Joe Kuhel

This article was written by Joseph Wancho

The major league baseball season is a marathon to be sure. A team’s journey is often fraught with periods of starts and stops, twists and turns, heartbreaking defeats and miraculous victories. Injuries, trades, and slumps test a manager’s mettle. For those fans who are fortunate enough to root for a team that is in the thick of the pennant race, the word “clinch” becomes a part of the everyday lexicon. Out-of-town scores are of the upmost importance and provide as much interest as those of the local heroes.

On September 21, 1933, the Washington Senators were in prime position to end the suspense for their faithful followers. Washington held a 7½-game lead over second place New York with eight games left on their schedule. The Yanks had 10 games remaining. The Nats were poised to break through the tape at the finish line. Their lone hurdle was the St. Louis Browns.

The attendance was announced as an even 18,000 at Griffith Stadium for the Thursday afternoon tilt. Toeing the rubber for Washington was Walter (Lefty) Stewart, who was sporting a fine 14-6 record. Stewart was no stranger to the Browns, as he had spent six seasons in the “Mound City” before being traded with Goose Goslin and Fred Schulte in December, 1932. His opposition was Bump Hadley, a journeyman pitcher who would find success with the New York Yankees in later seasons.

The Senators had a lot of “offensive punch” in their batting order. But on this day, both hurlers were in command. Washington scored in the bottom of the second inning, only to have the Browns knot the score at one in the top of the seventh. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Joe Kuhel singled to center field. Bob Boken walked, bringing Luke Sewell to the plate. Sewell lifted a fly ball to center field. Kuhel, mindful that Browns centerfielder Sam West might make the catch, did not stray far from the bag at second. When the ball dropped cleanly, Kuhel checked in at third base. But Boken, who was running all the way, also arrived at third. Sewell was standing at second. “With the ball sailing in from the outfield, Kuhel broke for home and just managed to slide in under (Browns’ second baseman Oscar) Melillo’s relay to the plate with the game’s most important run,”1

The run scored by Kuhel was indeed the winning run, giving the Senators the American League pennant as the result of the 2-1 win. Kuhel, who had two hits on the day, also contributed with defense from his first base position. In the third inning, the first two Browns hitters reached base. Hadley attempted to move them over with a bunt to first. But Kuhel swooped in, fielded the ball and rifled it over to Boken to nail the lead runner. The next two batters were retired; the St. Louis rally was nullified.

Washington manager and shortstop Joe Cronin was a former teammate of Kuhel’s at Kansas City of the American Association in 1928. Cronin knew full well of Kuhel’s capabilities on the diamond. “He’s an ideal team man and one of the best reasons we are where we are in the American League race,” said Cronin. “Not only does he hit well, but his fielding has done much to put confidence in the team. We infielders need only to catch the grounders and throw the ball to first. Kuhel does the rest.”2

Joseph Anthony Kuhel (pronounced Cool) was born on June 25, 1906, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the adopted son of Carl and Agnes Kuhel, who owned a grocery store. Young Kuhel had one year of education on the high school level, at Brooklyn Heights High in suburban Cleveland. Even as a youngster, the left-handed Kuhel took to first base, the position he would man throughout his career.

After he left high school, Joe took to the trade of a leather cutter, making $28 a week. Kuhel applied himself to his craft for two years. He kept busy on weekends playing first base for the College of Chiropractors on the Cleveland sandlots. Legendary Cleveland sandlot manager Doik Novario took note of the left-handed-hitting Kuhel, and recommended him to the Flint (MI) club of the Class B Michigan-Ontario League. He joined the Flint Vehicles at the tail end of the 1924 season, and returned for the 1925 campaign, batting .292 while driving in 63 runs.

However, the Flint club owner had a stack of unpaid bills and was in need of cash, and sold Kuhel to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association for $1,500. The Blues were set at first base with Dudley Branom, so Kuhel was farmed out to Springfield (IL) of the Three-I League in 1926 and Lincoln (NE) of the Western League in 1927. Kuhel showed his ability with the bat and the glove. He resurfaced in K.C. for the 1928 season, and was the regular first baseman for the next three seasons.

