Buddy Kerr (TRADING CARD DB)

Buddy Kerr

This article was written by Warren Corbett

Buddy Kerr (TRADING CARD DB)Buddy Kerr was one of the nice guys who finished last.

Loyal to the New York Giants since he was in short pants, Kerr was the club’s regular shortstop during and after World War II until manager Leo Durocher, whose opinion of nice guys was well advertised, banished him.

Kerr’s career outlasted Durocher by 20 years. He returned to the Giants as a minor-league manager and scout under owner Horace Stoneham, a fellow New York Irishman who took care of his own. When Stoneham was going broke and had to cut back on scouting, Kerr finished his career on the New York Mets’ staff.

John Joseph Kerr Jr. was born in Astoria, Queens, on November 6, 1922 (his “baseball age” was a year younger). He was the second of 10 children of Anna (Reilly) and John J. Kerr Sr., a construction crane operator and semipro first baseman. The family soon moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan. Buddy and his four brothers became regulars in the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, less than a mile from home.

He was a star second baseman at George Washington High School, where his running mate at third base was future golf pro Doug Ford. Shortly after graduation, Giants scout Nick Shinkoff invited him to a mass tryout camp at the Polo Grounds. Kerr watched other boys being sent home while he was invited back for a second day, then a third. He found himself taking ground balls next to the Giants’ shortstop, Bill Jurges, feeling “like a kid doing a duet with Caruso.”1 The Giants gave the 18-year-old a $500 bonus and sent him to a semipro team in St. Albans, Vermont, for the final month of the 1940 season.

Moved up to Class-C Fort Smith, Arkansas, the next year, Kerr was leading the team in hitting when he was demoted back to Class D. He spent two days and two nights on a bus to Salisbury, North Carolina, with plenty of time to think, his resentment boiling over with every mile. By the time he reached Salisbury, he decided to get on another bus and head home to New York.

After a couple of weeks, Giants manager Bill Terry called and agreed to send him back to Fort Smith. Terry told him he was wrong to leave the team, but he had showed “spunk.”2 He finished the season hitting .332.

That won him a promotion all the way to the highest level of the minors, Double-A Jersey City. Only 19, he spent 1942 as a backup utility infielder as his batting average tanked to .189 against faster competition. Returning to the Giants’ top farm club in 1943, he took over as the regular shortstop, but his hitting was still anemic, and he was getting discouraged. “If you were in double-A ball hitting .220 — and you were 25 years old — I’d say, ‘Give up,’” manager Gabby Hartnett told him. “But you’re only 20 and doing as well as you can expect to. You’ll develop without knowing it.”3

Despite the pep talk, Kerr batted .209 for the Little Giants with a .536 OPS. Nonetheless, when Giants shortstop Dick Bartell broke his wrist late in the season, the club summoned Kerr to take his place. With military draft calls depleting the farm system, they had little choice. Welcoming him to the big leagues, a writer described him as “gorgeous in the field, terrible at bat.”4

Kerr went into the lineup on September 8 in the familiar confines of the Polo Grounds, his boyhood home away from home. Facing veteran Bill Lee of the Phillies, he hit a hanging curveball off the upper-deck façade in left field for a home run in his first major-league at-bat. As he approached first base, coach Dolf Luque told him to slow down. He tripped over the bag, stumbled, and fell before completing his circuit of the bases. He hadn’t needed to perfect a home-run trot; he hadn’t hit one in 136 games at Jersey City.

The curly-haired, lantern-jawed rookie, at 6-feet-2 and around 160 pounds, drew immediate comparisons to the Cardinals’ lanky “Mr. Shortstop,” Marty Marion. When the Giants went to St. Louis on their final road trip of the season, Kerr couldn’t take his eyes off Marion. “I never knew the position could be played so well until I saw Slats in action,” he said. “He has the physical qualifications and he seems to sense where the ball will be hit.”5

Kerr wound up hitting .286 in 27 September games. At spring training in 1944, he beat out the 34-year-old Jurges for the shortstop job. He had put on more than 10 pounds working in a shipyard during the winter. Kerr was deferred from the military draft because he was the primary support of his family. His father was sick and unable to work, his older brother was in the navy, and there were eight younger children living at home.

