One-Time Member of the Tribe, Left-Hander Bob Kuzava, Passes Away at 93
Bob Toth | On 29, May 2017
Bob Kuzava, a member of the Cleveland Indians starting rotation in September of 1946 and 1947, passed away on May 15 in Wyandotte, Michigan. He was less than two weeks short of his 94th birthday.
Kuzava joined the Indians organization prior to the 1941 season and put up impressive numbers on the farm in 1942 at the age of 19, but it was off to the war effort for the southpaw, derailing what looked to be a promising start to his professional career. Three years were spent serving with the U.S. Army during World War II and in his early 20’s, he reached the rank of Sergeant. The nickname “Sarge” would follow him throughout his days.
He returned to the pro game in 1946 and compiled a 14-6 record with a 2.36 ERA in 26 starts for Wilkes-Barre when he got the call from the Indians. In a tough matchup against Detroit’s Paul “Dizzy” Trout on September 21, he limited the Tigers to just four hits (but walked seven) over eight innings of work, giving up three runs, but just one of which was earned. The Tribe would give up two runs to Detroit in the eleventh inning to fall 5-3 in the final game at League Park, putting the young left-hander’s name in the record books as the last Indians pitcher to start at their longtime home.
Kuzava got one more start in his debut season, facing the Tigers again, but this time doing it closer to home at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium on September 27. He got the win in a 9-8 ball game, allowing four runs on five hits with four walks in four innings in his start, with Bob Feller getting credit for a five-inning save despite allowing four runs on just one hit. The game was more notable in that Feller matched the modern Major League strikeout record that day with his six strikeouts in relief, equaling Rube Waddell’s 343, set in 1904 while with the Philadelphia Athletics. The day was memorable for Kuzava personally, as in addition to making his second Major League start and doing it in Detroit, he was honored by his hometown of Wyandotte as its mayor, Lewis Brohl, declared the day “Kuzava Day”. The Indians left-hander was presented with a watch, a radio, a luggage set, and a lifetime membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
As the 1947 season neared, he was thought to be one of three southpaws in spring camp who could give the Indians pitching staff some left-handed strength, as he was joined by Les Willis and Gene Bearden, the latter of whom would have his own run-in with history just one season later. Kuzava appeared to be a front-runner to make the staff in March, but as the calendar flipped to April and the season began, manager Lou Boudreau was unable to find opportunities for Kuzava to get regular work and the team optioned him to their minor league Baltimore affiliate in the International League.
“I haven’t been in a position to give Kuzava a chance to pitch and the boy, a hard worker if ever I saw one, will be better off with the Orioles taking a regular turn,” Boudreau shared with The Plain Dealer in a story on April 30, 1947.
While opportunities seemed to present themselves throughout the season after the contract of Roger Wolff was sold to Pittsburgh in June and rainouts had the list of pending doubleheaders at an absurd amount, Kuzava remained in Baltimore. He finally made his return to the Indians roster on September 3 and threw five innings in a no-decision against the Chicago White Sox in what would be his only start in Cleveland. He would appear three more times on the road, pitching into the eighth inning in a tie game against the Philadelphia Athletics on September 14 before firing his first career shutout in a 4-0 defeat of the Washington Senators, when he allowed just five hits and a walk while striking out five. He made a final start on September 25, but gave up four hits to the first four batters that he faced and exited the contest, a 4-3 loss by the Tribe to the St. Louis Browns.
He would not know it at the time, but it would be his final regular season start in an Indians uniform.
Kuzava came to Indians camp in 1948 in a crowded mix of options for an unsettled rotation and pitching staff as a whole that consisted of Feller and the unproven Bob Lemon after the retirement of Mel Harder. His chief competition included southpaws Bearden and Bill Kennedy and right-handers Cal Dorsett, Mike Garcia, Steve Gromek, Ernest Groth, Edgar Jones, Lyman Linde, Dick Rozek, and Les Webber, with four spots up for grabs beyond the established collection in tow. Russ Christopher and Charley “Butch” Wensloff would be added into that battle before the season started, and Kuzava would last just seven games into the 1948 season with no appearances under his belt before he was optioned back to Baltimore again.
For the first time in his minor league career, Kuzava struggled. Meanwhile, the big league club rotated through several pitching options and made several moves along the way to supplement the staff and rotation, adding in Sam Zoldak and Satchel Paige. The Indians went 97-58, knocking off the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff for the American League pennant before defeating the Boston Braves in six games to win the franchise’s second title.
Kuzava went 9-16 with a 4.83 ERA in 30 games with Baltimore. In December, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox with Groth for left-hander Frank Papish. It would be eight years before he pitched in another minor league game.
Given an opportunity to pitch regularly with the second division club, Kuzava finished the season with the best winning percentage on the White Sox staff, going 10-6 on the year in 29 games (18 starts) with nine complete games and one shutout. Control problems still plagued him as he averaged more than five walks per inning, but he was second on the staff with 83 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings of work. He started 1950 with the club and was 1-3 in 10 starts with a 5.68 ERA when he was dealt to Washington on the final day of May with Cass Michaels and Johnny Ostrowski for Al Kozar, Eddie Robinson, and Ray Scarborough. He made 22 starts for the Senators, going 8-7 with a 3.95 ERA.
