SABR

Ken Silvestri

This article was written by Joe Schuster.

Looking at Ken Silvestri's major-league statistics could leave the impression his baseball career was marginal at best. He played in 102 games in eight seasons spread over 13 years, hit five home runs, and had a .217 batting average. However, by the time he died at 75, in 1992, he had spent more than half a century in the game. In addition to playing for three teams that reached the World Series, he was a minor-league instructor, a major-league pitching coach, and a major-league manager (for three games). He was so beloved by the last organization for which he coached, the players wore an emblem in his honor on their uniform sleeves during the season after he died.

Kenneth Joseph Silvestri was born in Chicago on May 3, 1916, and as a young boy was adopted by Joseph and Florence Silvestri.1 The details of Ken’s birth parents are obscure; according to his son, Ken Silvestri, Jr., Silvestri would never discuss his biological parents. "The one time I asked him about it, all he would say was, 'Joseph and Florence are your grandparents,'" Silvestri Jr., said.2 While the exact date of his adoption is apparently not available, Silvestri's name appears as the son of his adoptive parents in the 1930 Federal Census.3

As a boy he attended Chicago’s Carl Schurz School from the first grade to the eighth grade and then Carl Schurz High School until graduation in 1935.4 Silvestri was a star athlete in high school, earning all-city and all-state honors in football as an end during two seasons, and he received a football scholarship to Purdue University.5 However, Silvestri left Purdue after less than a year and played semipro baseball in Chicago for a season until a White Sox scout saw him and signed him as a catcher.6

The White Sox assigned the six-feet-one, 200-pound switch-hitter to a Class-D affiliate, the Rayne (Louisiana) Rice Birds of the Evangeline League, for the 1936 season. Silvestri was the starting catcher, appearing in 128 games, with a .270 batting average, the second lowest on the team.

Silvestri was back in Rayne in 1937, where he boosted his batting average to .307 and led the league in home runs (23) and runs batted in (123), helping the team to a first-place finish.7

Silvestri’s success convinced the White Sox to promote him in 1938 from their lowest level minor-league team to their highest, the Double-A St. Paul Saints of the American Association. There, he impressed manager Babe Ganzel with his defense, throwing arm, and toughness. A press release from that season issued by the St. Paul team said, "It's a good thing that there are no weak hearts among St. Paul directors, for Silvestri lives dangerously. He had played with St. Paul three weeks before someone told him that base runners are entitled to score now and then on close plays at the plate. Enlightened now, he doesn’t try to be the complete hockey goalie as runners bear down from third, but still manages to enjoy his share of spills."8

The next year Silvestri found himself with the inside track to the starting catcher’s job with the White Sox, who were looking for youth behind the plate.9 Manager Jimmy Dykes pointed to Silvestri as one of the keys to the team's improving on their sixth-place finish in 1938.10

Silvestri came out of spring training as the team's starting catcher and began the season with a rare cockiness for a 22-year-old rookie, getting into trouble on Opening Day with plate umpire Bill McGowan because he complained about McGowan's calls on some of pitcher Johnny Rigney's pitches. Because Silvestri did his complaining quietly, McGowan didn't eject him, but he let Dykes know "he wouldn't tolerate rookie aggressiveness after Opening Day."11

Silvestri kept the starting catcher's job for the first 15 games of the season, despite hitting under .200 for most of the time with only one home run. His streak of starts ended on May 7, when he developed the flu.12 His replacement that day against the Yankees, Mike Tresh, went 2-for-4, then 1-for-3 the next day, and Dykes gave him the starting job thereafter. Silvestri was relegated to a handful of pinch-hit appearances and spot starts as catcher. Finally, on June 27, the White Sox sent him back to St. Paul, where he finished the season.13

Silvestri's abbreviated rookie season was a microcosm of his entire career as a player: high expectations followed by misfortune, bad timing, or losing a roster spot to another player who would have a hot streak.

Silvestri was back with the White Sox for the 1940 season, but Dykes used him in just 28 games, almost exclusively as a pinch hitter. His season was highlighted by two ninth-inning pinch-hit home runs. The first was in a 7–5 White Sox loss to the Yankees on June 5, the second was a walk-off two-run shot in a 4–3 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics on September 12.

