Showing posts with label 1951 World Series. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1951 World Series. Show all posts

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bob 'Sarge' Kuzava, 93, saved consecutive World Series deciding games for the Yankees

Bob Kuzava, a three-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, passed away May 15, 2017 in Wyandotte, Michigan at the age of 93. He pitched for 10 seasons in the major leagues with a 49-44 record in 213 appearances.

Kuzava signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1941 out of St. Patrick High School in Wyandotte and only eighteen months later, he was shipped out of the country to serve in the Army during World War II. He put his baseball career on hold for three years to fulfill his military duties.

“[I spent] three years in the Army,” Kuzava said during a 2008 telephone interview from his home in Wyandotte. “I was a sergeant; I spent two years overseas in Burma, India, and China. I came out as a buck sergeant. It was so hot in Burma and India. I played a little recreation softball, but no baseball.

“I was fortunate; I saw a little bit, but no heavy action in Burma. I felt sorry for the guys. There wasn't much going on, except in Burma when they had Merill's Marauders fighting the Japanese. Those guys had to do everything with mules in the jungle because it was the only way you could carry stuff and travel. I didn't get into any action, I was just glad to survive.”

Bob Kuzava signed photo / N. Diunte

Returning unscathed from the Army, “Sarge” had a banner year for Wilkes Barre in 1946, going 14-6 with a 2.36 ERA. His spectacular performance earned him a September call-up at the end of the season. Determined to return to the majors after getting a taste of the big league life, 1947 played out in similar fashion that finished with a cup of coffee for Cleveland. Only this time, one of his rookie teammates was helping to integrate Major League Baseball.

“Larry Doby was a terrific ballplayer and well educated gentleman,” he said. “When he first came up, I was a rookie too. He played center field for us and was a very good major league player.”

The Indians traded Kuzava to the Chicago White Sox to start the 1949 season. Given the opportunity to pitch regularly, he posted a 10-6 record and finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Just as quickly as he was acquired by the White Sox due to the wheeling and dealing of Frank “Trader” Lane, Kuzava was sent to the Washington Senators in 1950 in a six-player trade for slugging first baseman Eddie Robinson.

While his time in Washington wasn't one of pennant contention, his first season in the nation's capital provided one of the most memorable moments of his career. Sporting a lifetime .086 batting average, Kuzava’s lack of prowess at the plate was a prima facie case for the establishment of the designated hitter. While no baseball fan would ever get him confused at the plate for his legendary teammates Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle; however, almost sixty years later, he was proud to tell the story of his only major league home run.

“There was a guy named Bob Hooper who [pitched] for the Philadelphia A's,” he recalled. “We were in Washington and I hit a ball to left field, Paul Lanier came in to make a shoestring catch and the ball rolled all the way to the fence which was about 400 feet away. It was an inside the park home run; I didn't have the power to hit the ball over the fence in Washington.”

While playing for the cellar dwelling Senators was one of the less glamorous major league jobs, a mid-season 1951 trade with the New York Yankees put him on the elevator straight to the top of the American League. Immediately, the difference in the clubhouse atmosphere was obvious.

“We had a guy one day who didn't run too hard to first,” he recalled. “We had an ex-Marine, Hank Bauer on our club. He waited for him. He asked, ‘Are you tired?’ The guy looked at him and said, ‘Well, no.’ Hank asked, ‘Well why don't you run hard to first? We're trying to make a couple bucks, get in the World Series.’ Hank said to the guy, ‘If you are tired, tell the old man, and we'll get somebody in there who wants to hustle.’ That's how it was; we took care of our own.”

The prevailing intense attitude that Bauer reinforced helped to send Kuzava and the Yankees to the 1951 World Series, the first of their three consecutive World Series championships. Serving as a reliever in all three Fall Classics, he made history of his own when he earned a save in the deciding games of both the 1951 and 1952 World Series.

“I am the only guy to have a save in the World Series back to back [in the deciding games on consecutive World Series],” he said. “It's quite an honor. To have a save in back to back World Series, I don't know if it will ever be done again.”

