SABR

Johnny Wyrostek

This article was written by David Alvarez.

The elevator speech for Johnny Barney Wyrostek (pronounced Wy-ROSS-tek) would summarize his career as: outfielder, batted left, threw right, two All-Star Game appearances, three teams, seven seasons in the minors, 11 seasons in the majors, 58 homers, and 1,149 hits. But he was also a father of five, a deputy sheriff, a union carpenter, and mayor of his hometown for 19 years. John Barney Wyrostek, or Barney, as his friends called him, was born on July 12, 1919, in Fairmont City, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, to Peter and Mary Wyrostek.1 He was the youngest of four brothers.

A soccer player, as were his brothers, as well as an outfielder at East St. Louis Central High School, Barney went to a tryout in St. Louis in 1937 conducted by Charlie Barrett, a longtime St. Louis Cardinals scout On the first day, he was fast enough to be invited back to the second day of tryouts. His strong arm was revealed on the second day and he was invited back for the third day. After batting practice on the third day, Barrett concluded that Barney could make the majors some day and Wryostek was signed to his first professional contract, to play for Kinston, North Carolina, in the Class D Coastal Plain League for $100 a month.2 He hit .332 there playing in a partial season in 1937 and repeated that same batting average a year later playing in 112 games while getting 149 hits, including 46 extra-base hits. That success earned Wyrostek a promotion in 1939 to Springfield, Illinois, of the Class C Western Association, where he hit .386 in 31 games. Those statistics earned him an in-season promotion up two levels to Houston of the Texas League, a Class A-1 circuit, where Wyrostek hit a more ordinary .286, and then a single-step promotion to Rochester, New York, of the topmost Double-A International League, where he hit .267. For 1940 the Cardinals placed Wyrostek with their Houston Buffaloes team, but he was two weeks late in reporting. When the club inquired as to his whereabouts, he replied with a telegram stating “Just married, may report next week.”3 Barney had married Anna Brady, whom he met when he took high-school baseball scores to Anna’s father, Earl Brady, longtime sports editor of the East St. Louis Journal.4 After his delayed arrival, Wyrostek played 156 games for the Buffaloes, batted .305 to lead the team to the pennant and was the starting center fielder for the South team in the Texas League All-Star Game.

To begin 1941 Wyrostek was assigned to Rochester, where he may have been overmatched because he achieved only a .252 batting average. Sent down one level to the New Orleans Pelicans of the A-1 Southern Association, he found his stroke, hitting .316. After the season his contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The next spring he reported to the Pirates’ first wartime spring training in San Bernandino, California, and earned the admiration of Pirates manager Frankie Frisch5 but was still sent to Toronto (International League) for the 1942 season. At Toronto he played in 155 games, hitting .260 with 17 home runs and 79 RBIs. Wyrostek played in the inaugural International League All Star game in center field. On September 10 he had his first major-league at bat for the Bucs, a groundout, in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. He got into just nine games for Pittsburgh, hitting a paltry .114, one bright spot being a game-winning triple on September 20 against the Reds.

Wyrostek stuck with the Pirates early in the 1943 season as an extra outfielder, appearing primarily as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement, starting his first game on May 16. On May 22 he suffered a dislocated shoulder when he dived for a ball while playing center field in Philadelphia. He missed 25 games, not returning until June 17. Apparently coming back too soon, Wyrostek managed only a .122 batting average after returning, ending up at .152 for the season. On September 30, 1943, he was traded by the Pirates with pitcher Johnny Podgajny and $15,000 back to the Cardinals for pitcher Preacher Roe. St. Louis outrighted Wyrostek to Double-A Columbus, the Cardinals’ top minor-league team. Wyrostek thrived there in 1944, batting a league-leading .358. He had 16 outfield assists, made only five errors, and added a 21-game hitting streak.6 The Cardinals purchased his contract on July 29 but World War II intervened. Drafted, he wound up as a corporal in General George Patton’s 10th Armored Division),7 winning two battle stars and playing baseball after the war in Europe ended for the European Theater Championship team against the Mediterranean Theater Championship team in Italy in September 1945.8