On December 31, 1940, the White Sox, who had a surplus of catchers, traded Silvestri to the Yankees for infielder Billy Knickerbocker.14 Because the Yankees still had Bill Dickey, they saw Silvestri primarily as a pinch-hitter who would double as a batting-practice and bullpen catcher.15 As expected, Silvestri had limited playing time for the 1941 Yankees, appearing in only seventeen games. Part of the reason Silvestri saw so little action that year was that in May he underwent an emergency appendectomy.16

Although the Yankees reached the World Series, defeating the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games, Silvestri did not play in any of the games. In fact, Silvestri didn't play a single professional game over the next four seasons: On December 3 he passed his physical and entered the army the next day, three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.17 Silvestri reportedly did not mind getting the call, telling a reporter, "I'm all set to be one of the $21 a month guys, but I'm not complaining."18

Silvestri spent more than four years in the army. After several postings in the United States, he was sent to the Pacific as part of the 577th Service Company and was based first in New Guinea and then Yokohama, Japan, not long after the Japanese surrendered.19 On his discharge in November 1945 Silvestri was a first sergeant.20

In 1946, Silvestri was back with the Yankees, but appeared in only thirteen games. After the season, on November 16, he married Rose Markov.21 The couple had one son, Kenneth Silvestri, Jr., born in Chicago on April 10, 1952.22 According to Ken Jr., his parents met during a game at Comiskey Park: "My grandfather, Peter Markov, was a big White Sox fan who lived a block from the ballpark. He often took my mother [Rose] to a game and one day when they had good seats, she and my father started talking."23

The next year, 1947, was Silvestri's last in New York. The team’s primary catcher was now Aaron Robinson, and behind him, and ahead of Silvestri, were Yogi Berra, Ralph Houk, and Sherm Lollar.24 Silvestri got into just three games. Reportedly, the White Sox were interested in reacquiring him but when he cleared waivers, New York sent him to their Class Triple-A club in Kansas City.25

Silvestri spent the balance of 1947 with Kansas City before the Yankees assigned him to their International League team, the Newark Bears, for 1948. Despite hitting just .218 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs, he was named to the league's All Star team.26

The Philadelphia Phillies chose Silvestri in the 1948 Rule 5 draft, because they saw him as someone who could help their pitching staff and defense. Phillies farm director Joe Reardon said, "This guy is the kind of a catcher who takes charge of the ballgame. He's aggressive, smart. . . . He's a catcher who runs his ballgames. He'll help us plenty."27

Silvestri spent the next three years with Philadelphia team, but again saw limited playing time. From 1949 through 1951, he appeared in only nineteen games. However, he did have an impact on the team. In 1950, when the Phillies won the National League pennant, Silvestri was a steadying influence and unofficial coach for the team's young pitching staff.

A sportswriter called him "operating head of the bullpen," and described specifically his work with rookie starter Bubba Church: "[Church's] place, day after day, was in the bullpen, under Silvestri's psychological treatment."28

After the 1951 season, Silvestri's last as a major-league player, he spent the next forty years in baseball, as a scout, minor-league instructor, manager, player-manager, and major-league coach. During the off-seasons, he worked a variety of jobs; he was a store detective for Sears, a bartender, and an insurance salesman, among others.29

In the game, he spent the bulk of the 1950s coaching and managing in the lowest levels of the Yankees' farm system. In 1959–60, he was the Phillies’ bullpen coach, before moving to the Braves organization, first as a coach for their Class Triple-A team in Louisville in 1961–2 and then as bullpen coach for the Milwaukee and then the Atlanta Braves from 1963–75.

In 1967 Silvestri spent three days—the final weekend of an abysmal season for the Braves—as interim manager, replacing Billy Hitchcock. The Braves went 0-3 during Silvestri's brief tenure, after which he returned to the bullpen as coach for the Braves through the end of the 1975 season. In that capacity, he witnessed an historic moment in baseball history: Henry Aaron's record-breaking 715th career home run in the Braves 1974 home opener.

The event moved Silvestri: "Atlanta bullpen coach Ken Silvestri, a grizzled veteran, was sentimental," an Associated Press reporter wrote. "'It brought a few tears to my eyes. I was crying a bit and I felt like going up to Hank and saying, ‘Now we both can retire.’"30

In 1976 Silvestri returned to his original baseball home, the White Sox, when the team hired him as a combination bullpen and pitching coach.31 However, after the White Sox finished the season in last place in the American League West, the team fired manager Paul Richards and either fired or reassigned the entire coaching staff; Silvestri ended up a minor-league instructor.32

