This article was written by Jim Sargent
Right-handed batting outfielder Robert Vilarian Borkowski played for six seasons in the National League, beginning with the Chicago Cubs in 1950. Borkowski, a singles and doubles hitter, had a lifetime average of .251 with 16 homers and 112 RBI. As a Cub rookie, he hit a career-best .273 with four home runs and 29 RBI in 85 games.
In an era when the National League and the American League fielded eight teams with 25 players on each team’s roster, Borkowski was one of the many lesser-known but first-rate athletes who helped keep baseball as America’s national pastime in the decade following World War II.
In 1946, Borkowski broke into professional baseball as a pitcher and outfielder for Elizabethton, North Carolina, in the Appalachian League. The Dayton, Ohio, native fashioned a 18-9 record with a 3.46 ERA. But he also feasted on Appy League pitching by hitting .384 with 12 homers and 90 RBI. As a result, the Cubs, who owned his contract, moved him to the outfield in 1947.
Borkowski was a steady player whom managers could use as a starter or utility man in the outfield, as a first baseman, or as a pinch-hitter. Enthusiastic, positive, and hard working, Bob, a good teammate, made the most of his opportunities and averaged .251 lifetime during his six year major league career.
After the Brooklyn Dodgers optioned him to St. Paul of the triple-A American Association in 1955, Borkowski spent three and a half seasons in the upper minors working for an opportunity to return to the majors. When it became evident that he no longer had a shot at the big leagues, he retired from the game he loved and went to work in his hometown.
Born on January 27, 1926, into a working class Polish-American family in Dayton, Bob grew up a region where baseball was popular. An exceptional athlete by the time he reached high school, the right-hander pitched and played first base and the outfield.
“I just liked playing baseball all the time,” Borkowski recalled in a 2003 interview. “I played whenever I could. I played in high school. Mostly I pitched. We had guys in grades nine through twelve on the varsity. We had other leagues like American Legion, but I never played that.”
Bob got his nickname “Bush” from his parents’ name:
“My wife, the priest, everyone calls me Bush,” Bob explained, laughing. “When we first moved into this area, there were no Polish people here, and people from Dayton couldn’t pronounce Borkowski. I had long blond hair at the time, and they started to say ‘Bush.’ People who knew us called my Mom and Dad, Mr. and Mrs. Bush. That’s where the name got started. I guess it was a short way of saying Borkowski.”
When Bob graduated from Dayton High in June 1943, America was engaged in the second full year of World War II. Since he was still seventeen, he got a job and worked until January 1944. On his eighteenth birthday, the young man enlisted at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He spent most of the next year in training.
By 1945 Borkowski was stationed with the Navy in Hawaii. Most bases had one or more service teams that played each other and other base teams during the war years. On several occasions Bob played or pitched batting practice for a service team while he was training on Oahu. A scout’s son served as an umpire in the Hawaiian League. He referred the right-hander to his father, a Cubs’ scout named Joe Kernan.
“Mr. Kernan never did see me play. He signed me, and when he finally saw me play, I was playing outfield for the Cubs in 1950. I finally got to meet him in 1950.
“I started as pitcher in Class D ball at Elizabethton in the old Appalachian League. I had a good record, but they decided to make an outfielder out of me, because when I wasn’t pitching, I played first base or outfield. So I had a big season in Class D.”
In 1947 the Cubs sent Borkowski to Des Moines of the Class A Western League. Playing for the second-place Bruins, the right-handed hitter played mostly outfield and averaged .278 with six homers and 87 RBI. He recalled pitching and winning a few games. Returning to Des Moines in 1948, Bush played the outfield. He hit .296 with seven homers and 70 RBI, and the Bruins finished in first place for the regular season.
In 1949 the Cubs sent Borkowski to Nashville of the Double-A Southern Association. Leading the league with a .376 average, he hit nine homers, produced 78 RBI, made the All-Star team as an outfielder, and helped his club win first place and capture the league’s playoff title.
“I led the league in hitting at Nashville, and I went with the Cubs to spring training in 1950,” Bob said. “I had a great year. It seemed like everything I hit was a single or a double. I sprayed the ball all over. I never did hit many homers.
