Heroes: from Kerr to “The Man”

It’s the middle of the 2019 World Series, and things are getting very interesting.  So, as I’ve done at this time of year before, it’s time to weave a rambling essay of baseball lore – this one with lesser known threads connecting heroes, villains and an indelible splotch on baseball’s reputation – recalling that this is the 100th Anniversary of the notorious “Black Sox”.

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I had the great fortune getting an opportunity to earn an engineering graduate degree at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee.  Among the countless benefits that sprouted from those two years (1978-80) were some that came from a forward looking realization: I might not have the chance to work a fun job that involved playing golf for many more decades. I’ve always liked golf, because, like baseball, it’s a sport that a skinny, short guy like me can achieve some success at.

So, in April 1979, I donned my most attractive, contemporary golf attire (which were a bit frayed and cheap looking) and rode my bicycle to a nearby exclusive golf and country club.  How nice was it?  The following summer it hosted the 1980 Women’s US Open.

I got a job with the pro, whose name was also Joe, after a very short interview. I worked there much of the next two summers doing a variety of golf-related tasks: in the pro-shop, selling golf paraphernalia and running the till; making deposits at the bank; running the driving range; cleaning clubs and carts; even working with the grounds crew to lay sod and build bridges.

Not a great job, at least with respect to pay (I think at $2.92/hr), but the main thing was the fringe benefits.  I was at a top-notch golf facility, where I was privileged to play at least 9-holes of golf every single day and also spend hours practicing every sort of shot.  By the end of the first summer I was a pretty fair bet to break 80 on a US open caliber course – and “from the tips”, as golfers say.  (Oh!, to be able to do that again).

Another benefit was getting tickets to high end golf related events.  For example, I attended the 1980 Music City Celebrity golf tournament at another high-end golf club for free.  This was a splashy fund-raiser for local charities.  I clearly recall following along two celebs for a several holes. 

The first celeb I followed was former President Gerald Ford.  He definitely struck me as athletic, but in a “football player” sort-of-way.  A very mechanical and muscle-bound swing.  Slight fade.  Never gonna be a great golfer, but played with the stoic, almost grim, emotionless face that you’d expect from a conservative.  He did hole a green-side bunker shot on number 9, which brought a huge roar of appreciation from the crowd. 

The other was Stan Musial.  Known to true-blue Saint Louis baseball fans as “Stan the Man”,  Musial’s marvelous baseball playing career came to an end about 17 years before … just as I was becoming a serious fan of the game.  It now occurs to me that I might have seen him once or even twice before, as my father started taking me to Wrigley Field to see Cubs games in 1961.

Stan Musial: late in MLB career

Musial was certainly one of the very, very best hitters of the 20th century, and among the best 2 or 3 left-handed hitters ever, ranking with Ted Williams and Ty Cobb.  Musial is arguably above Cobb, who never put up power numbers like Stan, and it’s tough to compare with Williams, whose overall career numbers (especially hits and home runs) are unfairly well down the list, since he lost three of the best years of his baseball career to military service, serving as a fighter pilot during World War II. 

I said that Musial’s playing career ended some 17 years before I saw him in Nashville, at the Music City Celeb.  But it nearly ended before he even made it to the majors. 

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100 years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine that the Chicago White Sox team of 1919 could lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The star-studded Sox were prohibitive betting favorites.  It’s only imaginable in retrospect, knowing that their best players intentionally played well below their skill level – pitchers tossing easy-to-hit pitches, fielders kicking ground balls and dropping flyballs. 

Books and movies have been made about that team, and what happened thereafter.  The short version is that players thought they were severely underpaid (they probably were). Owner Charles Comiskey was a man of “deep pockets and short arms” – especially stingy with his money, and player salaries.  The sports-betting community connected the dots: prohibitive betting odds and disgruntled players provided the possibility of a gigantic gambling bonanza by giving a miniscule fraction of the winning proceeds to players who cooperated.

In the end, eight players were banned from baseball for life.  There is absolutely no doubt that many players cooperated, although it’s easy to make a case for Joe Jackson’s defense.  Jackson was an illiterate simple country boy from South Carolina, famously went by the nickname “Shoeless Joe” and had the prettiest lefthanded swing that any baseball expert had ever seen.  For the series, Joe hit for a .375 average, with a .956 OPS.  Hard to say he wasn’t trying, and easy to say he didn’t know what he was signing up for.

It’s also hard to imagine that there was a hero for the Sox in that Series.  A genuine hero on a team that intentionally tried to lose. But there most certainly was: the diminutive Dickey Kerr. Mostly forgotten now, Kerr was by no means not the best pitcher on the 1919 Sox.  Considered a second-tier pitcher, behind the likes of Eddie Cicotte (“Chick”), who won 29 games that season with a 1.82 ERA.  During the series, Chick picked two games to throw poorly at critical moments.

Tiny Dickey Kerr, 1919

Kerr was a rookie that year.  He stood barely 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighed 150 lbs “soaking wet”. Yet Kerr won two games in that series, going 2-0 with a dodgy defense behind him, and with a 1.42 ERA.  In one game he went 10 innings to get the win; silly (now obvious) errors led to a critical unearned run.

So lowly regarded was Kerr, that Sox players who collaborated with gamblers never even considered including him in the plot.  Even though he was unscathed by the scandal, his career soon also ended after the 1921 season (all eight collaborators finished the 1920 season) – although he made a brief comeback attempt in 1925.

