Friday, May 26, 2017

Bob Kuzava, 1923-2017; Ed Mierkowicz, 1924-2017

There were 2 notable deaths in baseball this month, both of them from the Polish-American community of Detroit, best friends from the town of Wyandotte, 1 of them connected to the Yankees.

Robert Leroy Kuzava was born on May 28, 1923. Despite his Italian-sounding name, he was part of the Detroit area's huge Polish community, going to the now-defunct St. Patrick's High School. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and rose to the rank of Sergeant, and was nicknamed "Sarge" for the rest of his life."

A lefthanded pitcher, he made his major league on September 21, 1946, starting for the Cleveland Indians against his hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, at League Park in Cleveland. He was a bit erratic, walking 7 batters and striking out only 3. But he left with the game tied, and the Tigers won it 5-4 in 11 innings, with Dizzy Trout going the distance.

He had trouble finding his control, and in 1947, the Indians sent him back down. He did not return to the major leagues during the 1948 season, meaning he missed out on the Indians' World Series win.

After that season, the Indians traded him to the Chicago White Sox. They weren't impressed, and, early in 1950, traded him to the Washington Senators, then among the dregs of baseball. That season, racing to 1st base to complete a double play against the White Sox, Nellie Foxx stepped on him, severing his Achilles tendon. He never pitched for the Senators again.

The Yankees must have seen something in him, because, on June 15, 1951, they sent Tom Ferrick Bob Porterfield and Fred Sanford (not the Sanford & Son character) to the Senators to obtain Kuzava.

It turned out to be a great trade. Yankee manager Casey Stengel, always looking for new ways to use players, converted him into a reliever. Down the stretch of the 1951 season, Kuzava, wearing Number 21, went 8-4 with a 2.40 ERA.

The Yankees won the Pennant, and faced the New York Giants in the World Series. They took a 4-1 lead into the 9th inning of Game 6, needing only 3 more outs to take their 3rd straight title. But Vic Raschi, who had pitched brilliantly for the Yankees in 3 straight Series to this point, faltered, loading the bases with nobody out.

Casey brought Kuzava in, and he allowed back-to-back sacrifice flies that brought the Giants to within 4-3. He got 2 outs, then faced Sal Yvars, who hit a sinking liner into right field. It could have given the Giants the lead, but Hank Bauer slid on his knees and made a shoestring catch -- or, rather, it would have been a kneepad catch, if baseball players wore kneepads -- to end it. (It was also the last game Joe DiMaggio ever played.)

That, alone, would have written the name of Bob Kuzava into Yankee history. But, pardon the pitching-related pun, he was just getting warmed up. Casey used him as both a starter and reliever in 1952, with mixed success.

But, again, he threw Kuzava into the cauldron of a clinching game of a World Series -- this time, in the 7th inning of Game 7, with the Yankees leading 4-2, but the Brooklyn Dodgers having loaded the bases with 1 out. He got the 2nd out, then got Jackie Robinson to pop up, except every Yankee infielder seemed to lose the ball in the sun. Billy Martin ran in from 2nd base and made a shoestring catch, and, again, Kuzava was bailed out by a fantastic defensive play. He got through the 8th, and worked out of a jam in the 9th to give the Yankees their 4th straight title. Yogi Berra jumped on Kuzava's back, caught by the early NBC TV cameras, with Mel Allen mentioning it on the air.

Again in 1953, Stengel used Kuzava as both a starter and a reliever, with mixed success. Again, the Yankees won the Pennant. Again, Stengel inserted Kuzava into a Series game. This time, though, it didn't work: He didn't have good stuff in Game 5 against the Dodgers, and Casey had to remove him. The Yankees won, anyway, and clinched in Game 6 for the 5th straight World Championship, never done before or since. As Yogi said of Don Larsen's World Series perfect game 3 years later, "It's never happened before, and it still hasn't."

That was pretty much it for Kuzava in Pinstripes. He was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, and bounced around to Pittsburgh and St. Louis before calling it quits in 1957. His career record was 49-44, with 7 shutouts and 13 saves -- and 3 World Series rings.

He became a scout for the Milwaukee Braves and the Kansas City Athletics. With the A's, he saw a tall righthanded pitcher in Detroit, and told owner Charlie Finley to sign him before somebody else got him. Notoriously cheap, Finley wouldn't match the $70,000 the pitcher had been offered by the White Sox. The pitcher did reach the White Sox, but didn't do much for him. But he also played basketball, played for his hometown Pistons, and, on February 14, 1968, scored the 1st basket at the new Madison Square Garden. He would be acquired by the Knicks, and the rest was history. His name was Dave DeBusschere.

Bob Kuzava lived out his life in Wyandotte, and died there on May 15, 2017, just short of his 94th birthday. He was survived by Dona, his wife of 74 years; sons Robert Jr. and Tom; daughters Diane and Theresa (another, Jeanne, predeceased him), 6 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

He was a member of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, and a field in Wyandotte is named for him.