“The Cubs trained on Santa Catalina Island at that time. It was a nice place to train. It was quite a thrill to be there. I’d heard so much about Mr. Wrigley, and he owned that island, you know. We’d take care of our practices, and then we had the run of the island. If you wanted to go fishing, you let ’em know ahead of time, and they’d make arrangements for it. All you had to do was sign, and you’d go fishing.
“We’d spend two or three weeks in Catalina. We had two squads and we’d fly back and forth to the coast. Squad A would fly into Los Angeles for three or four days and play some games. When that squad came back, the other squad would fly over and play three or four games, maybe in Frisco. We’d play some big league teams and some college teams like Stanford and UCLA.
“When we had three or four weeks left, we’d take a train to Arizona. We stayed in another one of Wrigley’s hotels in Phoenix, and we played some games there. Then we took a train all the way to Chicago. We had a lot of fun in spring training.”
Borkowski, a 6’0″ 180-pounder, made his first major league appearance in Chicago against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, April 22, 1950. Nervous in his debut appearance, he pinch-hit for veteran left-hander Johnny Vander Meer in the second inning. Bush struck out. But the Cubs won their third straight game of the young season, 7-6, when hard-hitting shortstop Roy Smalley homered in the ninth.
Borkowski did not play for several days, because the Cubs were set in the outfield. Hal Jeffcoat, another right-handed hitter, played right field, Andy Pafko, an established star in Chicago, played center, and slugger Hank Sauer, acquired from the Reds in a 1949 trade, played left.
On April 30, Borkowski started in left field against the St. Louis Cardinals. Facing veteran Harry Brecheen, Bush went 0-for-3, but he got aboard in the third inning when the Cards’ southpaw plunked him with an inside pitch. However, Brecheen blanked the Cubs, 1-0, scattering five hits, two each by Andy Pafko and second baseman Wayne Terwilliger.
In early May, the Cubs optioned Borkowski to Springfield, Massachusetts, of the International League. Bush spent a few days with the Triple-A club and batted .286. But after Hal Jeffcoat suffered a broken collarbone on May 14, the Cubs recalled Borkowski. He began alternating in right or left field, often against lefties, and sometimes he filled in for Pafko in center.
Borkowski hit his first major league home run on Sunday, May 28, 1950, in the second game of a double-header against the Pirates at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Hank Edwards, a veteran outfielder who batted left-handed, started the first game. Edwards singled in four trips, but the Cubs won behind Johnny Schmitz, who pitched a five-hitter and blanked the Pirates, 6-0.
A good natural hitter, Bush collected 70 hits in 256 trips, including seven doubles, four triples, and four home runs. The Cubs started strong, thanks to good seasons by Pafko, who hit .304 with 36 homers and 92 RBI; Sauer, who batted .274 with 32 homers and 103 RBI; and Smalley, who averaged .230 but connected for 21 homers and contributed 85 RBI.
“Chicago was a nice place to play,” Borkowski observed, “and I enjoyed playing for the Cubs. It was just like going to work. We used to play all those day games. You’d go out to the ballpark and practice, the game would start at 1:30, and you’d be home by 5:30 or 6:00.”
Asked about his teammates, Bush said, “We had Roy Smalley at shortstop. The Cubs had a lot of older players. Phil Cavarretta was still there. Johnny Vander Meer, the double no-hit pitcher, was there. Mickey Owen was our catcher. We had Andy Pafko and Hank Sauer. We had a pretty good ball club, but we didn’t have much pitching. But most of the second division clubs didn’t have much pitching.”
Borkowski enjoyed several highlights as a rookie. For example, he connected for his first major league homer within two weeks of being recalled. On May 28, the Cubs won their fourth in a row by stopping the Pirates in a Sunday double-header at Pittsburgh, 6-0 and 5-1. Johnny Schmitz blanked the Bucs in the opener, and Bob Rush held Pittsburgh to one run in the nightcap, a game topped off by Borkowski’s solo homer to left with two outs in the ninth.
Also, at home in Wrigley Field on June 6, Borkowski helped the Bruins defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 7-6, by leading off the bottom of the tenth inning with a line-drive triple to left, a ball that just missed clearing the left field wall. Brooklyn reliever Jack Banta, a tall right-hander, then walked three straight batters, forcing Borkowski home with the game winning run. One week later in Brooklyn, Bush, in a 2-for-6 performance, hit one of four Cub homers to help right-hander Bill Voiselle beat Ralph Branca and the Dodgers, 6-3.