In May his big brother, Eddie, was reported missing at sea after his ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Buddy, trying to prove himself a big leaguer, was distracted, and his hitting and fielding suffered. “I couldn’t seem to think of anything else,” he recalled. He and his father were keeping the news secret from his mother, who was seriously ill. The uncertainty hung over the family for more than a month. “One night I went home and there was Eddie, big as life.” The sailor had been rescued and sent home on leave.6

Freed from worry, Kerr’s game picked up. He hit a respectable .266 with a .703 OPS, almost equal to the league average, and his nine home runs, 31 doubles, and 63 RBI were career highs. His hitting fell off in 1945 — .249, .623 OPS — but he held his own in the Giants’ makeshift lineup in the final year of the war.

The return of war veterans in 1946 brought stiff competition for jobs on almost every team. The Giants had five infielders vying for three positions in spring training: Kerr and his wartime double-play partner, George Hausmann; Mickey Witek, the prewar second baseman; and rookies Bill Rigney and Buddy Blattner. The glut of players meant insecurity for ex-servicemen wondering if they could still play and their wartime replacements, trying to prove they were real major leaguers.

Recruiters from the Mexican League took advantage of the uncertainty, waving wads of cash in the faces of many players. The Giants were hard hit by the Mexican invasion; nine of their players headed south for a big payday, although only one of them, reliever Ace Adams, was an important cog (Sal Maglie was still unproven).

One of the defectors was second baseman Hausmann, Kerr’s roommate. Kerr said the Mexicans made an offer to him, relayed by Hausmann: a $5,000 signing bonus and a three-year contract totaling $50,000, probably at least five times his salary. But he had a lifetime of loyalty to the Giants. He stayed.7 The Mexican “jumpers” were suspended and not permitted to return to the majors until 1949.

The Giants opened the 1946 season with Rigney at short and Kerr at third base, but the two swapped positions within a few weeks. No amount of juggling could keep the club out of last place. Facing real major-league pitchers, Kerr’s batting average stayed the same at .249, but higher on-base and slugging percentages lifted his OPS to .662. The season’s final game was his 52nd straight without an error, breaking the major-league record for shortstops held by Leo Durocher. Early in the 1947 season he ran his streak to 68 consecutive games and 383 chances, both records at the time, before he fumbled a ground ball. The New York Times writer covering the Giants, James P. Dawson, called him “just about the best shortstop in the National League.”8

The Giants’ bats set the most celebrated record of 1947, the year of the Windowreakers. The club pounded 221 home runs, nearly 40 more than any other team in history. Kerr hit the National League record-breaker against the Chicago Cubs, the previous record-holder. He contributed just seven homers during the year, the only regular who didn’t crack double figures, but his .287 batting average and .331 on-base percentage were career bests for a full season. Who says hitting isn’t contagious?

After that performance, Kerr held out the next spring. He had married Kathleen Keeney in 1947, and with the added responsibility he was seeking $20,000. He settled for something close to that. It was the beginning of a turbulent and career-changing year. In an April exhibition game, he was hit in the head by a thrown ball. A week later, manager Mel Ott wrote his name in the Opening Day lineup, but Kerr asked to skip the game because he was still woozy. Ott told him the team physician had cleared him to play, and when he refused, Ott suspended him. The manager reinstated him four days later, saying, “No hard feelings.”9 The whole incident sounds like an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Kerr played in his only All-Star Game in 1948 as a replacement for Marty Marion, who was nursing a bad back. Three days later the shock of the year reverberated throughout the baseball world: Ott was out as Giants manager, to be replaced by Leo Durocher, then managing the hated Dodgers.

Ott had been the most popular Giant since Christy Mathewson, the idol of thousands of young New Yorkers, including owner Horace Stoneham and shortstop Buddy Kerr. Durocher was public enemy No. 1 at the Polo Grounds. But Ott had led the Giants for six years without coming within sight of a pennant, while Durocher’s off-the-field adventures had worn out his welcome with Dodgers President Branch Rickey.

