, and I played the outfield [together] in Kansas City at the same time,” he said. “About seven years later, we were the All-Star [starting] outfield.”

Bob Cerv (r.) with Casey Stengel (c.) and Bob Wielser (l.)

He turned his delayed start into a dozen major league seasons that spanned from 1951-1962 with four different major league teams. Sadly, Cerv passed away April 6, 2017 in Blair, Nebraska. He was 91.

Cerv spent his first few seasons with the Yankees shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and the Bronx until 1954. The Yankees had used up his options and manager Casey Stengel decided to make him a permanent part of his outfield platoon.

“In those days when you were in AAA they could option you three times,” he recalled. “They had to keep or sell you. In 1951, ‘52, and ‘53, I got sent back down, and in ‘54 they had to keep me. That's the only year Stengel won 100+ games, and we lost by eight to Cleveland that year!”

The Yankees rebounded in 1955 to capture the American League pennant and face off with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series. A late season leg injury forced Mantle out of the lineup for the majority of the series, clearing the way for Cerv to start during the Fall Classic.

“I played center field and I was 2-16 and [Irv] Noren was 1-16,” he said. “I hit against the left-handers and Noren hit the right-handers. We were lousy! I remember I hit a pinch hit home run off of Roger Craig; not many have done that. Then everything went their [Brooklyn’s] way.”

Over fifty years later, Cerv recalled Sandy Amoros’ catch during Game Seven of the 1955 World Series coming as the result of a genius decision by Dodgers manager Walter Alston. At the time, the Cerv was perplexed by the change.

"[Sandy] Amoros made that catch right after they just changed. I don't know why they switched all those people for. That was the greatest move. Junior Gilliam would have never caught that ball; even Amoros barely caught it. Yogi rarely ever hit a ball that way, but Amoros could run.”

Cerv tasted World Series victory the following season when the Yankees got their revenge against the Dodgers. He had one hit in his only at-bat during the series. During that off-season, the Yankees sold Cerv to Kansas City. The opportunity to play full-time made a world of difference for Cerv. By 1958, he beat out Ted Williams for the starting spot in the All-Star Game while setting a Kansas City record for home runs. Even more impressive was that he accomplished all of this despite spending an entire month of the season playing with his jaw wired shut.

“I hit 38 homers that year, everything went well,” he said. “I finally got to play every day. That was self satisfaction. I always played against the left-handers and there were no bad left-handers in the major leagues. They didn't stay long if they weren’t pretty good. Parnell, Pierce, Score, Hoeft ... they could throw the hell out of the ball.”

Cerv had one last hurrah with the Yankees, returning in a 1960 mid-season trade to become a part of their World Series team. He hit .357 in their World Series loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career ended in 1962 an ill-fated run with the Houston Colt 45s, when leg injuries had robbed him of his bat speed and power.

Upon retiring from the majors, Cerv spent many years as giving back to the game as both a professor and coach at Southwest Missouri State College and John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska. He stressed fundamentals, something that he felt the modern ballplayer lacked.

“The minor leagues went from D-AAA, but one thing they knew, was how to play baseball,” he said. “Nowadays, they learn in the majors and they make too many mistakes; they don't have enough players. If you have a halfway year in the minors now, you are in the majors. Pitchers don't even have to have good years. If they look like they have a good arm, that's all they need.”

While Cerv’s salary never reached more than $30,000 in one year, he had no qualms about coming along too soon. His multiple post-season appearances with the Yankees more than made up for it.

“I can't complain,” he said. “I had a lot of World Series checks. When I first came up, they said ‘Don't mess with our money, we'll make more money in a week than in a year.’”


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