After defeating the New York Giants in 1951, the Subway Series continued in 1952 and 1953, when the Yankees squared off against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kuzava recalls that there was very little separating the two clubs at the time.

“We played against the Brooklyn Dodgers in ’52 and ’53. Both teams had Hall of Famers in the future; they had 5-6 guys that became Hall of Famers and so did we. There wasn't much difference between the clubs; the teams that got a break during the series won. We just maybe got a few more breaks than they did.” With all of the talent that Brooklyn had, Kuzava was most impressed by Jackie Robinson, not only for what he did on the field, but also for a humble gesture he made in defeat. After losing the 1952 World Series, Robinson was the first to go to the Yankees clubhouse and give them their due.

“We beat them in Brooklyn and I had the save that day,” he said. “Robinson came over to our clubhouse and congratulated us. That's what kind of man he was. He was a tough guy. He held it back, but he showed it on the playing field.”

Winning three World Series rings with the Yankees cemented his role as a key bullpen member during their dominant run in the early 1950s. As the Yankees cultivated young talent from their rich farm system, Kuzava was let go by the team in 1954 and he latched on with the Baltimore Orioles for the remainder of the season.

He pitched in the major leagues through 1957 with stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. As he approached his mid 30s, changing teams so frequently made it difficult to build enough of a rapport with the managers to get on the mound consistently.

“I was getting up there in age,” he said. “I had a few cups of coffee. In Philly I enjoyed the guys, but I didn't pitch much. A lot of times when you go to different ball clubs, the managers don't know you too well and you sit around too long.”

He toiled in the minor leagues until 1960 when he finished up his career as a player-manager for the Charleston White Sox in the South Atlantic League. He went face-to-face with the ugly head of Jim Crow as the progress that Robinson and Doby worked to make was far from finished. He recruited Negro League veteran Sam Hairston to help him mentor the young players and help them deal with the racism they faced in the South.

“I managed one year for Bill Veeck in Charleston, and I had two guys who were colored,” he said. “This was 1960; one was Oillie Brantley, the other was Jim Lynn. [Sam] Hairston came down to help me in the summer; he was an old catcher with the White Sox, a great guy. Even then, I'd get phone calls from people threatening that if those guys played, they were going to do this or that. It was terrible. I'm talking 1960! We had Cubans whose skin was darker than the blacks and they could live with us in the hotels. The blacks couldn't and those were the guys who went to war for us along with me and the other guys.”

After his playing and coaching days were over, he scouted for a decade. While he enjoyed being around the game, the grind of scouting combined with the low pay proved to be too much of a strain on his family. He returned home to Wyandotte to get a job in the beer industry.

“I scouted for 10 years,” he said. “I worked for John McHale and Charlie Finley. It got to be too much traveling and there was no money in scouting. My wife had to do most of the work. I got a job back in my hometown and retired from the beer business.”

When we spoke in 2008, the then 85-year-old Kuzava felt it was easy for old-timers like him to get lost by baseball fans with the abundance of players that followed in his footsteps. Nonetheless, he was happy to be recognized and wasn’t shy about addressing the vastly improved conditions that major leaguers currently enjoyed.

“A lot of people don't remember you anymore because of expansion,” he said. “There are 30 ball clubs now; it’s easy to forget people. We only had eight teams in each league. Our meal money was eight dollars per day and we traveled by train.

“They get $100 per day now and buffets in the clubhouse. They get bereavement days for babies being born. [They play] no doubleheaders! We played doubleheaders almost every weekend and holidays! We did it and we enjoyed it. That's the union and the way it is now. My wife had five babies and I couldn't get home to see any of them. I applaud the union for giving them these things. It was different when I played.”

Kuzava was among the early members of the MLBPA and quickly acknowledged the value of the pension he had from playing baseball. He wished that modern players would honor Curt Flood for the sacrifices he made that led to the tremendous salaries they’re earning.

“We get a nice pension,” he said. “It came into effect in 1947. You could have played 20 years before 1947, retired and got nothing. I went to the big leagues to stay in 1947. I was lucky; I just got in there when the plan started. When I started getting my pension, it was a few hundred dollars a month, now it is a lot more than that.

