This article was written by Jim Sargent
The 1945 Brooklyn Dodgers, under the direction of manager Leo Durocher, finished a respectable third in the eight-team National League with an 87-67 record. After winning the pennant in 1941 but losing to the New York Yankees in a five-game World Series, the Dodgers finished second to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942, placed third in 1943, and fell to seventh in 1944. The war-ravaged rosters made it difficult to see any continuity, but the 1945 team had obviously rebounded from a disappointing season.
What was it like to pitch in the Dodger farm system and for the big league club during the mid-1940s? In 1945, the last year of World War II, Brooklyn fielded many lesser-known but still fine big leaguers. An excellent example is Cyril “Cy” Buker, a right-handed pitcher who compiled a 7-2 record in 1945, his only big league season.
Born on February 5, 1918, in Greenwood, Wisconsin, Cyril Owen grew up thriving on sports. He played several positions in sandlot ball and at Greenwood High, where he graduated in 1936, and later at the University of Wisconsin.
“I had a pretty good arm when I was a kid,” Buker explained in a 1999 interview, “and I just kept on throwing, that’s all. I started out in the county leagues, and in high school, and eventually at the University of Wisconsin.”
An all-around athlete, Buker graduated from Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Science Degree in June 1940 and a fine collegiate baseball record behind him. With the German army marching through in Western Europe, Cy lined up a job teaching and coaching for the fall. The hard-throwing right-hander also decided to give professional baseball a shot.
“I was signed by Heinie Groh of the Giants out of Wisconsin. I started at Clinton in the Three-Eye League, and I hurt my elbow right away. They didn’t have any surgery for that kind of thing, and I thought I was done. I won my first game, 7-1, again Moline. But the next time out, I couldn’t throw the ball up to the plate. My elbow was locked. They sent me over to Wausau in the Northern League. I told them, ‘I can’t throw.’ So I jumped the ball club and came home at the beginning of August. I went to work, teaching and coaching all sports at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.”
Married to Harriet in 1941, Cy also played semipro baseball that summer. “I didn’t go back to organized ball until 1942. I liked to play, so I played second base in semipro ball. I didn’t have much of a throw there. By Golly, by the end of 1941, I noticed that my arm was getting stronger! At the end of the season, I pitched a ball game and did real well. I decided I would give it another try.
“In 1942 I started out with the White Sox at Wisconsin Rapids in the class D Wisconsin State League, and I did pretty well.” Considering that he was coming off arm problems, Buker produced a solid season for seventh-place Wisconsin Rapids, going 5-5 with a 6.88 ERA. “We had a bad ball club. I managed to win a few, but my arm got stronger as the year went along. At the end of the season, with World War II and everything, the league blew up and I was a free agent again.
“So I went back to coaching and teaching full-time. I didn’t go into organized ball in 1943. I stayed up at Eau Claire. I was coaching at Memorial High, which, at that time was the biggest high school in the state. I had a good job. I made $2000, which was a lot of money in those years. When I started out in the Wisconsin State League, I got $80 a month. I got an extra $10 for driving the bus. We had a center fielder by the name of Decker at Wausau in 1940. He was married and had two kids, and he made $35 a month. Those were the days when you stayed in fleabag hotels with no air conditioning and sometimes slept three to a bed. We got a dollar a day for meal money!
“We liked to play ball. That’s why you played in the 1940s. That was baseball in the lower leagues. Today, nobody would go through that kind of stuff. It’s a funny thing, but I never put in a full season with any ball club. When I started out, I was in the lower minors. I would teach until we got into the latter part of May or early June, and I would join the ball club. Then I’d jump the ball club and come back to school when football started.”
After concentrating on coaching during the 1943 season, Cy signed with St. Paul of the American Association. Hurling for the fourth-place Saints in 1944, he produced an 11-3 record and won two games in the playoffs.
“In the spring of 1944 I got a call from St. Paul in the American Association. I told them I couldn’t join the club until the 3rd or 4th of June. I threw batting practice and they liked what they saw. From June until the end of the year, I went 13-3. Two of those are playoff games, and they don’t show up in the record. But I had a real good year.”
Working in 25 games, Buker came through with a 3.23 ERA to go with his 11-3 regular season mark. Fourth-place St. Paul defeated Toledo in the semi-finals, four games to three, and Cy won two games. But Louisville beat St. Paul in four straight games to capture the league title.
“My highlight at St. Paul,” Buker said in 2003, “was pitching the final game of the regular season. We had to win it to make the playoffs. I worked it and we beat Kansas City, 2-0. I hadn’t been with the club in over a week as I was back in Eau Claire coaching football. I couldn’t get a sleeper to K.C. for the game, so I had to sit up all night in a coach. It worked out O.K. anyway. It went like that all through the playoffs–back and forth by train between Eau Claire and the team.”
