SABR

Steve Kuczek

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Stanislaw "Steve" Kuczek had a brief one-game major league career in which he compiled a 1.000 career batting average via a quirk appearance with the 1949 Boston Braves. Kuczek achieved his perfect 1-for-1 major league batting record when he pinch-hit in the last inning of a rain-shortened, late-season game for Connie Ryan. Ryan had been ejected from the contest for protesting the poor weather conditions by wearing a rain slicker in the on-deck circle.

Kuczek was born on December 28, 1924, in Amsterdam, a small city in upstate New York about twenty-five miles northwest of Albany. He was one of seven children born to Joseph and Agnes Witek Kuczek, who both hailed from families of Polish heritage. His father worked as a machine repairman for the Mohawk Carpet Mill.

After playing baseball at Wilber Lynch High School in Amsterdam, Kuczek served in the Army during World War II and played some baseball while in Europe. Following his military discharge, Kuczek attended Colgate University in central New York. At Colgate, Kuczek played baseball for four years, 1946-1949, as a shortstop under the tutelage of coach Eppy Barnes, and captained the team during his senior year.

Kuczek graduated from Colgate in the spring of 1949 and signed with the Boston Braves on June 17 through the efforts of scout Dewey Griggs. The Braves assigned Kuczek, then age 24, to its Hartford farm team in the Class A Eastern League. After he reported to the Hartford team on June 23, Kuczek was used very sparingly, mostly as a pinch hitter.

In late July, Kuczek was sent down to the Braves farm team at Pawtucket in the Class B New England League. At Pawtucket, Kuczek started at shortstop and helped the Slaters secure first place during the second half of the NEL schedule. When Pawtucket bowed out of the NEL playoffs in the first round, the Braves recalled Kuczek on September 8 to join the team for the last month of the National League season.

With Al Dark the regular Braves shortstop in 1949 as the team sought to repeat its 1948 pennant-winning success, Kuczek was forced to sit on the Braves bench after his recall. As the 1949 season wound to its conclusion, with the Dodgers battling the Cardinals for the National League pennant, Kuczek finally received his one chance to perform in a major league game on the dark and dreary Thursday afternoon. It was September 29 in the second game of a doubleheader at Braves Field against the pennant-bound Dodgers.

"I got a double off Don Newcombe in that fiasco of a game," Kuczek recalled in 1997 about his lone major league appearance.

The doubleheader that day was an extremely important set of games for the Dodgers, since they had begun the day one game behind the Cardinals with just four games to play. In the first game, Brooklyn defeated Boston 9-2 in a drizzling rain. While the rainy conditions worsened by the start of the second game and darkness began to set in, plate umpire George Barr went ahead to start the second game. The Dodgers jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the sloppy conditions, and by the fifth inning the weather had deteriorated significantly.

Many observers at Braves Field felt the game should have been stopped under such terrible playing conditions, which would have prevented a Dodger victory in a close pennant race. "Under normal conditions the second game never would have gone the legal limit," the Boston Herald commented. "It rained throughout the game, the infield was muddy and batters on both sides admitted that it was extremely difficult to follow the pitches."

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Tommy Holmes stepped into the batter's box to lead off the inning for the Braves, as the next batter, Connie Ryan, approached the on-deck circle wearing a rain slicker to signal umpire Barr what he thought of the playing conditions. When Barr ejected Ryan from the game for the insubordinate act, Braves manager Billy Southworth selected Kuczek from the bench to pinch-hit for Ryan, figuring Kuczek could replace Ryan at shortstop if Barr continued the game into the sixth inning. "In addition to Ryan wearing a raincoat to bat," Kuczek remembered of the curious happenings that day, "somebody in the dugout had built a bonfire on the steps of the dugout."

After Holmes singled to lead off the fifth inning, Kuczek took his turn at bat. "Steve Kuczek, Pawtucket rookie making his major league bow, surprised everyone by doubling up the right field line," the Boston Herald reported on Kuczek's hit. However, with Kuczek standing on second base, the foolishness ended as Newcombe struck out the next three Boston hitters to end the inning. With the game now official, Barr halted the action.

Because St. Louis had lost to Pittsburgh, the Dodgers edged into first place by a half game. That five-inning victory on September 29 was crucial, as the final tally on October 2 showed the Dodgers winning the pennant by just one game.

In March 1950, Kuczek went to spring training with the Braves at Bradenton, Florida. Although Al Dark had been dealt to the New York Giants in the off-season, it was newly acquired Gene Mauch from the Dodgers and Buddy Kerr from the Giants that battled for the starting berth at shortstop that spring. Kuczek saw little action in the spring training games and was optioned to the Braves farm team in Denver of the Class A Western League.

After Kuczek hit .301 at Denver during the 1950 season, the Braves recalled him that September, but only so that he could report to spring training in 1951. "While waiting for my next year's contract, I was notified that my contract was sold to Atlanta. They sent me a contract offering $400 per month, which I turned down. Being married and with a child to support, I opted to go on the voluntarily retired list," recalled Kuczek, explaining his departure. The Braves wanted to send him to their Double-A farm club in Atlanta (Southern Association) rather its Triple-A club in Milwaukee.

As a 26-year-old shortstop in the spring of 1951 with only Single-A experience, Kuczek recognized the long odds of ever making the Braves team. As it turned out, a 24-year-old rookie named Johnny Logan won the starting shortstop job that spring and held onto the job for the next nine years.

While at Colgate University, Kuczek had married Clara Pikul in 1947. They raised five children, three daughters (Pamela, Kathy, and Beth Lea) and two sons (Douglas and Stephen). The Kuczek family lived in Schenectady, New York where the former ballplayer worked thirty-two years in the radiation protection field for the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.

If not for an umpire's ejection of a player for donning a raincoat on the field, Kuczek most likely would have quietly lived out his life as one of the thousands of minor leaguers who aspired to play at the major league level but never gained an entry in Total Baseball. Kuczek not only gained his one chance on the major league diamond but also became one of the very few players in major league history to achieve a 1.000 career batting average.

Kuczek died on November 21, 2010, in Scotia, New York. He was buried in the Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, New York.

Sources

Bevis, Charlie. "Steve Kuczek: The Braves' Perfect Batsman." Boston Braves Historical Association Newsletter, Summer 1998.

Boston Herald. "Dodgers Win Pair to Lead League," September 30, 1949.

Hartford Courant. "Colgate Captain Sent to Chiefs," June 18, 1949.

Steve Kuczek correspondence with author, 1997 and 2003.

"Steve L. Kuczek." Schenectady Daily Gazette, November 22, 2010.

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