On August 15 in Chicago, Borkowski’s single in the Cubs’ eighth frame–he went 3-for-4 and drove in one run–scored the tying run off St. Louis right-hander Howie Pollet. Hal Jeffcoat’s squeeze bunt scored the game-winner in Chicago’s 3-2 victory. One day later in another Wrigley contest, this time against the Cincinnati Reds, the Cubs won in the twelfth inning, 4-3, on Ron Northey’s RBI single. Borkowski, playing right field, helped the cause by going 3-for-6 in his second straight three-hit performance.
“I had a pretty good year that first season,” Borkowski recalled, “but the second year I didn’t do so well. Frankie Frisch was the manager, and he and I didn’t get along too well. He didn’t like me, and I didn’t care for him. We had a couple of run-ins. I didn’t hardly play in 1951. In fact, before the season was over, Phil Cavarretta told me I was going to be traded.”
In 1951 Borkowski got into 58 games, more than half as a pinch-hitter. With Frisch using him occasionally as an outfielder, the Dayton native averaged only .157 in 89 at-bats, both career lows. But when given a chance, Bush could still produce. For example, the Cubs defeated the Boston Braves, 5-4, in Chicago on June 18, thanks to Borkowski’s two-out game-winning single (his only hit in five trips that afternoon) in the bottom of the ninth. Playing in a home game five days later, Borkowski contributed a single to a four-run Cub rally in the fifth inning that led to a 7-4 Chicago victory over Larry Jansen and the New York Giants.
On October 4, 1951, following his weak season at the plate and his conflicts with the manager over playing time, Chicago traded Borkowski and second-year catcher Smoky Burgess to Cincinnati for right-handed batting outfielder Bob Usher and little-used catcher Johnny Pramesa.
Cincinnati needed a center fielder, since the Marine Corps had called up Lloyd Merriman, who had been the Reds’ fastest outfielder for three seasons. Trained to be a pilot near the end of World War II, Merriman learned to fly a Panther Jet during the Korean conflict. After flying more than 80 combat missions in 1953, he would return to the Reds in 1954.
Borkowski, who had good speed, often started in center and played a career-high 126 games. Always a spray hitter, he averaged .252 with 11 doubles, four triples, and four homers.
In May 2003, former Reds’ outfielder Jim Greengrass, who hit .309 with five home runs and 24 RBI in 18 games as a rookie in 1952, recalled about Borkowski, “Bob was a good ball player with all the tools, plus a great attitude. All he ever wanted was to play. He used a small barrel bat but hit to all fields, and he was a real good hit-and-run man. He had good speed on the bases. A smart player, he looked like Kirk Douglas. Bob was a real family man.”
Borkowski enjoyed many good games with the Reds. On April 27, 1952, at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, the Reds beat the Pirates in a twin bill, 8-2 and 1-0. In the nightcap, Bush, playing right field, scored the winning run in the ninth after ripping a single past Pittsburgh’s left fielder, Ralph Kiner. Ted Kluszewski, who opened the frame with a single, was thrown out at the plate on the play, but Borkowski reached third. One out later, he scored the game-winning marker on Roy McMillan’s sacrifice fly to center.
At Crosley on June 5, Borkowski, leading off and starting in left, and third baseman Bobby Adams had two hits each and paced Cincinnati’s 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. The victory gave the Reds a sweep of the three-game series. However, when the Reds lost twice in a July 6 twin bill at Wrigley, Borkowski, playing center field, went 3-for-8 and hit a solo homer for Cincinnati’s only run in the 5-1 and 2-0 losses.
Meanwhile, Hank Sauer, the Cubs’ biggest hero, hammered a home run in each game, boosting his major league leading total of four-baggers to 23 and his majors’ best RBI total to 69. Sauer won the National League’s MVP Award in 1952, tying Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner for first place with 37 homers and leading the NL with 121 RBI, despite a late season injury.
Still, Borkowski continued his steady play, contributing a home run to Cincinnati’s 6-4 victory over the Dodgers on July 23. Four days later at the Polo Grounds in New York, Bush, again in center, and catcher Andy Seminick each hit three-run homers en route to the Reds’ 11-4 win over the Giants. Borkowski went 3-for-5 in the victory. Later, the nightcap of the scheduled double-header was halted by rain after the third inning with Cincinnati leading, 1-0.