Kuhel’s abilities were one of the key components as the Blues captured the American Association title in 1929, and bested Rochester (NY) of the International League in the Little World Series, five games to four. Kuhel led his team with 13 hits and batted .361 in nine games. Kuhel was given high praise by one beat writer in the league: “Words fail to describe the generous amount of ability with which this youngster is bequeathed. He can and does do everything-field, hit, run, and throw. His fielding is considered by many players to be the equal of the once peerless Hal Chase. He gobbles the hard grounders and the easy ones with equal ease. His judgment has almost been uncanny.”3

The Washington Senators purchased Kuhel for a reported $65,000 (the price tag is also mentioned as $60,000) in July, 1930. To complete the deal, the Nats sent two players to the Blues, infielders Harley Boss and Charley Gooch. Kuhel made his major league debut on July 31, 1930. He walked and scored a run in a 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Athletics.

After the 1930 season, Kuhel married the former Willette (Billie) West on October 8, 1930, at St. Francis Xavier church in Kansas City, Missouri. They had one child, Joseph Jr.

Senators’ manager Walter Johnson liked Kuhel as a top prospect, but when spring training ended prior to the 1931 campaign, the incumbent Joe Judge was named the starter. The left-hand- hitting Judge had been a mainstay at first base since the Deadball Era. He had batted .326 with 10 home runs in 1930. At the end of April, Kuhel was optioned to Baltimore of the International League. It turned out to be a shrewd move by Washington. “Baltimore was up against it for a first baseman,” recalled Kuhel. “Joe Hauser had a bad leg and they needed somebody quickly. Because Mr. Griffith let them have me, the Nats got the first option on (pitcher) Monte Weaver. They bought Weaver for $25,000 and he won 20 games in his first year. He helped us win the pennant in ’33.”4

Kuhel’s stay in the Charm City was brief, as he was recalled after Judge suffered an attack of appendicitis at Fenway Park on May 1, 1931. Kuhel was inserted as the starting first baseman, a position he would not relinquish that season. Although Judge did return later in the year, he was not healthy enough to resume full-time duties. Much was made of that fact that Kuhel still presided over the first base job, but the fact was that Judge just did not have the stamina to reclaim it. Rumors of Judge being traded were squashed by Griffith, who expected a good competition between the two Joes in spring training in 1932.

As it turned out, Judge and Kuhel shared the first base position in 1932. Both players threw left-handed and batted that way. Although Kuhel raised his batting average from .269 in his rookie year to .291 in his sophomore year, his RBI production dropped from 85 to 52. Of course the reduction coincided with fewer at bats for Kuhel, while Judge batted .258 in what was his last season in a Senators uniform. But the two players maintained a cordial, even friendly relationship. Judge was the consummate pro, providing sound mentoring for his underling over the next two seasons. “If I am a better first baseman now than when I joined Washington late in 1931,” said Kuhel, “it is because of Joe Judge. Not only have I learned by watching him, but Joe is such a great fellow he took me in hand and coached me.”5 For his part Judge approved of the player who took his place at first base. “Joe Kuhel is the first first baseman who has come along at Washington who has been a real competitor and made the grade.”6

Walter Johnson had replaced Bucky Harris as the Washington skipper in 1929, and the Senators had topped 90 victories in each season 1930-1932. Despite a winning record, club owner Clark Griffith was forced by dwindling attendance to replace Johnson (and his $25,000 salary) with his shortstop, Joe Cronin.

By now Kuhel was firmly entrenched at first base, giving the Senators a solid infield with Ossie Bluege at third base, Cronin at short, and Buddy Myer at second base. The Senators solidified their club with the additions of veterans Luke Sewell, Fred Schulte, and Goose Goslin for the 1933 season. Led by General Crowder (24-15), Earl Whitehill (22-8), and Lefty Stewart (15-6), the Senators pitching staff was sound.

