Bill Kuehne

This article was written by David Nemec

In June 1883, scarcely a month after the expansion Columbus, Ohio, franchise had launched its fledgling season in the American Association, Buckeyes manager “Hustling” Horace Phillips moved Pop Smith from third base to second base, replacing Willie Kuehne who had shown himself to be both error-prone (30 errors in 18 games) and lacking sufficient range to adequately play a middle infield position.

Kuehne was a barrel-chested 24-year-old rookie born in Leipzig, Germany, on October 14, 1858, whom Phillips had imported from Chicago semipro circles on the recommendations of Joe Straub and Rudy Kemmler, two earlier Buckeye signees who were also Chicagoans of Germanic extraction. According to the May 28, 1883, Ohio State Journal, Kuehne thus far had so badly failed to live up to Phillips’s expectations that Phillips purportedly was taking a salary kickback from him just to keep him on the roster. The Journal’s accusation, though denied by Phillips, may have been true, for Phillips, rather than release Kuehne, put him at Smith’s old station on third base for the lack of anyone better. The change so agreed with Kuehne that he went on to play nearly 800 of his 1,085 major league games at the hot corner.

Little more than a month before he switched places with Smith, Kuehne had made his major league debut at second base on May 1, 1883, at Columbus by collecting 1 hit in 4 at bats in a 6-5 loss to Louisville’s Guy Hecker. The hit was a single. Not until his 11th game did Kuehne produce the first of what would become his signature type of hit when he tripled in the Buckeyes’ 13-2 win over Hecker at Louisville. In the course of his 10 major league seasons Kuehne would set a record (tied in 1897 by Willie Keeler) for the most triples in a season without hitting a home run—19 in 1885—and another record ( broken by Tommy Corcoran) for the lowest slugging average (.337) by a player with at least 100 career triples. In 1886, as Kuehne was assembling a record fourth consecutive season in which he collected more triples than doubles, The Sporting News nicknamed him “Three Bagger” or “Dreisocker,” the German word for triple, in its June 7 edition. How the stocky 5-foot-eight and 185-pound right-handed batter and thrower managed to accumulate 115 triples, the most of any player in history in fewer than 4,500 plate appearances, remains a mystery that may never be solved, for he was not a particularly good base runner and had only 993 hits altogether, linking him with Bill Joyce a prolific power hitter with good speed as the only two men to amass as many as 100 career triples while tabulating fewer than 1,000 hits. Perhaps the explanation for Kuehne’s extraordinary penchant for tripling lay in the very fact that he was not a swift runner and, like Dave Orr, another burly sort who compiled an inordinate number of triples, simply could not leg out many of what for a faster man would have been inside-the-park home runs. But that explanation falters inasmuch as Orr was an exceptional hitter with a .342 career batting average whose blasts traveled so swiftly they readily became gappers whereas Kuehne was a career .232 hitter.

In 1887, while he was on his way to his best season (.299), the August 3 issue of Sporting Life observed: “Kuehne has the sympathy of his many friends in his trouble with his wife. The good-natured player made an unfortunate choice. As yet no testimony in the case has been taken. No ball players are mixed up in the affair as reported. It is said that the woman several times invited members of the [Pittsburgh] club there during her husband’s absence, but none of them accepted the invitation. The woman came from Columbus [Ohio]. She is very homely. It is reported that she has left the city. An officer hunted high and low for her a day or so ago to serve a subpoena, but she could not be found. He will no doubt get his divorce.” Through it all, Kuehne remained at his post every day with Pittsburgh and suffered not a whit in popularity. His closest friend on the club, pitcher Ed Morris who had accompanied him to Pittsburgh when the Allegheny club bought out the Columbus franchise and its best players after the 1884 season, remained his partner in a Pittsburgh billiard hall the two ran together during the winter months after Kuehne left his wife and his Chicago home to settle in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, he resumed his quest to spawn some of the weirdest and most paradoxical stat combinations in ML history along with several significant firsts. On May 24, 1889, at Washington, Kuehne set a major league record (since tied) when he handled the most errorless chances by a third baseman in a nine-inning game, 13, including 10 putouts and three assists. That same season he also became the first Pittsburgh player to play every position in a season except pitcher and catcher. According to some sources, Kuehne at some point in the early 1890s added to his dossier of firsts by devising a rudimentary pitching machine that operated with an adjustable spring fastened to a length of timber.

His popularity still at a peak at the close of the 1889 season even though he had become little more than a marginal regular by then, Kuehne was invited the join Morris, Ned Hanlon, Fred Carroll, Pud Galvin and other Pittsburgh mainstays on the Smoke City Players League entry in 1890 but slipped to .239 in the hitter-dominated PL and was released to Louisville of the American Association in the spring of 1891. A model of fidelity in that he remained with each of his teams for the full season in his first eight ML campaigns, Kuehne then proceeded to switch clubs five times in his final two big league seasons, finishing on closing day in 1892 with the St. Louis Browns on October 15 by going 0-for-4 in a 1-0 loss to Chicago’s Bill Hutchison that had been transferred from St. Louis to Kansas City.

Though nearly 34, he was hardly ready to leave the game. After never previously spending a single day anywhere but in the majors as a professional, Kuehne played in the minors until the end of the century. Beginning in 1893, he again became Mr. Fidelity, spending two full seasons with Erie of the Class A Eastern League, followed by three with Minneapolis of the Class A Western League. His skein ended in 1898 when he played a handful of games with four different teams in two different leagues before being disabled toward the end of the season by a severe case of blood poisoning according to the February 22, 1899, issue of The Sporting News. After recovering, he worked that winter at a woven wire factory in the St. Louis. Kuehne then signed with Fort Wayne of the Class B Inter-State League but was released in June 1899 while facing steep medical bills for the treatment of a cancerous growth under his left eye that had spread to the left nostril. The July 15, 1899, issue of The Sporting News confided that to pay for his surgery he was forced to raffle off a treasured double barrel shotgun at 50¢ a chance.

Kuehne was able to return to the game he loved the following spring, joining the St. Louis-based Hargadine-McKittrick Dry Goods Company, as per the May 26, 1900, issue of The Sporting News, so that he could play on its semipro industrial league team with former major leaguer Paul McSweeney whom he had befriended while a member of the St. Louis Browns earlier in the decade. He eventually left St. Louis for Sulphur Springs, Ohio, where he died on October 27, 1921, at age 63. According to baseball historian Joe Santry, when Kuehne was asked his occupation on his deathbed, though he’d had many in his life, he instantly replied in the thick German accent that his teammates could never quite imitate: “I am a ballplayer.”

 

Sources

This biography is an expanded version of one that appeared in David Nemec's Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Volume 1 (Bison Books, 2011), with Nemec as the principal writer assisted by David Ball.

In assembling this biography I made extensive use of the Ohio State Journal, Sporting Life and The Sporting News for details not only of Kuehne’s professional baseball career but also of his life after he left baseball. In addition, I received a valuable bit of information regarding Kuehne’s deathbed statement from historian Joe Santry, an authority on early-day Pittsburgh teams. Kuehne’s major and minor league statistics came from www.baseball-reference.com.