SABR

Whitey Kurowski

This article was written by Rick Swaine.

George John "Whitey" Kurowski was born on April 19, 1918, in Reading, Pennsylvania, to Anthony and Victoria Kurowski, the sixth of ten children. He got his nickname early in life because his hair was already snow white. When he was seven years old, he fell off a fence and landed in a pile of broken glass, cutting his right arm. Blood poisoning developed and turned into osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone. There were fears that the youngster's arm would have to be amputated, but doctors saved it by removing about four inches of infected bone and tissue from the ulna, the inside and longer of the two bones in the forearm. The result was a deformed, misshapen limb that was several inches shorter than his left arm when Kurowski grew to adulthood.

After his injury, Whitey simply wouldn't allow his wounded arm to keep him from playing ball and developed powerful muscles to compensate for the missing bone. He played softball five nights a week and then played baseball on weekends from morning till night. In high school and American Legion baseball he started concentrating on third base despite the fact that the position requires a better throwing arm than most others.

Because his right arm was shorter than his left, the right-handed hitter had difficulty reaching pitches on the outside part of the plate. Therefore, he had to crowd the plate which caused him to be plunked frequently by inside pitches. The disfigurement also forced him to turn his right wrist over when he swung the bat, making him a dead left field hitter. He was such a pull-hitter that second basemen often played him on the shortstop side of the base when he reached the major leagues.

Kurowski's hometown of Reading was in the middle of the Pennsylvania coal-mining region, and his father was a miner. Like many other young men raised in the area, Whitey wanted no part of the mines, especially after his older brother was killed in a mine cave-in when Whitey was a teenager. Baseball seemed to be his ticket out, but scouts were leery of his maimed throwing arm. Initially he didn't get any offers after high school. But in 1937 Harrison Wickel, manager of the Caruthersville team in the Class D Northeast Arkansas League, was from the Reading area and gave the 19-year-old a shot. A .339 batting average started him on his way, and a league leading .386 mark the next year for Portsmouth in the Mid-Atlantic League solidified his status as a prospect in the St. Louis Cardinal's farm system.

Kurowski, who developed into a stocky 5'11", 193-pounder with thick legs and surprising speed, spent the next three years as the regular third baseman for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings in the International League hitting .291, .279, and .288, stealing 47 bases and belting 39 homers. In the closing weeks of the hotly contested 1941 pennant race he was called up along with Rochester teammate Stan Musial to join the parent Cardinals for the stretch run. Musial's .426 average and Kurowski's .333 mark in limited action weren't enough to enable the Cards to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the off-season Whitey married Joan Setley, from his hometown of Reading.

In the spring of 1942, while Whitey was fighting to win his first big league job, his father died of a heart attack. The 24-year-old had to leave the team to attend to funeral arrangements in the middle of spring training, but he returned to wrestle the third base job from veteran Jimmy Brown. With Musial taking over in left field, the two rookies helped drive the Cardinals to the National League pennant and a World Series victory over the heavily favored New York Yankees.

Kurowski was the Series hero. He blasted a homer run off future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing in the top of the ninth inning to break a 2-2 tie in the seventh game. After the Cardinals' victory, Whitey led the celebration by playfully ruffling the proud white mane of the Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and tearing National League President Ford Frick's hat to shreds. He also led the team in a rousing chorus of "Pass the Biscuits Miranda," their victory anthem that season.

Kurowski was an integral part of a Cardinal dynasty that would bring the World Championship to St. Louis in 1942, 1944, and 1946. He was part of a wave of young stars who emerged from the organization's vast farm system in the early 1940's. The group that included Musial, Marty Marion, Walker and Mort Cooper, Max Lanier, Ernie White, Johnny Beazley, Murry Dickson, Howie Pollet, Johnny Hopp, Ray Sanders, Harry Walker, Harry Brecheen, and others.

From 1943 through 1947 Kurowski established himself as one of the finest third baseman in baseball and made the National League all-star team every year except 1945, when the All-Star Game was suspended because of the war. He was named to the 1945 major league all-star team selected by the Sporting News.

The gritty, underrated third baseman also made his mark as a consummate team player. The Cardinals' owner Sam Breadon was a notorious skinflint when it came to player salaries and before the 1946 season, Kurowski was involved in a bitter pay dispute before finally accepting the club's offer. Meanwhile, the outlaw Mexican League had begun raiding major league rosters. The league's owners, the Pascual brothers, had targeted the Cardinals because of the club's abundance of talent and low salaries. In May star pitcher Max Lanier, second baseman Lou Klein and rookie pitcher Fred Martin took off for Mexico and rumors were flying that Kurowski, Stan Musial, and other Cardinal stars would soon follow.

Kurowski took it upon himself to call a clubhouse meeting to clear the air. He told his teammates that he'd talked to Mexican League representatives and that he believed in getting every cent he was worth, but he felt honor-bound to fulfill his St. Louis contract. He urged them to put the Mexican League business behind them and concentrate on winning the pennant. The players knew that Kurowski was no front office lackey, that he had battled the club and was dissatisfied with his salary. So his words meant something, and they apparently took them to heart. The Cardinals overtook the Dodgers to capture the National League pennant and then went on to defeat the powerful Boston Red Sox in the 1946 World Series.