It was Durocher who had once said of Ott and the Giants, “Why, they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In last place!”10 Some writers boiled that down to the famous tough-guy creed: “Nice guys finish last.” The Giants were in fourth place, not last, when Durocher took over and improved their record only slightly, although they finished fifth.

When Durocher looked at the ball club he had inherited, he saw no speed, poor defense, and a lineup of plodding power hitters. As he said to anyone who would listen, it was not his kind of team. After the season he told Stoneham, “Back up the truck.”11 He wanted to clean house, but Stoneham couldn’t bear to part with his Windowbreakers. That was his kind of team.

Durocher soon made it clear that Buddy Kerr was not his kind of player. “I know shortstops,” he wrote in his memoir, “and I think mediocrity is the word for him. He didn’t make errors, but he didn’t make plays, either.”12 That wasn’t all that stood between them; there was no doubt that Kerr was one of the nice guys. “He is a mannerly, decent, over-sensitive young man who goes off by himself and broods when another fellow might hit back,” columnist Red Smith wrote.13 That sounds like the anti-Durocher.

In May 1949 Kerr took a few days off after his father died. When he returned, Durocher informed him that his replacement, Rigney, was hot and would stay in the lineup. It effectively marked the end of Kerr’s career as a Giant. Once a player got into Durocher’s doghouse, he didn’t get out. Rumors circulated that manager and shortstop had even come to blows, but Kerr said it wasn’t so: “How can I have fought with him if he hardly ever spoke to me? Right from the start he didn’t think much of me as a shortstop. He never told me so but gave me to understand that in so many ways.”14 Durocher gave Kerr only spotty playing time for the rest of the season as the team struggled to another fifth-place finish, this time eight games under .500.

Before it was over, Stoneham agreed to begin loading the truck. He shipped out two of the plodding power hitters, first baseman Johnny Mize and catcher Walker Cooper. The thorough housecleaning came at the winter meetings in December. Durocher engineered a four-for-two trade with the Boston Braves: Kerr and outfielders Sid Gordon and Willard Marshall, plus pitcher Sam Webb, for Eddie Stanky, the combative second baseman whom nobody ever called a nice guy, and Alvin Dark, the 1948 Rookie of the Year at shortstop. Writer Dick Young said the club “traded a major portion of the famed Polo Grounds punch for a flash of speed and a dash of fire.”15 That was just the flash and dash Durocher wanted.

“I guess I’ll be lonesome being away from the Polo Grounds, where I practically grew up,” Kerr commented, “but I know I’ll be happier.”16 His wife, Kathleen, offered a more straightforward reaction: “I’m so excited I just keep running around the house.”17

As the schedule makers would have it, the Giants and Braves opened the 1950 season against each other. In two games at the Polo Grounds, the Braves thumped Durocher’s pitchers for 11-4 and 10-6 victories. Sid Gordon hit two home runs, and Kerr banged a triple in each game. The two teams met again at the end of the season, playing for third place, and the Giants won two straight to finish just ahead of the Braves. Durocher’s renovated club went on to win the 1951 pennant, while Braves GM John Quinn later called the deal the one he’d most like to forget.

Buddy Kerr (TRADING CARD DB)Kerr got credit for stabilizing the Braves’ infield defense, but he was a disaster at bat. He stayed within sight of the Mendoza Line for most of the season before a September surge boosted his final average to .227.

In what should have been his prime at 28, he lost his job. A feisty rookie, Johnny Logan, started at shortstop on Opening Day in 1951, but by the end of April Logan was hitting .158 and was sent down. Kerr took over for two months, but by the end of June he was hitting .192. He shared the job the rest of the way with Logan and utility infielder Sibby Sisti.

During the winter, the Braves released Kerr to their farm club in Milwaukee. “He will not be remembered overlong,” Red Smith wrote. “Yet he leaves several lines in the record books to remind the reader how recently it was that Kerr was the best defensive shortstop in the National League and several cuts above the weakest hitter.”18 He bounced around Triple-A for the next four years, winding up with Toronto in 1955. He declined a trade to Havana, because he didn’t want to move there, and retired.

