Monday, November 4, 2013

Johnny Kucks, 1933-2013

Johnny Kucks died this past Thursday, Halloween.  Unless you really know your Yankee history, or are from Hudson County, New Jersey and are familiar with local boys made good, you may not have known who he was.

John Charles Kucks (pronounced like "cooks") was born on July 27, 1933, in Hoboken, grew up in Jersey City, and played at William L. Dickinson High School.  Today, that's one of the most troubled schools in the State, but its fortresslike structure can still be seen high atop the Palisades as you take the Newark Bay Extension of the New Jersey Turnpike to, or from, the Holland Tunnel, near the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Science Center.

A righthanded pitcher, 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds (tall and thin), Kucks was signed by the Yankees not long after graduating from Dickinson.  He spent the 1952 season in the minor leagues and then, with the Korean War raging, was drafted, and spent the 1953 and 1954 seasons in the U.S. Army (even though that war ended in July '53).

But in 1955, apparently fully mature at 21, he impressed the Yankees to the point that he was invited to the big club at spring training, despite having only 1 pro season (and that, 3 years before).  Weaering Number 53, and probably still the best Yankee to wear the number (Bobby Abreu and Melky Cabrera combined didn't contribute what Kucks did to the Yankees), he went 8-7, and appeared in 2 games of the World Series.

In 1956, he had his best season.  Still only 23 when it ended, he went 18-9, made the American League All-Star Team, and was trusted to start Game 7 of the World Series, in the bandbox of Ebbets Field no less.  All he did was hold the mighty Brooklyn Dodgers to 3 hits, going the distance in a shutout, with the Yankees backing him 4 home runs: 2 by Yogi Berra, 1 each by Bill "Moose" Skowron and Elston Howard, to give the Yankees a 9-0 win.

The last out was Jackie Robinson: Kucks struck him out, but Yogi mishandled the 3rd strike.  Perhaps remembering the Mickey Owen play between the same teams 15 years earlier, Jackie took off for 1st base.  But Yogi was not Mickey Owen, and retrieved the ball, and threw to Skowron at first.  This ended not only the game, but Robinson's career (he retired in the off-season), and the postseason history of Brooklyn baseball (by the time the Dodgers reached another World Series, 3 years later, they were in Los Angeles, and not until the '69 Mets would another National League team from New York play postseason ball).

(Left to right, for those of you who can't read small print: Skowron, Kucks, Berra.)

With Kucks' death, there are now 6 players left from the Yankees' 1956 World Series roster: Yogi, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen (whose perfect game came in Game 5), Jerry Coleman, Norm Siebern and Bob Cerv.

The next year, 1957, Kucks tailed off a bit.  He only won 8 games in each of the 3 seasons after his October opus.  I can't find the cause: I see no evidence that he was injured, ill, or dealing with a personal issue such as a crisis in his marriage or substance abuse.  He just lost his effectiveness, what would later be called "Steve Blass Disease."

On May 15, 1957, still in the afterglow of his Series triumph, Kucks was invited by the Yankee veterans to a celebration, a dual one of the birthdays of Yogi (May 12) and Billy Martin (May 16).  They went to New York's famed Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street, to see the great Sammy Davis Jr., then at the top of his game.

Billy was the only one in the group who wasn't married at the time: The others, along with their wives, were Kucks, Yogi, Whitey, Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer.  Among the players, only Yogi and Whitey still survive; I'm not sure about the wives, I know Carmen Berra and Merlyn Mantle are still alive.

A group of men at another table started yelling racial slurs at Sammy, who'd heard it all before and bantered back at them, bringing the rest of the crowd to laughter.  Instead of taking the hint, the leader (in groups of bastards like that, there's always a leader) kept going, and got worse.  The Yankees, recently integrated with Elston Howard, were enraged, and Bauer, a Marine veteran of World War II and perhaps the toughest man in baseball at this point, stood up and told the leader to zip it.  (I'm presuming he didn't use that exact expression; I don't think it was even in use yet.) The leader challenged Bauer (they were already quite drunk), and the two men went off to the bathroom, presumably with the intention of settling it.

We'll never know what really happened.  Every Yankee stuck by his story to the end, which is that no Yankee hit anybody, and it was Copa bouncers who not only held Bauer back, but worked the leader over.  The manager found out about it, and hustled the Yankees out the back door, to prevent anyone else from finding out.

It didn't work: A New York Daily News reporter was outside the back door, possibly waiting for Sammy, and somehow he got enough to give his paper a banner headline: "BAUER IN BRAWL AT COPA." Yankee general manager George Weiss saw this, and fumed.  Kucks, since he was a younger guy and a first-time "offender" (I'll say it again: Each of the 6 Yankees insisted that none of them hit anybody), was fined $500; the rest of them, all seasoned veterans, were fined $1,000.  That's about $8,400 in today's money, so Kucks' fine came to about $4,300.

What apparently did not happen was that this incident was the impetus for Weiss trading Billy to the Kansas City Athletics.  Billy went to his crumpled death sure that it was, but the fact is Billy wasn't hitting well anymore, had become a liability on the field as well as off, and the Yankees had Bobby Richardson coming up to replace him at 2nd base.

But in spite of contributing (in decreasing amounts) to American League Pennants in each of his first 4 seasons, and the 1956 and 1958 World Championships, Kucks was also traded to the A's.  On May 26, 1959 -- the same day that Harvey Haddix would pitch 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates and then lose the game in the 13th to the Milwaukee Braves -- Kucks, infielder Jerry Lumpe and pitcher Tom Sturdivant were sent to the Stockyard City for outfielder Hector Lopez and pitcher Ralph Terry, who'd been on the NY-KC shuttle before.  While '59 was the first season since '54 that the Yankees did not win the Pennant, there would be no "Curse of Johnny Kucks": Lopez and Terry became a pair of big reasons why the Yankees won the next 5 AL Pennants.

From the 1958 World Champions, there are now 10 survivors: Yogi, Whitey, Larsen, Siebern, Richardson, Lumpe, Tony Kubek, Bobby Shantz, Art Ditmar and Zach Monroe.

Kucks bottomed out at 4-10 in 1960, spent the 1961 season in the minors, was purchased after the season by the Baltimore Orioles, and then was traded before ever suiting up for the O's, to the St. Louis Cardinals for a minor leaguer who never made it.  He got the message, and retired.  His career record was 54-56; minus that terrific year of '56, and it was just 36-47.

He became a stockbroker, lived in the Bergen County town of Hillsdale, and frequently returned to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers' Day.  He was 80 when he passed away from cancer last week.

Here's a more recent photo of Johnny and Yogi, from Yogi's museum at Montclair State University.

Johnny Kucks may not have been a Yankee star for long, but he wrote his name in Yankee legend.  After all, how many men have pitched a shutout in the clinching game of a World Series? 19, the last being Josh Beckett of the Florida Marlins, against the Yankees in 2003.  (Boo hiss.) Only 6 are still alive.  In addition to Beckett, they are: Ralph Terry (1962 Yankees), Sandy Koufax (1965 Los Angeles Dodgers), Scott McGregor (1983 Orioles), Bret Saberhagen (1985 Kansas City Royals), and Jack Morris (1991 Minnesota Twins, 10 innings).

And how many have done it in a 7th and deciding game? 9: Babe Adams (1909 Pittsburgh Pirates), Dizzy Dean (1934 Cardinals), Johnny Podres (1955 Dodgers, against the Yankees), Lew Burdette (1957 Milwaukee Braves, against the Yankees), Terry, Koufax, Saberhagen, Morris... and Kucks.

As on the late 1950s Yankee Dynasty, Johnny Kucks was in good company.

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