Six years later, at the start of the 1982 season, the organization replaced him and Silvestri, then 65, went home to Tallahassee, Florida, "presumably retired."33 Midway through the season, the White Sox fired pitching coach Ron Schueler and manager Tony LaRussa offered the job to Silvestri on an interim basis.34

Silvestri, however, did not attack the job as if he were just a placeholder for half a season. As The Sporting News put it roughly a month into his tenure, "No one expected a sixty-six-year-old career baseball man to do much with a struggling young staff. Silvestri surprised them all, coming in with a nothing-to-lose attitude. He told the pitchers exactly what was on his mind, which wasn't always fun to hear. . .” His toughness paid off: In the first eighteen games after he took over, the White Sox went 15-3 with a 2.55 earned run average, more than a run lower than it had been under Schueler.35

When the season ended, however, he went back to being a scout and a minor-league instructor. He remained with the White Sox until his death in Tallahassee on March 31, 1992, from pancreatic cancer, a disease he learned he had only three months before.36 His wife had died in 1984, also in Tallahassee.37 Silvestri is buried in his home state at Mount Carmel Cemetery, Hillside, Illinois.

 

Notes

1 Florence (Horn) Daley Silvestri was Ken's biological mother. Ken's father was John Daley, born Chicago about 1881. Florence, apparently divorced, married Joseph Silvestri about 1927. It was Joseph who adopted Kenneth (whether officially or not) and, evidently, changed his middle name to Joseph. He was born Kenneth L. Daley.

2 Author interview with Kenneth Silvestri, Jr., March 28, 2011.

3 U.S. Census Bureau, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Census Place: Chicago, Cook, Illinois: Roll: 474; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 1376.

4 Silvestri player questionnaire at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

5Kenan Heise, "Ken Silvestri, ex-catcher, White Sox pitching coach," Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1992.

6 Silvestri player questionnaire.

7 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993).

8 St. Paul Saints press release.

9 Irving Vaughn. "Dykes Has Mind Made Up on His Staf (sic) of Hurlers," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 9, 1939.

10 Irving Vaughn. "Sox End Camp Labor Today; It's 'Play Ball' from Now On," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 16, 1939.

11 Irving Vaughan. "Mud Is Too Deep, So Sox, Tigers Have Day's Rest," Chicago Daily Tribune, April 20, 1939.

12 Irving Vaughan, "Yankees Blast Out 19 Hits Off 3 Sox Pitchers," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 8, 1939.

13 "Sox Assign Lee to Face Browns and Harris Today," Chicago Daily Tribune, June 28, 1939.

14 "Yankees Trade Knickerbocker," New York World-Telegram, December 31, 1940.

15 Rud Rennie, "Silvestri Valued by Yankees for His Pinch-Hitting Power," New York Herald-Tribune, March 29, 1941.

16 "Silvestri Rests Well After Appendectomy," New York World Telegram, May 19, 1941.

17 "From Army Front," The Sporting News, December 11, 1941.

18 "Ken Silvestri Enters Army," New York World-Telegram, December 4, 1941.

19 "Where Have You Been: Silvestri Was on Leyte Under Gen. Eichelberger," New York World-Telegram, May 18, 1946.

20 "Silvestri Again Civilian," The New York Times, November 20, 1945.

21 Silvestri player questionnaire.

22 Silvestri Jr. interview.

23 Ibid. The distance was actually five blocks.

24 "Dressen, Ban Lifted, Aids Harris, New York World-Telegram, May 15, 1947.

25 Ibid.

26 James Selko. Minor League All Star Teams, 1922-1962 (Jefferson, North

Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007).

27 "Silvestri Big Factor in '49 Phillies Plans," Bradford (Pennsylvania) Era, February 24, 1949.

28 Frank Yeutte. "Church-Answer to Phil's Prayer: Silvestri's bullpen sermons pay off," Baseball Digest, August 1951, 15.

29 Silvestri Jr. interview.

30 "Pressure? Aaron stopped it quickly," Long Beach (California) Press-Telegram, April 5, 1974.

31 Jerome Holtzman, "White Sox Tap Silvestri to Complete Coaching Staff," The Sporting News, February 14, 1976.

32 "Doby, Knoop, Williams New ChiSox Coaches," The Sporting News, December 11, 1976.

33 Jerome Holtzman. "Sox recycle Ken Silvestri as pitching coach," Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1982.

34 Ibid.

35 "Hatch's Plan Talk Sharpens Pitching," The Sporting News, August 30, 1982.,

36 Silvestri Jr. interview.

37 Ibid.

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