The 1951 New York Yankees had both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in their lineup. They had MVP winner Yogi Berra and Rookie of the Year Gil McDougald in it too. Their pitching staff included Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat and Allie Reynolds who together won 59 games that season. But it was a 28 year old WWII veteran named Bob Kuzava who provided the spark that led the Bombers to the AL Pennant that season and the World Championship.
Kuzava was acquired by New York from the Senators, just before midseason that year. He started eight games for the Yankees and relieved in 15 others. He won eight times but more importantly, got five saves during the second half of that season. He then relieved Johnny Sain in the ninth inning of the sixth and final game of that year’s World Series after the Giants had rallied to pull within one run. Kuzava retired the next three batters to earn the save.
One year later, in the seventh game of the 1952 series, after Vic Raschi had loaded the bases with Brooklyn Dodgers, Casey Stengel gave Kuzava the ball again with a 4-2 lead with one out in the seventh inning. The southpaw reliever got the first batter he faced, Duke Snider to hit a harmless popup to the infield for the second out and he then thought he had gotten Jackie Robinson to do the same thing. But the October wind was swirling at Brooklyn’s Ebbets’ field that afternoon and it grabbed Robinson’s ball and started making it dance and flutter. The entire Yankee infield seemed frozen in their tracks when at the last moment, Billy Martin came streaking in from his second base position to snare the ball, inches from the ground, right beside Kuzava and the pitching mound. That catch is considered a great moment in Yankee franchise history. What gets lost in that same history some times is the fact that “Sarge” Kuzava had just gotten two future Hall of Famers to pop up to the infield with the bases loaded and then went on to pitch two more innings of hitless and scoreless relief to preserve another Yankee World Championship. All in a day’s work I guess.
Kuzava was born in Wyandotte, WI, on May 28, 1923. He pitched in pinstripes until June of 1954 when he was released. His Yankee regular season record was 23-20 with 14 saves and also 4 complete games shutouts. But it was those two October saves that defined his Yankee career.
Update: The above post was originally written in May of 2011. Though most of his Yankee teammates knew him by the nickname “Sarge,” Kuzava also had another alias, given to him by the late great Red Sox second baseman, Johnny Pesky. When both were still playing in the big leagues, Kuzava had once induced Pesky to hit a slow roller back to the pitcher and as Kuzava fielded the ball he heard Pesky scream at him “You white rat!” The new nickname sort of stuck with the pitcher. Years later, Pesky had been hired as a player-coach by the Yankees for their Denver Bears team in the American Association. One of the players’ on the Bears’ roster that year was Herzog. When Pesky saw him, he told the future Hall-of-Fame manager that he was the spitting image of Bob Kuzava. I’m sure Kuzava, who’s still living in his native Michigan and turns 90-years-old today, has no regrets about losing his “White Rat” nickname too Herzog.
Kuzava shares his May 28th birthday with another modern day Yankee reliever.
|NYY (4 yrs)||23||20||.535||3.39||104||29||40||12||4||13||347.1||329||145||131||24||142||187||1.356|
|WSH (2 yrs)||11||10||.524||4.34||30||30||0||11||1||0||207.1||213||114||100||13||103||106||1.524|
|CLE (2 yrs)||2||1||.667||3.74||6||6||0||1||1||0||33.2||31||17||14||1||20||13||1.515|
|BAL (2 yrs)||1||4||.200||4.00||10||5||3||0||0||0||36.0||40||18||16||0||15||20||1.528|
|CHW (2 yrs)||11||9||.550||4.39||39||25||5||10||1||0||201.0||182||104||98||11||118||104||1.493|
|PIT (1 yr)||0||0||9.00||4||0||1||0||0||0||2.0||3||2||2||0||3||1||3.000|
|PHI (1 yr)||1||0||1.000||7.24||17||4||7||0||0||0||32.1||47||26||26||5||12||13||1.825|
|STL (1 yr)||0||0||3.86||3||0||2||0||0||0||2.1||4||1||1||0||2||2||2.571|
No Yankee past or present celebrates a birthday on May 27th and since its Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to recognize two well-known Yankees who made significant contributions to the US War effort during WWII.