With his death, there are now just 2 surviving players from the 1951 World Champion New York Yankees: Bobby Brown and Charlie Silvera. (Whitey Ford was serving in the Korean War at the time.) There are also 2 left from the 1952 World Champion New York Yankees: Silvera and Irv Noren. (Brown had joined Whitey in the Army.) And there are 4 players left from the 1953 World Champion New York Yankees: Ford, Silvera, Noren and Art Schallock. (Brown was still in the service.)

*

We also just lost the last link to a legend: The last wartime-era World Champions.

Edward Frank Mierkowicz was born on March 6, 1924. He and Bob Kuzava, were best friends, but they were not classmates, as Ed Mierkowicz went to the public Wyandotte High School. He, too, served in the Army during World War II, but was discharged in 1944 after contracting rheumatic fever.

Having scouted him before The War, his hometown Tigers signed him, and, with rosters still stretched thin despite V-J Day having already happened, put him into his 1st game on August 31, 1945. Like Kuzava, his 1st game was Tigers vs. Indians, although this one was at Briggs Stadium in Detroit (later Tiger Stadium). Wearing Number 2, he pinch-hit for Skeeter Webb in the 7th inning, but did not reach base, and the Indians won 7-2.

He only played in 11 games during the 1945 season, but 1 of those was Game 7 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. In the 9th inning, he became a defensive replacement for Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg in left field, his only defensive chance a single by Roy Hughes, and he didn't get to bat -- but the Tigers won, 9-3, and were World Champions. The Tigers would not reach the World Series again for 23 years; the Cubs, 71 years.
After the game, the City of Detroit and team owner Walter Briggs threw a huge party for the Tigers. Most of the players opted to go home so just a few attended the celebration. A free car was given to a rookie player, Salty Parker, who had his name drawn. When this party was announced, everybody associated with that team showed up, with the anticipation of winning a car. They did have the drawing, and Ed Mierkowicz won the car.

A lot of the veterans were a little jealous of the kid, because he hardly played on the squad. But Hank Greenberg himself, with all his height and all his moral authority, rose to speak, and said, "Hey, he is a rookie, and he can use it more than we can. Don't begrudge the kid his good luck."

But it was still wartime conditions, and Detroit wasn't making new cars yet. Instead of giving him the keys to a car, they gave him a hubcap as a promissory note. The next year, he turned the hubcap in, and got his car. He later got the hubcap back, and framed it.

Ed would get into only 34 regular-season games, all for the Tigers except for his last, on April 19, 1950, for the St. Louis Cardinals. He made just 67 plate appearances, collecting just 11 hits. But he was a major leaguer, and played for the winning side in a Game 7 of a World Series.
He continued to play professionally until 1957, but never reached the majors after 1950. He said his career "was like a cup of coffee, but no cream." He added, "God gave me the ability to play ball. Made a pretty good living. We didn't make a lot of money, but it was a lot of fun."

He returned to Wyandotte, and worked as a mechanic at a waste treatment plant, retiring in 1984. He also refereed CYO basketball, and may be best remembered in the Detroit area for that. He also owned a Wyandotte saloon called the Blossom Bar, and watched the Tigers win Pennants in 1968, 1984, 2006 and 2012.

Up until 2014, he was in reasonably good health until 2014, when he suffered an injury that ends up starting the decline of many an old person: He fell and broke his hip. He fell again last year, and spent the rest of his life in a nursing home in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He died there on May 19, 2017, at the age of 93.

He was survived by his daughters Linda Edwards, Brenda Schervish and Lisa Mayra. He was widowed twice, having been married to women named Kathryn, then Janette, and was predeceased by stepsons Tom and Kip Tiefer. He had several grandchildren.

He was the last surviving member of the 1945 World Champion Detroit Tigers, and thus the last living member of a World Series winner up to that point. Now, the earliest surviving World Series winner is 94-year-old Albert "Red" Schoendienst, the Hall of Fame 2nd baseman for the 1946 St. Louis Cardinals, who also won one with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and managed the Cardinals to the 1967 World Championship and another Pennant in 1968, losing to the Tigers. Still a consultant and a Spring Training instructor for the Cards, he has worn a Major League Baseball uniform for 72 consecutive seasons. As far as I know, that's a record.

Bob Kuzava and Ed Mierkowicz remained friends for about 80 years, from radio to Netflix, from Clark Gable to Robert Pattinson, from Count Basie to Fifth Harmony, from FDR to SOB, from finding out who won today's game by waiting for the evening paper to finding out what's happening in today's game by refreshing your browser.

They died within 4 days of each other.

Chciałbym złożyć szczere wyrazy współczucia z powodu śmierci Roberta i Edwarda. That's a traditional Polish funeral blessing, meaning, "I would like to express sincere words of compassion for the death of Robert and Edward."

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