Wyrostek, already a father of five by the time the 1946 season started, faced a crowded Cardinals outfield led by Enos Slaughter and Harry Walker with rookies Erv Dusak and Buster Adams also contending for spots, as well as Stan Musial, who was to play in the outfield in 42 games that year. This allowed Cardinals president Sam Breadon to sell Wyrostek and right-handed pitcher Al Jurisch to the Philadelphia Blue Jays (Phillies). The Phillies were revamping their team, which had won only 46 games in 1945. Wyrostek was late reporting to spring training, arriving on March 6, because one of his children was sick.9

Already 26 years old, Wyrostek stuck in 1946 as the Phillies’ center fielder alongside right fielder Ron Northey and left fielder Del Ennis, a trio known for strong throwing arms, for a fifth-place team10 that won only 69 games, due in large part to a league-worst 3.99 team ERA. While playing an exhibition game outside Philadelphia, Wyrostek and teammates Emil Verban and Vance Dinges had their gloves stolen by neighborhood youths, while Verban also lost his shoes. The story had a happy ending: One of the mothers of the thieves noticed that her son possessed a glove she did not recognize and when the truth came out, all the stolen equipment was returned to the players.11

Wyrostek got five hits with eight total bases and three RBIs in the first game of a doubleheader at Braves Field on August 15. He finished the season batting .281 in 145 games, with 18 outfield assists.

In 1947 the Phils moved Wyrostek from center field to right field when they obtained Harry Walker and Freddy Schmidt for Ron Northey on May 3. Barney played 128 games for the Phillies, batting .273. He had a four-hit, four-RBI effort on May 16 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Philadelphia finished dead last in the NL, winning only 62 games.

Before the 1948 season Wyrostek was traded to Cincinnati for the Reds’ shortstop, Eddie Miller, who was three years older and had been an everyday player for eight NL seasons. The Sporting News suggested that Miller was traded because he was critical of his teammates’ ability while speaking at a charity dinner in January 1948.12 Regardless of the veracity of that rumor, the Phils’ need for a starting shortstop was real; their candidates in camp in 1948 (Jack Albright and Ralph LaPointe) never played in the majors again after 1948. Wyrostek picked up where he had left off, serving in 1948 as the regular center fielder for the Reds and playing in 136 games, with 17 home runs, some 30 percent of his career total of 58. He batted .273. The highlights of his season occurred on June 11, when he had four hits, including two home runs and a double, and three RBIs, against the Phillies; and five days later, June 16, when he ended a Ralph Branca no-hit effort for the Brooklyn Dodgers after 7⅔ innings with a two-run homer.

Wyrostek’s production dropped off in 1949; he hit .249 with only nine home runs for the seventh-place Reds. He spent October 1949 barnstorming the Midwest with a team led by Phillies first baseman Dick Sisler. Among his barnstorming teammates were Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola.13

After a slow start in 1950 (.263 at the end of April), Wyrostek hit .346 during May and June to bring his batting average to .332 by June 30. This led to his selection as a reserve outfielder for the National League in the All-Star Game, played at Comiskey Park on July 11. (He pinch-hit for Jackie Robinson.) Wyrostek hurt his ankle sliding across home plate on July 16 against the Giants, forcing him to sit for two weeks. After returning, he hit only .238 for the remainder of the season, dragging his batting average down to .285 with 8 home runs and 76 RBIs for the sixth- place Reds. Eight of his runs batted in came during a Labor Day doubleheader against the Cardinals on September 4. The offseason saw him barnstorming again with a team led by Harry Walker and populated by Carl Erskine and Hank Sauer, among others.14