The first is the great outfielder from the great Yankee teams of the late forties and fifties, Hank Bauer. While still a minor leaguer in the White Sox organization, Hank enlisted in the Marines in 1942 and he spent the next three years of his life battling malaria, storming the beaches of islands in the Pacific and leading a battalion of men in fierce jungle fighting with a merciless enemy. During the deadly Battle of Okinawa, Lieutenant Bauer lost 58 of the 64 marines in his platoon during the Japanese counterattack. He was awarded two bronze stars and a pair of purple hearts. He also lost a brother, Herman, who was killed in action in France in November of 1944. When Bauer returned home, he figured his chance at playing baseball had passed him by and he became a pipe-fitter. A scout for the Yankees remembered Bauer and signed him to contract. It took Bauer three years to make it to the Bronx and by the time he did, in 1948, he was already 26 years old. But when he finally did put on those pinstripes, he played the game like he lived his life, hard at it all the time.
After signing with New York as a minor league catcher in 1939, former Yankee manager, Ralph Houk joined the Army a few weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He attended officers’ candidate school and didn’t get sent overseas until July of 1944. That October, Houk and his reconnaissance unit got their first taste of combat during the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded in the leg but refused to leave the battle front. His commanding officer sent Houk out alone in a jeep to go behind the enemy’s lines and scout German troop positions. He returned three days later with bullet holes in both sides of his helmet. One of the first American soldiers to step foot in Germany, Houk led several dangerous missions against key enemy positions in the 9th Armored Division’s march through the Rhineland. He won both a silver and bronze star plus a purple heart. He left the Army a Major and that rank then became his well-known and respected baseball nickname until he passed away in July of 2010.
Jason Giambi’s nightmare Yankee season of 2004 represented an opportunity for Travis Lee. The Yankee brass loved Lee’s glove at first base and all they wanted from him was good defense and decent at bats. So they signed him to a one year, two-million-dollar deal even though they had already signed veteran first baseman Tony Clark a few weeks earlier. But Lee hurt his shoulder in spring training and began the season on the DL. He ended up appearing in just seven games for New York that year. Instead, it was the switch-hitting Clark who became Giambi’s “designated glove” and started the most games at first base for the Yankees that season. Lee ended up back with Tampa Bay the following year and out of baseball all together following the 2006 season.
Update: The above post was originally written in 2011. Lee left baseball because he said he had no passion left for the game. The Nationals had invited him to their 2007 spring training camp to try and win the starting first baseman’s job that was vacant as a result of one of former Yankee, Nick Johnson’s numerous injuries. Lee evidently walked into the Washington GM’s office one day and asked for his unconditional release, got it and went home.
I can remember when Lee broke into the big leagues with Arizona in 1998 because that was the Diamondbacks’ very first year in the league and former Yankee skipper Buck Showalter was in charge of baseball’s newest team on the field. The 23-year-old Lee was one of that historic squad’s bright spots, belting 151 hits, tying for the team lead in home runs with 22 and finishing third in that year’s NL Rookie of the Year Award behind Todd Helton and that year’s winner, former Yankee Kerry Wood.
Lee shares his May 26th birthday with the only Yankee ever to bat 1.000 during a pinstripe career that consisted of more than a single at bat.
|ARI (3 yrs)||338||1316||1161||162||292||49||4||39||162||30||150||219||.252||.336||.401||.737|
|TBD (3 yrs)||388||1442||1289||164||336||70||7||42||150||18||141||236||.261||.333||.424||.757|
|PHI (3 yrs)||366||1455||1271||149||328||71||5||34||174||11||165||246||.258||.343||.402||.745|
|NYY (1 yr)||7||20||19||1||2||1||0||0||2||0||1||3||.105||.150||.158||.308|