As Borkowski knew, life in the big leagues can be like riding a roller coaster. For example, on August 17 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, with two outs in the ninth inning and the tying run in scoring position, Bush, batting for pitcher Bud Podbielan, fanned to end a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals.
Overall, Borkowski made a solid contribution to Cincinnati’s sixth-place finish, but he was no slugger. Flychaser Jim Greengrass, who hit .276 with 22 home runs and 101 RBI for Beaumont of the Texas League, was called up by Cincinnati in early September. Greengrass hit five home runs and produced 24 RBI for the remainder of 1952. The big right-handed batter took over in left field the following season.
In 1953, Cincinnati also obtained center fielder Gus Bell from the Pittsburgh Pirates in return for three players: outfielder Cal Abrams, Joe Rossi, a 6’1″ catcher whose only major league season came in 1953, and Gail Henly, a left-handed hitting outfielder who got into 14 games for the Pirates in 1954, his only big league season.
Bell became a stalwart in Cincinnati’s outfield. Having been a regular for three seasons with the Pirates, Gus batted .300 with 30 homers and 105 RBI. He repeated that success in 1954, hitting .299 with 17 homers and 101 RBI. Before his 15-year career wound down, Bell averaged .281 lifetime, slugged 311 home runs, and produced 942 RBI.
Borkowski became a utility man again. Playing in 94 games in 1953 (67 in the outfield and two at first base), he hit .269. But he feasted on the pitching of two teams, hitting .462 against the New York Giants and .391 against the Philadelphia Phillies. Bush also led the Reds in pinch-hitting, averaging .333 with nine hits in 27 trips.
In 1954, Bush got into 73 games (36 in the outfield and three at first) and batted .265. The right-handed batter often played against left-handers, and left-handed hitting Lloyd Merriman, back from his service in Korea, often played against right-handers.
“Lloyd was real quick in the outfield,” Borkowski remembered in 2003. “He went in the service, and when he came out, I was with the Reds. By that time he was an ‘old man,’ you know, according to baseball standards of the day. The Reds were decent in 1952, when I was playing center field. But we didn’t have much pitching. We wound up in the second division.
“But we had some good ball players. We had Roy McMillan at shortstop. Ewell Blackwell was one of our pitchers. We had Johnny Temple at second, Bobby Adams at third, Ted Kluszewski at first. We had a fairly good ball club, but we didn’t have enough good pitching. Then by 1954, we had Wally Post, Gus Bell, and Jim Greengrass in the outfield.”
In 2003, Merriman recalled his friendship with Borkowski during their season together: “We became good friends and roomed together for most of the 1954 season. We used to go out and eat meals together on the road. We’d get tired of reading the menus, so one of us would order for both. The next night the other one would order for both. Teams used to stay in very nice hotels on the road, like the Commodore in New York. Players could sign for meals at the hotel, or you could go out to a nice restaurant. We played mostly afternoon games, you know.
“We got along real good, considering we were alternating as pinch-hitters. I would bat against the right-handers, and Bob would hit against the lefties. Bob was a real good ballplayer, and like I said, we got along good. In those days you usually weren’t friends with someone you competed against for playing time. Baseball just wasn’t like that.”
Borkowski in turn recollected about Merriman: “We’d go back to the room after dinner, you know, and Lloyd would get to telling me ‘war stories’ about being a pilot in Korea. He really enjoyed flying that jet. Lloyd was a real good guy, real friendly and down-to-earth. He was a good ballplayer, and he really liked telling me about the war.”
But in 1955, the Reds traded both Merriman and Borkowski, sending Lloyd to the Chicago White Sox on February 10 and Bush (he played in 25 games for the Reds) to the Dodgers on June 9. Duke Snider had been injured, and Borkowski played nine games for Brooklyn, mainly against the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Giants. When Snider returned to the lineup, the Dodgers optioned the 29-year-old Ohioan to St. Paul of the Triple-A American Association. There he prospered, hitting .338 with three home runs and 25 RBI for the rest of the season.