Wyrostek was the regular right fielder for the Reds in 1951, playing in 141 games and finishing with a .311 average in 598 plate appearances. He was hitting .332 at the All-Star break and was fourth in the voting for the NL outfield. He played two innings in the game, played in Detroit, and grounded out. He bruised the middle finger of his left hand on August 15 and missed six games. He hit only .264 after the injury, and had only five runs batted in and five doubles in his final 30 games. The offseason saw him again barnstorming alongside Harry Walker, Ted Kluszewski, and Dick Sisler.15 Before the 1952 season, Reds general manager Gabe Paul announced that Wyrostek had been given a substantial and well-deserved increase in salary.16 Paul had earlier described Wyrostek as the one Reds player he did not want to trade because manager Luke Sewell said he wanted to build the team around Barney.17

But any assurance from management that Wyrostek would remain a Red proved meaningless when he started out 1952 miserably, batting only .236 as of May 22, the last day he played for the Reds before being traded with left-handed pitcher Kent Peterson back to the Phils for Bubba Church, a pitcher five years younger than the 32-year-old Wyrostek. Church had pitched 247 innings for the Phillies in 1951 and won 15 games. GM Paul noted the poor pitching of his Reds, saying they could not afford to miss a chance to obtain a workhorse like Church. The Sporting News also hinted that Church had fallen out of favor with Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer.18 The 1952 Phillies were a borderline first-division team, and after five straight losses their owner, Bob Carpenter called the team to his hotel suite in St. Louis at 2 A.M. on June 7 to give them a dressing down. Carpenter told them the 1952 team was a better team than the pennant-winning 1950 team.19 Carpenter’s dissatisfaction led to the firing of Eddie Sawyer and the hiring of Steve O’Neill as the manager not three weeks after the hotel tirade. Wyrostek hit .274 for the Phils after the trade to bring his season batting average to .265 with two home runs and 62 RBIs in 128 games, 112 as a starter. He was suffering from a sore arm at season’s end.20 The Phillies finished in fourth place at 87-67 and with this first-division finish, the players’ cut of the World Series revenue. A full share for the Phils was $378.79 ($3,375 in 2015 dollars.)21 Wyrostek again went barnstorming after the season on Walker’s team.22

The 1953 season, proved to be the 34-year-old Wyrostek’s last year as a regular player; he played in 125 games, starting 101 and batting .271. He got his 1,000th career hit, off Joe Black, on May 9 at Ebbets Field.23 Wyrostek told reporters that his pulled leg muscle was forcing him to wait on the ball a bit more, allowing him to hit it more squarely, leading to his early season .377 batting average as of May 12.24 Despite this hot start, Phillies manager Steve O’Neill began platooning him with Mel Clark, with Wyrostek facing only right-handed pitching. The platoon continued until the end of July, when Clark suffered a season-ending injury. Wyrostek tired out playing regularly, hitting only .241 over the last two months of the season.25 He spent October 1953 barnstorming on a team led by Brooklyn pitcher Russ Meyer and also including Ted Kluszewski and Carl Erskine26 Over the winter a poll of sportswriters picked Wyrostek from among all the Phillies as the “best parent,” “most cooperative with writers,” and having the “happiest marriage.”27

Wyrostek went to spring training in 1954 with no guarantee of a starting spot, based in part on his tendency to fade out in the second half of the season, according to manager Steve O’Neill.28 He was again a platoon player, facing only righties, but he never found his stroke, ending the season at .239. Without knowing it, Wyrostek played his last major-league game on September 26, going hitless in three at-bats against the New York Giants. He again went barnstorming with a team captained by Meyer.29 Wyrostek was done as a major leaguer when the Phillies gave him his unconditional release in April 1955.30

Wyrostek returned to Fairmont City and worked as a deputy sheriff for St. Clair County, Illinois, for two years31 before entering the construction trades as a union carpenter. He became president of the local carpenters union. He raised his children in a home next door to his parents in Fairmont City.32 A frequent volunteer in his hometown, Wyrostek ran unopposed for the Fairmont City Board of Trustees (akin to a city council) in 1959.33 He was narrowly re-elected in 196334 and won his first of five terms as mayor in 1967.35 In retirement, he enjoyed fishing with his sons and bowling with his wife. He was still mayor when he died of cancer on December 12, 1986. 36 He is buried at Lake View Memorial Gardens in Fairview Heights, Illinois, next to his wife Anna, who died in 2002.37

