Area native one of the oldest living major leaguers
The New York Yankees are history’s greatest professional sports franchise. I loved reading about those who wore the pin stripes, their feats and their personalities. I was born less than a mile from Yankee Stadium, which probably added to my interest. My first baseball game was the Yanks and the Tigers when I was 8 years old. I’ll never forget walking up the ramp at Tiger Stadium and reaching the grandstand and peering at the entire well-manicured green field — it was the best thing next to heaven.
Television broadcasts do an injustice to the sport of baseball. Unlike football where you can see both teams line up, or basketball where you can see all 10 players in action, baseball cameras focus on the pitcher, batter, and catcher. When you are actually at a game you get a greater perspective by being able to see the entire field of play, all the fielders in positions, and if there are base runners you see their every motion.
This first game I saw Yogi Berra was in the twilight of his career when he hit a high towering fly ball that continued to come toward me in the right field stands. The large crowd sounded an “uh-wow” as the ball landed in the upper deck. I jumped up and cheered, and the next thing I knew I was drenched in orange pop thrown from above. I learned a valuable lesson: not to root for the Yanks at Tiger Stadium.
I followed the Yanks through high school, even though they faltered greatly through the late 1960s. I loved reading their box scores in the morning Detroit Free Press, and listening to their night games on WOR on my transistor radio. It was about that time I learned that a former Yankee player named Bob Kuzava was living on Grosse Ile. I was ecstatic, and thought maybe someday I could meet Bob and talk baseball with him, and eventually the opportunity came true, some 20 years later.
I met Bob when he was delivering beer, introducing myself and talking for a few minutes. Bob stated, “This is my second career.” I politely interrupted, “I’m very familiar with your first career, as a major league pitcher.”
Indeed it was quite a career — Bob experienced playing on and contributing quite significantly with the New York Yankees of the early 1950s, who were the greatest team in history, winning five consecutive world championships. In 1951, Bob was privileged to be on the same team as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. During his Yankee stint, Bob Kuzava was managed by Casey Stengel, and his battery mate was Lawrence Yogi Berra, two baseball icons made even more famous for their linguistics and use of double talk.
I can imagine what it was like during a conference on the mound for Bob when Casey and Yogi were on the mound. I’m sure it was all business, but even in the heat of a game Yogi could say the craziest things. In one game a foul ball was hit near the stands. Yogi Berra, a three time MVP, made an acrobatic catch. A pretty lady sitting in the first row said, “Wow, Yogi, you’re real cool!” Yogi looked at her and responded, “You’re not so hot yourself!”
It is said Casey Stengel was a mediocre manager for years with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves and became an instant “genius” when he managed the Yankees from 1949-1960, winning 10 pennants and seven World Series.
Stengel made the platoon system popular strategy in baseball, right versus lefty. In 1960 Casey was dismissed from the Yankees for being too old, and in 1962 became young again and hired as the newly formed New York Mets’ first manager. The first player drafted by the Mets was a veteran catcher, Allen Park’s Hobie Landrith, whose brother Bob was a longtime resident of Trenton. When asked why this catcher was selected first, surprisingly because Landrith wasn’t the prototype first pick, Casey answered, “You are not able to play baseball without a catcher,” inferring that a pitched ball would either hit the umpire or sail to the back stop.
Casey Stengel was always on a different wavelength. Mr. Stengel was so focused on managing and observing players on the field that he would become oblivious to his surroundings. Bob Kuzava remembers the time Casey called for a certain pinch hitter, not knowing that the player was at the other end of the dugout sound asleep. Barely able to open his eyes, the utility infielder walked to the batter’s box and proceeded to take three straight pitches for called strikes without moving the bat off his shoulder, then walked back to the same corner of the dugout and went back to sleep the remainder of the game.
Bob Kuzava played on eight different teams: Cleveland, Chicago White Sox, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and, of course, the Yankees. Baseball brought fame to players in Bob’s era but not fortune like today. Players had to supplement their income in the off-season as well as after their pro careers were over. That’s why Bob delivered beer — you won’t see Miggy Cabrera driving a truck, since he could probably own all the breweries in Venezuela.
Bob accomplished a great deal during his pro ball career. In 1942 he won 21 games in the minor leagues. This is significant considering minor league seasons are generally a month shorter in length. In 1943, baseball for Bob was interrupted by World War II, where he rose to the rank of Sergeant and earned the nickname “Sarge” on the ball field.
Interestingly, during Bob’s years with the Yanks, the backup catcher to Yogi Berra was Ralph Houk (a name familiar in Tiger history). Houk served in the Army Rangers and became a Major — this may be the only time in baseball to have an all officer battery combo.
In 1949 while with the White Sox, Bob had a brush with baseball immortality. He pitched a no-hitter into the ninth inning of a game until with one out a hit spoiled his bid. In 1951 and 1952 Bob cemented his place in baseball history by pitching the Yankees to victory. Bob is the only pitcher to be credited with consecutive saves in the deciding games in two World Series in a row. That will be a record that will stand, maybe forever.
The following is Bob’s crowning achievement, and I didn’t know it until his daughter Diane brought it to my attention this year. This Wyandotte native is a member in the Polish Hall of Fame, and at age 93 is one of the oldest living major league players.
The second oldest broadcast in existence of a major league game is game seven between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees and the full game can be viewed on YouTube. If you watch closely you’ll notice that the gloves and mitts are on the ground, because in those days the players left them on the field and didn’t bring them in the dugout. This broadcast is a bit long, so you can fast forward to the later innings and see our Bob Kuzava save the day for the Yankees!
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he frequently shares recollections about some of the interesting people and businesses in Trenton’s past.