In 1956 he signed with Portland of the Coast League. From 1952 through 1957 the PCL had an “open” classification, meaning the league was rated a step above Triple-A ball. The owners hoped the Coast League would become a third major league, a dream that ended when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco in 1958.
Borkowski enjoyed a good 1956 season for the third-place Portland, hitting .289 with 16 homers and 96 RBI. He spent the ’57 season hitting a combined .304 with 12 homers and 88 RBI playing for Los Angeles and Portland. In 1958, he played the first part of the season with Buffalo of the Triple-A International League. After hitting .213 for the Bisons, the club sold him to Portland. Bush finished his baseball career in the Pacific Coast League, hitting .278 with four homers and 22 RBI.
“I just gave it up,” Bush recalled. “The Coast League was real, real close to the major leagues. But I came home to get a job. I worked at a couple of different jobs, representing some beer outfits.” Bob also worked in Akron during the offseason, worked fulltime for the city’s Welfare Department. In 1968, he began working for the Schriber Company, a business that manufactured printing presses. After 20 years with Schriber, he retired in 1988.
“Not being a star and all,” Borkowski added, “I still hear from quite a few fans. I get maybe 4-5 letters a week. I appeared on four baseball cards, and they seem to find them somehow.”
Asked about baseball cards from his era, Bush laughed and said, “I got a set of golf clubs the first year for signing with Topps. Every year you’d get something, like ball gloves and spikes. Today’s money for ballplayers is incredible. I signed for about $5,000 with the Cubs in 1950. Of course, we worked in the offseason. You had to work in order to support your family.”
Married in October 1948, Mary Ann and Bush (she uses his nickname too) celebrated their 58th anniversary in 2006. They raised a family of four and enjoyed their lives together. Their children, and dates of birth, are: Kathy L. Walker, September 2, 1950; Mary E. Harting, October 20, 1952; Roberta A. Christiansen, October 5, 1957; and Joseph J. Borkowski, May 31, 1962.
Reflecting on his memories, Bob said, “There aren’t many special thrills. We had a lot of fun playing baseball. We probably had more fun than they do nowadays. They’re worrying about money nowadays. We didn’t have to worry about that.
“I think we played more for the fun of the game than players do today. I didn’t save much in the way of uniforms or memorabilia, but I gave what I had to my grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“The guys I spent time with were usually my roommates, like Lloyd Merriman. I used to do stuff with Harry Perkowski, a pitcher for the Reds, and Dixie Howell, a catcher for the Reds. My wife lived in Chicago when I was with the Cubs, so I pretty much stayed at home after games. My roommate there was Rube Walker, another catcher, and we used to spend time together.
“I remember starting my first big league game was a thrill, and getting my first hit was another thrill. And I remember hitting my first home run. I hit it off Bill Werle, a left-handed pitcher. That was a big thrill!”
During the postwar era, a time when making the 25-man roster of a big league club represented an impressive achievement, Bob Borkowski was the kind of quiet, sensible, and talented player whose solid performance helped inspire many young boys–and their fathers–to dream about making it to the Big Show.
Expressing the baseball dream in terms of the postwar era, Sally Joy Brown, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, encouraged boys and girls to write letters to her to become part of 100 children who would get to see the Cubs play the Braves at Wrigley Field.
On August 16, 1950, Brown observed, “Tall, good looking Bob Borkowski, the [Cubs] rookie right fielder, is second in batting on the team. He’s sure to hold your interest and encourage those kids to whom baseball is like breathin’–something that comes naturally.”
This essay about Bob Borkowski’s baseball career is based on statistics from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 8th edition, 1990); minor league stats from profile furnished by Pat Doyle, creator of the Professional Baseball Player Database (version 5); clippings from the Borkowski file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library; Dayton Daily News, May 16, 1950; New York Times, April 23, May 1, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 1950; interviews with Borkowski, May 5, 6, 2003; letter from Borkowski, January 5, 2005; interview with Lloyd Merriman, May 6, 2003; letter from Jim Greengrass, May 20, 2003.
Newspaper stories from SABR’s subscription with ProQuest: Chicago Tribune, May 1, May 29, June 27, August 16, 17, 1950, June 19, 1951, April 28, 1952, May 26, July 28, August 18, 1952; New York Times, June 7, June 14, 1950, June 24, 1951, June 6, 1952, July 7, July 24, 1952.