“They're making so much today because of the rules. When I broke in, you belonged to a club for life; you had no say in the thing. Curt Flood started the ball rolling when guys could make more money and become free agents. They blackballed him because he stepped up and started complaining. In St. Louis, they wanted to trade him and he didn't want to go. These guys today ought to thank the lord for him because now a lot of them are millionaires.”

Go to the two hour and 15 minute mark to see Kuzava pitch in the deciding game of the 1952 World Series.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

George Spencer's magical ride with the New York Giants in 1951

As one of the four living members from the 1951 National League champion New York Giants, former relief pitcher George Spencer can speak with candor about his playing career and the current state of baseball.

“My playing days are long gone, but the memories are still there. It’s a great game, it seems like it’s a shame it has gotten to where it has,” he said in during a January 2012 phone interview from his home in Ohio.

“Where baseball is today, I’m very disenchanted. … I see the little leaguers when they hit a game-winning home run, they all gather at home plate and hit each other and smack each other and throw helmets in the air, and that’s little league,” the 85-year-old Spencer lamented. “Instead of it being big league down, the little league has gone to the big leagues. I see them in their uniforms and it looks like half of them are getting ready to go to bed, with their pants down over their shoes. It’s a sight to behold.”

George Spencer
Well before the advent of players celebrating on the field for every diving catch, stolen base, or home run, Spencer was a two-sport star at Ohio State University, where he also played quarterback for their football team. More than sixty years later, Spencer has no regrets selecting baseball over football.

“I played football and baseball. I had two quarters, one for football and one for baseball and neither one of them took!” Spencer laughed. “I picked the right sport anyway. I can still walk and get around fairly decent."

Spencer signed with the Giants in 1948, and after three seasons in the minors, the Giants summoned him to the majors in August 1950, albeit much to his surprise.

“You won’t believe this, I won my first eight games in Jersey City,” he said. [After that] I lost either three or four in a row. I can’t remember where we were on the road, but Joe Becker the manager called me over.”

The following exchange ensued between Spencer and his manager.

“He said to me, ‘George, you’re going to the big leagues.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sure as hell am Joe, I just lost four in a row and I’m going to the big leagues!’ He said, ‘I’m serious, you’re supposed to join them in Philadelphia.’ I said, ‘That’s hard to believe.’”

Spencer joined the Giants in Philadelphia and quickly found out that things were a bit more intense on major league soil.

“I joined them in Philadelphia and we went to fist city three times in the game,” Spencer recalled. “That’s when Eddie Stanky was standing on second base waving his arms. He and [Andy] Seminick, the Philly catcher at the time, went ape over the doggone thing because they didn’t have a rule on that [relaying signs]. We cleared out; I was out of that bullpen three times. I was out there fighting and I can remember looking on my right and Tookie Gilbert is down on the ground and some cop has the billy club right over him, ready to swipe him. Somebody grabbed his arm so Tookie didn’t get hit. I thought if this is the big leagues, I’m a lover, not a fighter. What an experience!”

A few days later at the Polo Grounds, Spencer toed the rubber for his debut against their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After getting through a scoreless first inning, Spencer received another major league lesson.

“I’m facing the Dodgers and [Gene] Hermanski is the hitter. I got him a nice fastball right over the plate and hit a ball to the right field side of dead center. Bobby Thomson was playing center field and he hit it and it was a one-hopper to the fence out there,” said Spencer. “I finally got the side out and I come back in the dugout and Bobby comes back in and says, ‘Darn, I didn’t get a jump on that ball, that ball should have been caught.’ I said, ‘Bobby, if that ball should have been caught, this is where I should be pitching.’ I didn’t pitch there very long, but that’s where I should have been pitching.”

After posting a 2.49 ERA in ten games his rookie season, Spencer returned for a full year with the club in 1951. During that year, Spencer had a front row seat to some of baseball’s most legendary spectacles, which included pitching in the World Series, watching Bobby Thomson flatten the hopes of Brooklyn faithful, and last but not least, the debut of a young kid from Alabama named Willie Mays.