 

Notes

1 Harold Tuthill, “Lively Life for Mrs. Wyrostek,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 1965, 5C.

2 Stan Baumgartner, “Five Kiddies Pull for Wyrostek to Stick,” The Sporting News, June 12, 1946, 7.

3 Hall of Fame typed notes, likely dated March 1942.

4 Tuthill. “Lively Life.”

5 “Buccos Looking Up Below Sea Level,” The Sporting News, February 26, 1942, 3.

6 Bob Hooey, “Wyrostek Doubles Up on Two-Bagger Output,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1944, 4.

7 Tuthill, “Lively Life.”

8 “From Service Front,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1945, 12.

9 “Training Camp Notes,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1946, 16.

10 Stan Baumgartner, “Phils Base Third-Place Hopes on ‘Loop’s Best Mound Staff,’” The Sporting News, July 10, 1946, 14.

11 “Major League Flashes: National League,” The Sporting News, July 10, 1946, 36.

12 Tom Swope, “Miller for Wyrostek Deal Likely to Keep Hatton on Third for Reds.” The Sporting News, February 18, 1948, 2.

13 “Major Barnstormers Swing Into Action on Many Trails,” The Sporting News, October 19, 1949, 26.

14 “Stars Stud Lineups for Benefit Games,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1950, 22.

15 “Harry Walker Will Head Team of Barnstormers,” The Sporting News, September 26, 1951, 22.

16 Tom Swope, “Seminick Eager to Team Up with Reds’ Pitchers,” The Sporting News, January 30, 1952, 20.

17 Tom Swope, “No Wrapping on Wyrostek in Talk of Package Deals,” The Sporting News, January 9, 1952, 19.

18 Tom Swope, “Injury Jinx Riddles Reds; Six Sidelined in Six Days, The Sporting News, June 4, 1952, 6.

19 Frank Yeutter, “Prexy Fires 2 a.m. Blast to Wake Up Phils, The Sporting News, June 18, 1952, 5.

20 Stan Baumgartner, “Phils Elated by Comeback of Big Nick,” The Sporting News, October 8, 1952, 22.

21 “Full Cut for Sawyer,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1952, 18.

22 Edgar G. Brands, “Barnstorm Bonanza Burning Out; 5 Clubs Drawing Fair Crowds,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1952, 17.

23 “1,000th Hit for Wyrostek; Pellet Presented to Johnny,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1953, 11.

24 Stan Baumgartner, “Wyrostek Away to His Best Start on Pulled Muscle,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1953, 11.

25 Stan Baumgartner, “Stout Steve Bulges with Trade Plans,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953, 8.

26 Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1953, 14.

27 The Sporting News, January 6, 1954, 2.

28 Stan Baumgartner, “Some Phillies Balking Over Gate Clauses,” The Sporting News, February 10, 1954, 9.

29 “Campy Drops His Plans for Barnstorming,” The Sporting News, September 29, 1954, 21.

30 Joe King, “Many Rookies, Some Vets Axed,” The Sporting News, April 6, 1955, 1, 4.

31 Conversation with son Tom Wyrostek, February 21, 2015; Fred G. Lieb, “What They’re Doing Now,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1960, 12.

32 Tuthill, “Lively Life.”

33 “Fairmont City Trio Without Opposition,” East St. Louis Journal, April 22, 1959.

34 “Administration Ticket Wins in Fairmont City,” East St. Louis Journal, April 17, 1963.

35 “Fairmont City,” East St. Louis Journal, April 19, 1967.

36 “Fairmont City Mayor Dies at 67,” st. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 14, 1986.

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