Kerr returned home to the Giants to begin a second career as a minor-league manager. He won the Class-D Florida State League pennant in his first year at Cocoa, 1956, and rose as high as Double-A in seven years.

Thanks to their international scouting director, Alex Pompez, the Giants extensively mined Latin America for talent. As a Class-D manager, Kerr had to nursemaid frightened boys who were struggling with an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar country and often faced the brutal weight of Jim Crow laws.

One of his players, Felipe Alou, was in his first year away from his home in the Dominican Republic and having his first encounter with segregation in Florida. “There were times when what kept me going was Buddy Kerr’s kindness,” Alou wrote in his autobiography. “He would pull me aside and tell me I had what it took to make it, to not give up, to not let the racial slurs and slights defeat me. ‘You have what it takes,’ he would implore me. And those times when pitchers would throw at me, Kerr never hesitated to defend me, often doing so on the field, threatening opposing team and pitcher. What a man. I appreciate more today his courage and decency.”19

“He was like a father to us,” said another 21-year-old Dominican, Juan Marichal, who played for Kerr in Class-D ball at Michigan City, Indiana. “He was such a kind person. He made sure we had something to eat before he ate. … One of the reasons we survived this prejudice was because of Buddy Kerr.”20

In 1964 Kerr put away his uniform and launched his third career as a scout for the Giants in the New York area. Among the players he signed was John Montefusco, a pitcher from Long Branch, New Jersey, who was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1975. That fall Giants owner Horace Stoneham was nearly bankrupt and had to cut the scouting budget. Kerr moved on to the New York Mets, where he served as a crosschecker on amateur players and a major-league scout until he retired in 1996. He died on November 7, 2006, the day after his 84 th birthday, survived by Kathleen and their two daughters and two sons.

Kerr’s record for consecutive errorless games lasted until 1972, when the Tigers’ Ed Brinkman extended it to 72 games. Kerr still held the National League mark until 1989, when Kevin Elster of the Mets passed him and Brinkman with a streak of 88 consecutive games. Cal Ripken Jr. passed Elster that same year, raising the record to 95.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Jan Finkel and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Notes

1 Roger Birtwell, “Kerr, Shunted Around, Rebels Against Giants,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1949: 30.

2 Birtwell, “Terry Recalls Kerr and Buddy Proves He’s a Shortstop,” Boston Globe, December 26, 1949: 42.

3 Birtwell, “Kerr Homers 1 st Time at Bat for Giants,” Boston Globe, December 27, 1949: 36.

4 Ed Williamson, “Ott Dons Specs and Sees Kids as Keystoners,” The Sporting News (hereafter TSN) October 7, 1943:14.

5 Al Buck, “Giants Fans Hail Buddy Kerr as Budding Star,” TSN, March 15, 1945: 7.

6 Buck, “Giants Fans.”

7 Birtwell, “Kerr Homers.”

8 James P. Dawson, “Absence of Kerr Stirs Giants Camp,” New York Times, March 4, 1948: 35.

9 Birtwell, “Buddy Kerr’s Troubles Really Began when Durocher Became Giants Manager,” Boston Globe, December 28, 1949: 24.

10 Frank Graham, The New York Giants (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), 268.

11 Leo Durocher with Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 237.

12 Durocher, 237.

13 Red Smith, “Poor Kerr! Few Now Recall He Had His Days of Glory,” syndicated column in Boston Globe, January 30, 1952: 23.

14 Associated Press, “Only One ‘Real’ Row with Leo — Kerr,” Boston Globe, December 16, 1949: 39.

15 Dick Young, “Giants Get Stanky, Dark in 6-Player Deal,” New York Daily News, December 15, 1949: C20.

16 Associated Press, “Only One.”

17 Bob Holbrook, “Braves’ Surprise Coup Stuns Major League Bigwigs,” Boston Globe, December 15, 1949: 45.

18 Smith, “Poor Kerr!”

19 Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis, Alou: My Baseball Journey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020), 138.

20 Juan Marichal with Lew Freedman, Juan Marichal (MVP Books, 2011), 38.

Full Name

John Joseph Kerr

Born

November 6, 1922 at Astoria, NY (USA)

Died

November 7, 2006 at New York, NY (USA)

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