In late July and early August of 1933, Washington played the Yankees, the closest competition for the flag, eight times. They split both series at four games apiece. However, the two victories over New York in August were a springboard to a 13-game win streak, culminating with a doubleheader sweep of the Browns on August 20. The Senators opened up an 8 ½-game lead and never looked back.

Kuhel led the team in home runs with 11, was second on the team in batting with a .322 average and RBIs with 107. He also collected a career-high 194 hits and smacked 34 doubles. One of the biggest offensive days of his career occurred on May 16, 1933, at Griffith Stadium, as Kuhel went 5-for-8 in a twelve-inning, 11-10 victory over Cleveland. Kuhel hit a home run and drove in a career-high five runs, the last one the game-winner in the bottom of the twelfth inning.

However, the New York Giants made quick work of the Senators, as it took only five games to win the World Series. Kuhel cooled off considerably, batting .150 with three hits and one RBI.

As is the case with many clubs, it’s hard enough to win a pennant, but to duplicate the feat becomes even more arduous. The following season, Kuhel was having a fine year when his season ended abruptly due to a splintered fibula and fractured bone in his ankle. In the first game of a double-dip on June 23 against Detroit, Kuhel slid into second base in the eighth inning and his left leg crumpled underneath his body. The club was already dealing with injuries to Sewell, Schulte, Stewart, and Cecil Travis when the blow to Kuhel struck. Washington finished the season in seventh place, 34 games off the pace.

Over the next three seasons, Kuhel performed admirably at first base, leading the league in double plays in 1935 (150) and 1937 (141). His defensive skill was considered to be in the top echelon of either league, with a fielding percentage of .993 in 1936 and 1937. He paced the Senators’ offense in home runs (16), RBIs (118), doubles (42) and hits (189) in 1936. He tied a major league record with three triples in a game on May 13, 1937, against Chicago at Comiskey Park.

But the Nats were a predominantly left-hand-hitting club. In order to buck this trend, Kuhel was sent to the Chicago White Sox on March 18, 1938, for Zeke Bonura. A right-handed power hitter, Bonura had hit .345 for the Sox the year before and was a threat to go yard. But he was an annual holdout during spring training and the Sox front office had had enough of him. The knock against Bonura was that he did not possess the defensive abilities of Kuhel, and was termed as “clumsy” around the bag. But Chicago manager Jimmy Dykes had coveted Kuhel for some time and was eager to make the switch.

Neither team’s fortunes were dramatically changed with the trade, as both the Chisox and the Nats finished towards the middle of the junior circuit in the ensuing years. Kuhel enjoyed a monster year in 1940 by tying the club record of 27 home runs (set by Bonura). He also led the team in RBIs with 94, and put together the longest hitting streak of his career, 20 games from June 30 to July 20. However, on the whole his hitting diminished with the White Sox, reaching a rock-bottom .213 in 1943.

There was one person, himself an astute judge of talent, who heaped praise on Kuhel for his style of play. And that was none other than Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. “A team composed of nine Joe Kuhels hardly would need a manager,” said Mack. “I always use him as my No. 1 example when I give my boys their pep talks. Year after year, he goes on playing for teams which haven’t a chance to win the pennant, yet he keeps hustling as if the championship depended on every game.”7

One weapon that Kuhel added to his arsenal was the stolen base. Kuhel explained his strategy on the “hesitation steal”. ‘You take a fair lead off first base, three or four steps. As the pitch passes the batter, you stop momentarily, as if intending to return to the bag. You lean toward first for that split second until the ball hits the catcher’s glove-and then the moment it does, you tear for second. In other words, it’s lead, stop, lean and go!