He was an early season trade participant again in 1951, when the Senators sent him to the New York Yankees in June for three players – Tom Ferrick, Bob Porterfield, and Fred Sanford – all while the southpaw was still on crutches. Kuzava had torn his Achilles when stepped on by his former teammate Nellie Fox while trying to cover first base to complete a double play, but New York needed a left-hander for their bullpen in the most desperate of ways and felt that he could be the answer. Pitching for shorter lengths could allow the team to utilize Kuzava while not fully recovered.
“He [New York general manager George Weiss] wanted me to pitch, right away,” said Kuzava in a June 12, 2003, story in the Detroit Free Press. “I told him I couldn’t, that I was still on crutches. He said, “What?” He got to New York and they had three docs look at me. When I started to get better, Jim Turner, the pitching coach, told me to get ready quick and that’s how I got to the ‘pen. I was a spot starter for them, but mainly I was their left hand closer. Allie Reynolds was their right hand closer.
“I didn’t think that trade would stand up. I was damaged goods.”
The move would be a great one for Kuzava, as in his first three and a half months after his trade to the Big Apple, he went 8-4 with a 2.40 ERA working primarily as a reliever. He made his first trip to the playoffs that season as the Yankees defeated the New York Giants in six games. With a tendency to participate in some historic moments already in his career, he made his first career postseason appearance in the ninth inning of Game 6 in a 4-1 game, taking over for Johnny Sain. He gave up back-to-back sacrifice flies to Monte Irvin and Bobby Thomson to make it a 4-3 game, but got Sal Yvars to line out to clinch the title and earn the save.
Kuzava called New York home longer than any other city during his playing career and received plenty of hardware for his service. He went 8-8 in 28 appearances in 1952 and was back in the postseason for the powerhouse Bronx Bombers for a second consecutive season. He was again the last man standing for the club on the mound, making his lone appearance in Game 7 of the series with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The lefty entered in relief of Vic Raschi in the bottom of the seventh with the bases once again loaded and only one out. This time, he retired Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson on pop ups in the infield to leave the score at 4-2. He would face ten batters in total, striking out two and allowing just one runner to reach on an error as the Yankees held on for the 4-2 win while Kuzava earned another title-clinching save.
In his third year in the big city, he went 6-5 with a 3.31 ERA while still excelling in his relief role. The Yankees excelled on the field as well and it was a third straight trip to the World Series for the squad. This time, Kuzava got to enter in a less stressful situation, if such a thing exists in postseason play. Appearing in Game 5 with the series tied at two and with an 11-6 lead, Kuzava gave up a leadoff homer to Brooklyn’s Jim Gilliam before getting a flyout by Pee Wee Reese. A single by Snider spelled the end of his outing and the former Indians pitcher Reynolds got a double play to second by Robinson to earn the save and send the series on to its sixth game. The Yankees would win that game, bringing home a third straight title for Kuzava and his teammates.
He started 1954 with New York, but a rough start saw him return to Baltimore again – but not in a farm situation this time, as the Orioles had become a Major League city with the move of the St. Louis Browns to Maryland. After being claimed off of waivers by the O’s, he pitched in parts of that season and the first month of the 1955 season before he was claimed by the Philadelphia Phillies.
He spent 1956 back in the minors for the first time since 1948 as a member of the Columbus Jets, but returned to the Majors for two innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates and two and one-third frames with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957. He concluded his playing career with time with the White Sox’s minor league affiliates from 1959 to 1960 and served as the Class-A Charleston team’s third manager in that latter season.
When his playing days were over, he did not venture too far away from the sport as he spent time working in baseball as a Major League scout (Milwaukee, 1963; Kansas City, 1966) and a pitching coach (with Atlanta in 1965). In January of 1964, he curiously and surprisingly received a single Hall of Fame vote on the ballot, possibly a result of his two World Series clinchers.
When his time in the game ended, he returned to Michigan, where he worked as a salesman for Carling Black Label beer. A baseball field was named after him in Wyandotte. In 2003, he was elected to the Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. His Yankees number 21 has been out of circulation for much of the last 16 years, last worn briefly by Morgan Ensberg and LaTroy Hawkins in 2008, but it appears to be destined for retirement to honor Paul O’Neill’s nine years in pinstripes and not so much the four seasons of relief work by Kuzava.
He made at least one return visit to Cleveland with baseball in mind after his time as a paid employee of the game was over. He was on the roster of participants for an Equitable Old-Timers game between Cleveland and New York in July of 1990 as a member of the Yankees. His former manager in Cleveland, Boudreau, led the Indians roster with the help of coach Harder, whose number 18 was to be retired as part of the festivities. The names Feller, Larry Doby, Jim Grant, Jim Perry, Sam McDowell, Herb Score, Gary Bell, Tito Francona, Max Alvis, Eddie Leon, Jack Heidemann, Joe Charboneau, Rick Manning, and John Ellis made up the Cleveland lineup.
Kuzava passed on May 15, 2017, at the age of 93, with a birthday less than two weeks away on May 28. He is survived by his wife of 74 years, Dona, two daughters, and two sons. A memorial service is planned for Sunday, June 4, 2017, in his Wyandotte hometown.
Photo: James T. Elder Postcards set (via COMC.com)