Because Kurowski's osteomyelitis made him ineligible for military service, he is sometimes erroneously tagged as a wartime player who benefited from a lower level of competition. But 1947 was actually his best year, although the Cardinals had to settle for a second place finish. With future Hall of Fame teammates Musial, Schoendienst, and Enos Slaughter having off seasons, Kurowski carried the Cards offense much of the time. In 146 games he hit .310 and compiled a .420 on-base percentage, third highest in the league behind Augie Galan of the Reds and batting champ Harry Walker of the Phillies. He slammed 27 homers, scored 108 runs, drove in 104 and walked 87 times - all career highs. In the National League Most Valuable Player voting that year, Boston Braves third baseman Bob Elliott captured the award with figures that were remarkably similar to Kurowski's numbers. Elliott batted .317, hit 22 homers, scored 93 runs, drove in 113, and drew 87 bases on balls for the third place Braves. In addition, Elliott's .956 fielding average was only slightly better than Kurowski's .954 percentage, but for some reason Whitey finished a distant ninth in the MVP balloting.

That was Kurowski's last full season as a big league player. Although it was not publicized, his patched-up throwing arm had bothered him throughout his career. The condition caused pinched nerves and muscle damage, and he underwent thirteen operations on the arm so he could continue playing. But in 1948 his arm problems became so severe that he was limited to just 65 games in the field and a disappointing .214 batting average.

Kurowski's favorite saying, "Putting We Ahead of I," was put to the test in the spring of 1949. During his injury-plagued 1948 season, word had filtered down through the Cardinals farm system that they were looking for a replacement at the hot corner. One of their top prospects, Eddie Kazak, a second baseman for six minor league campaigns, was shifted to third base when Kurowski started to falter. Despite the fact that Kazak was competing for his job, Whitey worked hard to teach the rookie the finer points of third base play and was rewarded when Kazak was named the National League's starting third baseman for the 1949 All-Star Game.

While his protégé was starring in St. Louis, Kurowski spent most of the 1949 campaign trying to rehabilitate his arm with Houston in the Texas League, but it failed to come around. For the season he hit only .143 in 10 games with the Cardinals and .233 for Houston. At age 31, when most players are still in their prime, he was through as a player.

Kurowski accepted an offer to manage the Cardinals' Lynchburg farm club in the Piedmont League for the 1950 season and began a long and successful career as a minor league manager and coach. He managed and coached in the Cardinals' organization for more than a decade before moving to the New York Mets when that franchise started. Although he was basically through as an active player after 1949, he made occasional minor league appearances up until the 1959 season. That year his successful pinch-hitting appearance for Billings at the age of 41 resulted in a 1.000 batting average for his final season as a player.

Kurowski's managing career included a stint as skipper of his hometown Reading club in the Cleveland Indians system and ended in 1972 after a few disappointing seasons in the Carolina League. After leaving baseball, he worked for Berks County as a sealer of weights and measures before retiring from that post in 1980.

In retirement, Kurowski lived in Shillington, a suburb of Reading. He was an avid golfer and a tireless autograph signer who took great pleasure in signing for fans. He died on December 9, 1999, leaving behind his wife Joan, two sons, two daughters, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

During his career with the Cardinals Kurowski never played on a team that finished below second place. His lifetime batting average was a fine .286, with a career high of .323 in 1945 that tied for the fourth highest mark in the major leagues. From 1943 through 1947 he finished among the top ten in the league in home runs each season, and from 1945 through 1947 he finished among the top ten hitters in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, total bases, and runs batted in every year. He led National League third sackers in putouts three times, in fielding twice, and in assists and double plays once. He forged a 22-game hitting streak in 1943 and was a hero of the 1946 playoff. Although known as a free swinger throughout his career, he posted respectable bases-on-balls totals. Despite these accomplishments he was overshadowed by more illustrious teammates, and his best finish in balloting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award was a fifth place finish in 1945.

Kurowski held the Cardinals' record for most homers in a month with twelve until Mark McGwire came along. His three years with Rochester resulted in his selection as the third baseman on the all-time Rochester Red Wing squad. He was also inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports and Polish-American hall of fame.


Note

This biography is an adaptation of a Whitey Kurowski profile from Beating the Breaks: Major League Ballplayers Who Overcame Disabilities by Rick Swaine, McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004.


Sources: Books

Craft, David and Tom Owens, Redbirds Revisited: Great Memories and Stories from St. Louis Cardinals. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1990.

Gilbert, Bill, They Also Served: Baseball and the Home Front 1941-45. New York: Crown, 1992.

Golenbock, Peter, The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, New York, Harper Collins, 2000.

Mead, William B., The 10 Worst Years of Baseball: The Zany, True Story of Baseball in the Forties. New York: Van Nostrand, Reinhold, 1978.

Rains, Rob, The St. Louis Cardinals: 100th Anniversary. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Swaine, Rick, Beating the Breaks: Major League Ballplayers Who Overcame Disabilities. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. Inc., 2004.

Turner, Frederick, When the Boys Came Back: Baseball and 1946. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996.

Westcott, Rich, Diamond Greats: Profiles and Interviews with 65 of Baseball's History Makers. Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Books, 1988.


Sources: Articles

Manning, Gordon, "Kazak Spelled Backwards is Kazak." Collier's, September 17, 1949.

"Whitey Kurowski, All-Star ballplayer." (Obituary) The Reading Eagle/Reading Times, December 10, 1999.


Sources: Other

Family background information supplied by Whitey Kurowski's son George J. Kurowski.

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