His excellent 1944 season won Buker a trial with the Dodgers, and he made the most of it. In 1945, pitching mainly in relief, he produced a 7-2 record with a 3.30 ERA. Brooklyn contended for the pennant until July, ultimately finishing third behind the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I got a leave of absence from Eau Claire and joined the ball club. I wasn’t there two days before I was in the Army. The Army finally released me about May 15. I was in what they call the observation unit. I had asthma, and I was wheezing up a storm.
“I got in my first game for the Dodgers just after the middle of May. From then until the end of the year, I was in the game quite a bit. The thing I want to stress is that there was no early man, no middle man, no late man. If you went to the bullpen, you got up in the first inning to warm up, or the second, or any other inning. It went that way through all nine innings.
“We had a bunch of young, hard throwers like Ralph Branca, Hal Gregg, Vic Lombardi. They were wild as hell. If you went to the bullpen, you could crank up for nine innings and never get in the ball game. The next day it would be the same thing all over again. That’s the way Leo Durocher ran things.”
Buker recalled one memorable afternoon in Cincinnati when he lost and won games in a double-header. On Tuesday, September 11, with the temperature near 100 degrees at Crosley Field, Buker came on to relieve Art Herring in the bottom of the eighth. Cy pitched scoreless ball for two innings. But in the Cincinnati tenth, Kermit Wahl led off with a single. Pitcher Joe Bowman advanced the runner with a groundout. Dain Clay was safe on an error by Dodger first sacker Eddie Stevens. Buker walked pinch-hitter Dick Sipek to set up a force at any base. Instead, Al Libke bounced one through the legs of second sacker Eddie Stanky.
“I’m in the clubhouse taking a shower after the game and taking my time, figuring my day’s over,” Buker recalled. “Here comes Charley Dressen, whistling that shrill whistle he had, saying, ‘Cy, get out in the bullpen. Leo wants you right now!’ I didn’t have any choice. It was either go out there or go back to St. Paul. So I put my uniform back on and went to the bullpen.”
The first-game loss lowered Buker’s record to 5-2. In the second game, he relieved Clyde King in the fourth and allowed one run on a two-out wild pitch. After that, he hurled scoreless ball, and the Dodgers came from behind to win, 11-6.
The victory upped Cy’s mark to 6-2, thanks to 8 1/3 innings of relief on a sweltering afternoon. The next day he spent much of the afternoon warming up in the bullpen as Brooklyn beat St. Louis at Sportsman’s Park. And so it went in 1945 for the stocky right-hander. Buker hurled 87 1/3 innings spread over 42 games. By mid-July, one New York Times story called him “Durocher’s fireman.”
The 26-year-old rookie started only two games but won both, earning his first victory by beating the Phillies in Philadelphia, 9-2, on Thursday, June 21, with relief help in the eighth and ninth frames from Vic Lombardi. On Wednesday, July 18, in the second game of a double-header at Wrigley Field, Cy started and pitched the first 6 1/3 innings and beat the Cubs, 9-5, with relief help from Tom Seats and Ralph Branca.
The victory lifted Buker’s record to 4-0. Before arriving in Chicago to play the Cubs, the Dodgers received a scare when the train with the team’s Pullman coach caught on fire. “We were on the train from St. Louis to Chicago. Around 5:00 a.m. with train traveling about 80 miles per hour, we hit a gasoline tanker truck. The explosion killed the engineer, fireman, and brakeman and the truck driver. We were riding in a Pullman car sitting up. We couldn’t get a sleeper with all the troops coming back home. It was quite a jolt to wake up and see flames all around the car. Since the cars were mostly steel, the flames went out in a short time. We had a double-header in Chicago, and I had to work one of the games.”
Buker overcame the scare, started in Chicago, and pitched well enough to win. But mostly he worked out of the bullpen, often two or three innings at a time.
Two examples illustrate the ups and downs of a relief pitcher. On Tuesday, July 24, in St. Louis, Cy suffered his first loss (making his record 5-1), as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers in the ninth, 7-6. With the score tied at 6-all in front of a Ladies’ Night crowd of 15,543, Cy gave up a leadoff single to Marty Marion. Pitcher George Dockins laid down a sacrifice bunt, moving the runner to second. Marion scored the game-winner on a line single to right by Augie Bergamo.
Four days later at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Buker saved Hal Gregg’s 13th victory, a 2-1 triumph over the Boston Braves, with one pitch. A rainy-day crowd of 10,688, including 5,000 youthful war-bond salesmen who received free tickets, saw Gregg falter in the ninth and yield two-out singles to Butch Nieman and Whitey Wietelmann.
Manager Leo Durocher summoned pint-sized Vic Lombardi to put out the fire. But Lombardi walked Chuck Workman and Tommy Holmes to force in one run. Buker got the call with the bases loaded. He fired a fastball to Bill Ramsey. Ramsey lined a shot above the head of third baseman Frenchy Bordagaray, who leaped high and made a great catch, allowing Buker to walk off the mound with a save.