“The catcher, having seen you stop, takes the ball convinced that you don’t intend to run. He cocks his arm for the throw back to the pitcher. The second baseman and shortstop, also seeing the ball pass the plate without your making a break, are just as likely to relax, pawing the dirt with their spikes, heads half down. By the time they all realize you’ve double-crossed them and are on your way, the catcher has to cock his arm again for the longer throw to second and he has to look to see whether the shortstop or second baseman is going to cover.”8 There may have been something to Kuhel’s technique, as he was among the league leaders in stolen bases in both 1941 and 1942 with 20 and 22 swipes, respectively.

On November 24, 1943, Chicago sold Kuhel back to Washington. With World War II raging, many ballplayers were starting to be drafted into the service. Kuhel, at 37 years of age, was one of the many older ballplayers who were able to extend their careers past their prime years, when Mickey Vernon, Washington’s regular first baseman, missed the 1944 and ‘45 seasons because he was called up to active duty. Kuhel was brought in to plug the hole, and he performed competently in the absence of Vernon.

When Vernon returned to the club for the 1946 season, Kuhel played in a handful of games but was released on June 12. The White Sox picked him up and he finished the season. With most of the front line players returning to the game, it was the last full season in the majors for Joe Kuhel. Kuhel broke spring training with Chicago in 1947. But after only three at-bats, all of the pinch-hit variety, he was released on May 11, 1947. He retired with a .277 batting average, 2,212, hits, 131 home runs, 1,049 RBIs, and 412 doubles. His fielding average was an impressive .992 over 2,057 games.

The Chisox purchased the Class C Hot Springs Bathers from Blake Harper, a concessions manager at Sportsman’s Park on May 27, 1947. General manager Leslie O’Connor named Kuhel as manager of the Cotton States League club.

The few months that he skippered the Bathers was the only managerial experience Kuhel had up to this point in his career. Nonetheless, Griffith hired Kuhel as manager of the Senators for the 1948 season. Kuhel followed a time-honored tradition as the eighth former Senators player to be named manager. He followed George McBride, Clyde Milan, Donie Bush, Bucky Harris, Johnson, Cronin and Bluege in that capacity. “I’ve watched Joe for a long time,” said Griffith. “He’s my type of fellow. He’s always been loyal and has always given his best. That’s the type of man that succeeds as a manager.”9

But after just two seasons, Kuhel did not succeed as his teams finished in seventh and eighth place in 1948 and 1949 respectively. His record for the two seasons was 106-201. He managed the Kansas City Blues in 1950, the top farm team of the New York Yankees.

After baseball, Joe worked as a district sales manager for Roper Sales Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri. He retired in 1971 after 20 years with the company. Joe Kuhel passed away after a long illness on February 26, 1984.

Joe Kuhel was a member of the American Society of Amateur Magicians. His defense was often compared to that of a magician. Kuhel would delight and at times exacerbate his teammates with card tricks. Often he would make one of them the victim of his trickery. When he was traded to the White Sox in 1938, Kuhel was saddened to leave the Washington club. “Know I’m going to a good club,” said Kuhel, “but I made so many friends in Washington, it’s hard to leave. In one respect the Nats got the worst of the deal. Bonura can’t do card tricks.”10

 

Sources

Gary Sarnoff, The Wrecking Crew of ’33 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland Publishing, 2009).

Tom Deveaux, The Washington Senators: 1901-1971 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland Publishing, 2003).

National Baseball Hall of Fame, Player’s File

United States Census Bureau.

 

Notes

1Al Munro Ellias, Washington Evening Star, September 22, 2015, D-2.

2 Desman Thompson, The Sporting News, September 21, 1933, 1.

3  Clifford Bloodgood, Baseball Magazine, August 1929, 466.

4 Shirley Povich, The Sporting News, October 22, 1947, 6.

5 Henry P. Edwards, American League Service Bureau, Players Hall of Fame File, December 25, 1932.

6 Ibid.

7 Povich, 6.

8 Herbert Simons, Baseball Magazine, December, 1942, 345.

9 Shirley Povich, Sporting News, October 15, 1947, 22.

10 Staff Correspondent, Washington Evening Star, March 19, 1938, 25.