SABR

Rudy Minarcin

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.
Perhaps it’s a good thing when you have a major-league baseball affiliate in your hometown.  Right-handed pitcher Rudy Minarcin was born in North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, and the year he turned 17 the Philadelphia Phillies happened to situate a Class C farm team there, the Vandergrift Pioneers of the Middle Atlantic League, managed by Pat Patterson. It would have been difficult not to notice Rudy. He’d thrown eight one-hitters for the North Vandergrift High School Indians during his junior and senior years, won 10 straight games, and been captain of the team for two years. [1]

During the 1948 season, Patterson handed over the reins to Lew Krausse during the season. The Phillies approached Vandergrift GM Brute Kramer and signed 18-year-old Minarcin to a bonus contract which The Sporting News pegged at about $6,000. He put in a 7-7 season (3.44 ERA) in 17 games with the Pioneers. The team had already excited the community, a new franchise in 1947 that won first place in the standings and both rounds of the playoffs as well, sweeping the finals.  In 1948 the Pioneers took first place again, but were beaten by Erie in the playoffs. Minarcin had to turn down several pro football offers; he’d been a high school standout on the gridiron, too. An all-state player both in baseball and football, he was captain of the football team in his senior year and was sought as a forward passer. He determined that he’d have a better chance at a longer career, and a less physically-punishing one, in baseball. [2]

Rudy Minarcin was the only player from the 1948 team to ever make the major leagues. The Pioneers as a team only lasted four years, disbanding in July 1950. By then native son Minarcin was on his way through five seasons of minor-league ball, interrupted by service during the Korean War, and ultimately to the big leagues.

Rudolph Anthony Minarcin was born in the community about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh on March 25, 1930.  His parents Martin and Mary (Solar) Minarcin had both come to the United States from the area of Lednice in what is now the Czech Republic.  Vandergrift was a relatively small community, but it was something of a planned community and one with a Boston connection. Martin Minarcin worked in the U. S. Steel mill and foundry that was just across the bridge, about an eighth of a mile away. He became a butcher and worked at that trade for at least 40 years.

Vandergrift was designed as an industrial town by Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm. Olmsted was the Boston-based urban planner who created the famed “green necklace” of parks in the City of Boston, which include the area known as the Fenway.

Rudy’s brother John (born on July 24, 1931) played baseball, too, both of them playing semipro ball as early as age 14. They also just enjoyed being around the ballpark. Rudy recalls, “We were ball-chasers. We got paid for getting the foul balls and returning them.” [3]  There was another brother, Rich, and a couple of sisters as well.

When the Hall of Fame asked for his nickname, Rudy reported the name “Buster,” but asked about it in a 2011 interview, he said he’d never really been called that and harked back to an earlier one: “My nickname – when I was seven years old, my dad gave me a haircut. I went over to the schoolhouse and this guy over there – he was Slovak like I was, but he was about seven years older than me – he said, ‘Your head looks like a zemok.’ So my nickname was ‘Potato Head.’”

John signed with the Boston Red Sox and played five seasons in their minor-league system, starting in 1949 but interrupted by a two-year stint in the service during the Korean War. When he returned from duty, and played for Greensboro and Montgomery in 1955, the Red Sox wanted to send him to California in ’56, but his wife Margaret didn’t want him to go, and he acceded to her wishes. “Big mistake,” said Rudy in 2011, a little over two years after John had died. “John was the good ballplayer.”

John’s son John pitched two seasons in the Midwest League, in 1979-80 for the Wisconsin Rapids Twins. He was 10-2 the first year, but 2-9 the second.

As to Rudy Minarcin, the Phillies promoted him to Single-A baseball in 1949 and assigned him to the Eastern League, where he pitched to a 6-11 and a 4.81 ERA with the Utica Blue Sox. He may not have quite been ready, but the 161 innings gave him good experience. He was taken in the second round of the November 1949 Rule V draft by the Cincinnati Reds. With the Tulsa Oilers in the Double-A Texas League, Minarcin had an excellent year in 1950: a 13-7 record in 173 innings with a 2.86 ERA. Climbing the career ladder in 1951, he won 16 games in Triple-A with the International League’s Buffalo Bisons. He was 16-12 (3.20), with an even heavier workload of 242 innings pitched. Among his starts were two 13-inning complete games, one a win and the other a loss.

The Reds hadn’t finished better than sixth place since 1948, and didn’t in 1952 or 1953, either. They might well have been ready for Rudy in 1952, but he spent two years in military service with the United States Army during the Korean War. He was stationed at Camp Eustis in Virginia, and was prepared to ship out for Korea working as a physical training instructor. “We were ready to go. We had one more day,” he explained. “On my last day, we had to play against each other in touch football. I caught the ball, took two steps, pivoted, and all I heard was a crack and I went down. Fractured a knee and the ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. The ACL was the worst one of the bunch. At the time, they didn’t know how to operate on it. I used a brace.”

Nevertheless, he persevered and did make the major leagues. He never became the pitcher that he otherwise might have become. “It couldn’t happen to me on my left leg. No, it happened to me on my right leg, where I pushed off. I used my power. What I had. Then it just got…you favor one thing, you know damn well something else is going to give, and that’s what did.”