Cy earned his seventh victory in Flatbush on Wednesday, September 19, pitching in relief of Lombardi. Called from the pen in the top of the seventh with no outs, the bases loaded, and the Dodgers ahead, 3-2, Buker induced Mel Ott to pop out and Danny Gardella to ground into a forceout–but Bill Jurges scored the tying run. When shortstop Eddie Basinski booted a routine ground ball, Leon Treadway scored the go-ahead run.
Buker retired the side and pitched scoreless ball for the last two innings. In the bottom of the seventh, his teammates rallied for two markers, with Bordagaray’s single knocking home the eventual game-winner.
With the season nearly over, Buker returned to teaching and coaching at Memorial High. When Branch Rickey sent the right-hander a 1946 contract with a raise of $500 above the major league minimum of $5,000, Cy reacted by tearing it up and mailing the pieces back to Brooklyn.
A month later Rickey sent another contract, this one with a $1500 raise. But this contract was contingent upon Buker surviving the cut-down date. Deciding to pursue his baseball dream and place his coaching career on hold, he resigned from Memorial High.
Buker recalled arriving at spring training three weeks late:
“I could see that everyone was mad at me. Nobody would even talk to me. I was assigned to the ‘B’ squad immediately, without throwing a ball. It went that way throughout spring training and into the season. I sat on the bench. I never pitched one ball in 1946. They didn’t want anyone to see me. I sat on the bench until the final hour of the last day before cut-down, and, you guessed it. I was optioned to Montreal.
“I got no $1500 and no chance to pitch in 1946. I did not throw a single ball in the majors in 1946!”
Moving to Montreal, Buker produced a fine season, getting off to a 10-2 start. But he was involved in a collision at home plate and injured his pitching arm and hand. Even before the injury, he did not get a call from Brooklyn. After sitting out for several weeks, Cy finished the season with a 12-7 record and a 3.81 ERA.
“I didn’t pitch much for six weeks. But when I came back, I didn’t have the same kind of stuff. I ended up winning only two more ball games the rest of the year, and I lost five. But my earned run average was around 2.00 in the first part of the season.”
Buker remembers playing ball with Jackie Robinson. Cy recalled that Robinson was installed as the second baseman: “As the season moved on, Jack started to improve. As the season progressed, he got better and better. He was a pretty good ballplayer by the end of 1946. Jack could run, and at the end, he could turn the double play as well as anyone. He got a lot of ‘leg hits.’ Anything on the ground on the left side, he’d beat it out. We had a heck of a club. We won that league by something like 18 or 19 games!”
But Buker never fully recovered from the hand injury. In 1947 he pitched for St. Paul and Milwaukee, producing an 8-8 mark. He started the 1948 season with the Brewers and finished with Kansas City, compiling a 4-4 record.
In 1949 Buker refused to report and was suspended for the season. He signed to teach and coach at Greenwood, Wisconsin, where he stayed 12 years. In the summer of 1951, Cy pitched and worked with young players in the single-A Western League, he compiled a 2-6 record with three clubs. He pitched 11 final games for Lincoln, in the same league, in 1952.
After he retired from teaching and coaching in 1970, the Wisconsin native was inducted into the state’s High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. More recently Cy was inducted into Wisconsin’s High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. During retirement he has kept active by doing bodywork and painting on classic automobiles.
Cy and Harriet have seven children: Bonnie, born in 1942, Connie in 1943, Lee in 1945, Pat in 1952, Bob in 1954, Thomas in 1956, and Judy in 1957.
Sports card entrepreneur Larry Fritsch, who played football, basketball, and baseball at Spenser High in the 1950s against Buker-coached teams, recalled, “When I learned that Cy had played in the big leagues, I searched for a photo of him and included it in our first One-Year-Winner card set. I respected him as a coach and a man, and I thought a Buker card would be a welcome addition to the set.”
One of the best relief pitchers in the National League in 1945, Buker was seldom hit hard. The fastballing right-hander remembers giving up only two home runs, one to Andy Pafko of the Cubs and another to Whitey Kurowski of the Cards.
“It was quite a time,” Buker reflected in 2003. “When I was right, I could handle most anybody. When not, I had lots of trouble.”
Proving to be more than a wartime player, Cy Buker made a major contribution to a Brooklyn club that contended for the pennant much of the summer. Despite his value to the team in 1945, he was never given a chance in 1946.
Regardless, the longtime coach and teacher observed, “I wouldn’t trade those days in baseball for anything in the world.”
Interview with Cy Buker, August 1999; clippings in Buker file at National Baseball Hall of Fame Library; Baseball Encyclopedia, Macmillan Publishing, 1990 edition; Dodger game stories in the New York Times, May 17, 1945, through September 30, 1945; Pat Doyle’s Professional Baseball Player Database, version 5.0; and letters from Cy Buker dated August 8, 1999, August 25, 1999, September 10, 1999, September 21, 1999, November 10, 2000, December 22, 2000, September 20, 2002, and October 8, 2003.