Kerr’s missing of the 1922-24 seasons was also tied directly to Comiskey the Cheapskate.  Feeling like he was owed more money for his performance (he did go on to win an impressive 40 games over the ’20 and ’21 seasons), Kerr sat out and played some exhibition games (for pay) with other teams.  For that, he was harshly banned from baseball by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (yes, that was his name … Kenesaw Mountain … his name has direct links to a major Civil War battle … at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia).

Kerr had a good head for baseball and leadership, making his way into the coaching and manager ranks.  It was later, in 1940, while managing the minor league D-Level Daytona Beach Islanders in the lowest levels of the Saint Louis Cardinals organization, that Kerr encountered a promising young athlete.

Born in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, Stanislaw Franciszek Musial was the fifth of six children born to Polish immigrants. He impressed scouts and was signed to a minor league contract in 1938 with the Saint Louis Cardinals, at the tender age of 18, mostly based on his potential as a pitcher.

By 1940 he was learning the game at the professional level, and playing in the outfield when not pitching, since he showed hitting promise as well.  But all considered him a pitcher first, especially Stan, himself.

Musial’s vision for his future clouded when he suffered a severe injury to his left shoulder while playing outfield for Kerr’s Islanders in 1940.  As Musial was left-handed his future as a professional pitcher seemed unlikely.

Discouraged, depressed, and now with the responsibilities of supporting a wife and a child on the way, Musial wanted to quit baseball and go find a job in a different career. 

To relieve financial and professional pressure, Kerr invited the young Musial family to live with him and his wife.  And Kerr took the opportunity to encourage Musial to focus on his athletic skills besides pitching.

Re-energized and taking Kerr’s mentorship to heart, Musial took to the 1941 season with gusto. He progressed at a startling, almost unbelievable, rate.  Beginning the spring at C-Level (Springfield, WA) based solely on his hitting and raw athletic potential, he was promoted to AA Level just after mid-season.  He did well enough that he earned a brief 12-game call to the Cardinal’s major league team, where he wowed everyone, hitting .426.

Stan “the Man” Musial played his entire 22 season Major League career with the Cardinals. His career numbers – like Williams’ – could have been even better, had he not been called to serve the cause of FFF (Freedom from Fascism); he lost what surely would have been one of the best years of his career (1945) to World War II.  This is easily inferred: in ’44 Musial batted .346, second best in all major leagues; in ’46 he won the batting title at .365. 

More about Musial’s stats, life and career achievement are easily found on the internet.  It’s not just that all of these are so very impressive, it’s also that he is the most beloved, revered and honored Saint Louis Cardinal of all time. 

When I watched Stan Musial play golf in the heat of that humid Tennessee afternoon, I was kind of surprised by what I observed. 

Yes, he played left-handed just like he batted and threw, and – even at nearly 60 years old – displayed a sort of graceful flair and fluidity.  He still had large, strong shoulders and arms.  And a thick muscular neck. Clearly, he was an athlete.  He was not nearly as tall as I expected, perhaps touching six feet; but he had been a giant in my boyhood imagination.  Although he had a bit of a paunch, he insisted on walking. His shirt was mottled with sweat.  He wore no cap, allowing all to see that he still had a full – if somewhat unmanageable – head of dark hair.  He never smiled, and frequently – unconsciously – swept swaths of hair and sweat off his brow. He did not interact much with fans.

It seemed this crazy game of golf was getting to him.  Here he was, a sports Hall of Fame member, struggling with performance in front of fans, in a silly sport; fans who adored him and anticipated success with nearly every shot. 

I felt sorry for Musial. Even though he was famous, highly accomplished, and had records that would last many generations, he was not having fun.  I guess that’s what surprised me most.  He was not having fun. That’s sad.

Maybe if he’d quit baseball and gotten a job a golf country club, he’d have played better that day.  😉

Probably not.  Even I, at roughly the same age, usually mutter to myself throughout a round of golf. 

Until at least next October, that’s a wrap for World Series and Baseball History.

Wishing you all have a wonderful fall and hoping that you all have some fun every day, even if you’re playing golf.

Peace

Joe  Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

7 thoughts on “Heroes: from Kerr to “The Man””

  1. Gilbert Gutierrez

    After your essay I read up a little about Musial. Wikipedia states Musial bought Kerr a house in Houston in 1958 for 20k to show his gratitude. Musial’s peak salary was 75K from 51-53. I never saw him play but he had a great swing and great stats and seemed to be a gentleman.

  2. MicheLLe Coats

    A fun piece. A bit meandering at times, but what good tale isn’t? A delightful read that can be equated with a stand-up, in-the-park home run. Absolutely no need to slide into home; in fact, I think you should take a victory lap, slapping hands with the crowd in the stands.

    1. Joe Post Author

      Thanks for reading and commenting Michelle. Yes, I usually wander about a bit. That’s why I often call them rambles.
      In the end — hopefully — the reader thinks: well, that actually sort of made sense; I’m glad I read it; and I’m glad it’s over!
      🙂
      [One goal is that long after I’m dead someone could tease out my life story from the tidbits of autobiography tucked into many ramblings.]

  3. Lee

    Excellent essay, as usual. I envy you your knowledge of so many varied subjects and life experiences. I don’t know how you did it in so few years, truly AMAZING!

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