“In my opinion, he was the best all-around ballplayer I ever saw,” he said. “… He’s the only outfielder that I can remember seeing that could hit any place on the infield and it was a one-hopper to the catcher.”

During the infamous playoff game where Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Spencer recalled the performance of Don Newcombe dashing his World Series hopes.

“In the eighth inning when Newcombe was still pitching and they had the lead, it looked like he was throwing nothing but bee-bees,” he said. “I visually saw dollar bills flying out the window because we were going to get knocked off by him because he looked like he had way too much.”

The bullpen let out a sigh of relief when Charlie Dressen went to the mound.

“Everyone on our team was pleased that they decided to make the switch, any switch to get Newcombe out of there,” he said. “The way it ended up, it was all to our liking. I don’t think they were too happy with it, but that’s the way it goes. That’s baseball.”

Thomson’s home run propelled the Giants to the World Series against the New York Yankees who featured the soon-to-be-retired Joe DiMaggio. In the seventh inning of Game Two of the World Series, Spencer pitched in relief of Larry Jansen. Standing across from him as he walked to the mound in his World Series debut was the famed Yankee Clipper.

“The first guy I had to face was number five. I think I got about two-thirds of the way to the mound from the bullpen and I looked at the scoreboard and it said number five up there and I immediately thought, ‘What in the hell am I doing here pitching to this guy?’” Spencer wondered.

Even though Spencer gave up seven runs in his two World Series appearances, he had a clean slate against DiMaggio the two times they squared off.

“I always thought I was a big contributor to his retirement in 1951 because I faced him twice and I got him out both times. He must be saying, ‘If I can’t hit that guy, I must be through.’ That’s the story I always told. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him have any comment of how tough of a pitcher I ever was. I look at it a little differently.”

Spencer remained with the Giants through the 1955 season, shuttling between the major league club and AAA. He pitched in six games for the 1954 World Series champs, contributing a 1-0 record during the regular season, but was not on the roster for the postseason. He resurfaced in the majors with the Detroit Tigers for cups of coffee in 1958 and 1960, playing full-time in the minors through 1963 before retiring. He became a pitching coach in the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds organizations for four years, taking the mound one last time as a player-coach in 1966 while coaching in Statesville, N.C.

Moving on from professional baseball, Spencer worked in a sheet metal factory for twenty years.

Throughout all of his travels during his 17 years in baseball, nothing matched the rivalry between the two New York National League teams during that 1951 season.

“When the Dodgers and Giants played each other, it was war,” he said. “Every time we went to Brooklyn, you knew what you were going to get there and when they came to the Polo Grounds, they knew what they were going to get too. It was a thrill to be a part of that.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Larry Jansen, 89, 1920-2009 Two Time 20 Game Winner For the New York Giants

Two-time 20 game winner Larry Jansen passed away October 10, 2009 at his home in Oregon at the age of 89. MLB.com reported an article announcing Jansen's passing which featured remembrances from Cy Young Award winners Gaylord Perry and Mike McCormick, who received tutelage from Jansen while he coached the Giants from 1961-1971. Jansen pitched 8 seasons with the Giants from 1947-1954, recording the win in the infamous 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" game between the Dodgers and Giants where Bobby Thomson homered off of Ralph Branca to put the Giants into the 1951 World Series. Jansen resurfaced briefly with the Reds in 1956 and continued to pitch until 1960 with Portland of the Pacific Coast League.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Jack 'Lucky' Lohrke, 85, New York Giants Infielder, 1924-2009

The ballplayer who earned the nickname "Lucky" for his escapes from brushes with death, died on April 29th at the age of 85. Jack "Lucky" Lohrke was an infielder in the Major Leagues from 1947-1953 with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies, appearing in two games for the Giants during the 1951 World Series. After his playing days had came to an end, Lohrke shied away from the 1946 Spokane Indians bus crash that earned him his nickname. Lohrke moved to San Jose in 1971 and lived there until his death. To read more in-depth about Lohrke, Sports Illustrated interviewed Lohrke 1994 about his career and his moniker. The piece was entitled, "O Lucky Lohrke."