In 1954 he was discharged from the Army and able to join Cincinnati for spring training. He was projected to make the major-league team but twisted his knee in an April 9 exhibition game and was instead placed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, largely due to friendship between Cincinnati GM Gabe Paul and Maple Leafs manager Luke Sewell, and – despite not pitching much until late June - was able to craft a very impressive 11-2 season with a 3.60 earned run average. [4] The Maple Leafs won the International League pennant, and Sewell credited him with several key wins. One anecdote perhaps worthy of mention happened in the September 3 games against the Red Wings, when Rochester manager Harry Walker became so incensed he left the coaching lines and charged into the Toronto dugout. According to The Sporting News, “Walker and Rudy Minarcin tangled in the dugout before the umpires and police succeeded in breaking up the battle.” [5]

In 1955 Minarcin got the call to the major leagues, pitching for Birdie Tebbetts and the Cincinnati Redlegs (they had adopted the name in 1954, at a time when anti-communist emotions made a change of team name seem advisable). Tebbetts was very high on his potential and worked closely with him during the spring, as did pitching coach Tom Ferrick. His first game was on April 11, when he threw the fifth through the eighth innings against the visiting Cubs, giving up just three hits and one run and walking no one. He picked up a save on April 18, and his first two decisions were wins, on May 7 and in his first start, a complete game on May 18, a 5-1 win over the Pirates. On June 4 he threw a 6-0 one-hit shutout against the Pirates, driving in two runs (the only two of his career; he was a .188 hitter). The Pirates’ only hit, by Dale Long in the second inning, was an infield single only about 18 inches to the right of first baseman Ted Kluszewksi. Klu said he hadn’t seen the ball until it was even with him, coming out of a sea of white shirts in the grandstand.

By June 15, a 5-2 win over Brooklyn brought his record to 4-1, but there was only one more win for him in 1955 and eight more losses. He appeared in 41 games, mostly in relief (there were 12 starts), and the 5-9 record somewhat matched his 4.90 ERA. He later explained, “I’d lost my sinker and I couldn’t keep the ball low. The batters used to cream my high stuff.” [6]

The Redlegs asked him to pitch in yet another country in 1956, with their Havana Sugar Kings affiliate in the International League. He lost four games in a row and then got going, at one point winning eight consecutive games, to finish 15-12, 2.92. His last three games were all shutout wins. On September 9, 1956, the Boston Red Sox bought his contract from Cincinnati.

His first game in the American League was a September 15 start in Cleveland. He threw the first five innings, leaving with the Indians ahead 3-0 while Bob Feller was mowing down the Sox. Minarcin was replaced in the top of the sixth by pinch-hitter Gene Stephens, who walked to put runners on first and second with nobody out. Two outs later, Ted Williams collected both runners and tied the game with a three-run blast off Feller. Ike Delock won the game in relief when Boston scored twice in the ninth. Minarcin pitched 2/3 of an inning on September 18 and got into one more game on September 29 at Yankee Stadium. He was handed a challenge. The Yanks had men on first and second with nobody out in the bottom of the 10th. Minarcin struck out Bob Cerv and then got Charley Silvera to ground into a double play. He threw four innings, the 10th through the 13th, winning the game after walking to load the bases and seeing Milt Bolling drive in two in the top of the 13th. His 1-0 record with the Red Sox was based on 9 2/3 innings of work and a 2.79 ERA. He then turned around and headed back to Havana, pitching for the Marianao Tigers.

The Cuban League’s winter season began well enough for him, but about six weeks in he departed suddenly and without permission on November 4, claiming that his father was seriously ill back in Vandergrift with a bad attack of rheumatism. He’d apparently notified the club three days earlier through his roommate, Hal Bevan. He was automatically suspended from league play for three years. Not long after the new year began, he married Sonja “Soni” Urbanski in East Vandergrift.

Joining the Red Sox for spring training, Rudy underwent an appendectomy in San Francisco on March 23, but was back in Sarasota before the Red Sox returned from their long road trip. He then returned home to Pennsylvania and only rejoined the club later in April, first appearing in a game on May 13.

The 1957 season was his last one in the major leagues. He was busy, throwing 44 2/3 innings in 26 games and staying with the team the whole year. His ERA was not special (4.43) and he walked 30 while only striking out 20. He had two saves, but neither a win nor a loss. At season’s end, his contract was sold to Havana. Given the ban, though, the Sugar Kings likely had other plans for him. They dealt him to Toronto and he won the season opener for the Maple Leafs – beating Havana, 6-3.

He pitched two final seasons in organized ball with Toronto. In 1958 he was 8-10 (4.66), and in 1959 he was 1-0, appearing in just six games. He’d suffered a sore arm in spring training and been left behind at the Fort Pierce, Florida, training camp, on the DL for a month, then learned of the death of his father and so returned to North Vandergrift for five days. He won a home game against Miami on June 14, but it was his last decision. “I think I finished out the year and that was it. I didn’t pitch too much.”

The Minarcins had welcomed a daughter in May 1958, during a six-game personal losing streak on the mound. The couple had three girls and a boy, Joe, who played high school ball and was “a pretty good hitter” but baseball wasn’t something Joe pursued. 

With Rudy back home from baseball, he took over his father’s grocery store, Martin’s Market, and ran that until he retired in 1995.

He remains interested in baseball, still a Pirates fan as he has been his whole life; he fondly remembers growing up and listening to Rosy Rowswell and Bob Prince on the radio.

November 9, 2011

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Minarcin’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.




[1] The Sporting News, June 30, 1948

[2] The Sporting News, April 27, 1955

[3] All quotations from Rudy Minarcin are from an interview on August 30, 2011 unless otherwise noted.

[4] The Sporting News, May 26, 1954 and March 16, 1955. It clearly was still a time in which players could be loaned out to a ballclub outside of the Cincinnati organization, with a string attached, based on something like friendship.

[5] The Sporting News, September 15, 1954

[6] The Sporting News, September 19, 1956

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