During a road trip late in the 1904 season, Brooklyn Superbas manager Ned Hanlon found his staff without an arm available to start a series finale in Chicago. His solution was the emergency recruitment of Joe Koukalik,1 a young right-hander prominent in the semipro Chicago City League. Although visibly nervous and constantly surrounded by Cub baserunners, the recruit proved tough in the pinches, allowing only a single earned run in a route-going performance. But with his new-found teammates little able to touch the offerings of opposite number Carl Lundgren, Koukalik was a hard-luck 3-0 loser in his major league debut.
Notwithstanding favorable postgame reviews of his performance, Joe Koukalik was back pitching in the city league the following weekend and never made a second major league appearance. Ensuing turns with several minor league clubs also proved unavailing. Intermittently for the next three decades, however, Chicago sports pages carried news of Koukalik’s exploits as one of the Windy City’s top bowlers. Otherwise, he lived a quiet life until his death in early January 1947. Beginning with his foreign birth and a trans-Atlantic voyage made as a toddler, the story of that life follows.2
Although there is evidence that he was born earlier,3 our subject always gave his birth date as March 3, 1880.4 Josef Koukalik, as he was almost certainly christened, was born in the Bohemia region of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire.5 The likely location was Studena, a village about 100 miles southeast of Prague. He was the third of six children born to common laborer Jan Koukalik (1840-1896) and his wife Marie (née Sipert, 1842-1912), Bohemian Catholics originally from Pilzen. In time, the family emigrated to America, arriving in New York harbor aboard a steamship appropriately named Bohemia on May 8, 1882.6 The Koukaliks headed west and settled in Chicago, already home to a sizable contingent of fellow Bohemian immigrants. There, the newcomers soon Anglicized their first names. Jan and Marie became John and Mary Koukalik, while children Josef, Vojtech, and American-born Anton assumed the names Joseph, Albert, and Anthony.7
Joe Koukalik was educated through the eighth grade8 and then entered the local work force. By 1900, he was living on his own employed as an electrician.9 The specific circumstances that initiated Koukalik into baseball are unknown, but it is likely that he was among the legion of turn-of-the-century Chicago youths who followed the path from sandlot play to amateur teams to the city’s highly competitive semipro league. By age 21, he was a fully matured 5-foot-8/160-pound right-handed batter and thrower, playing for a top-notch semipro nine, the Jefferson Greys. With Joe pitching and younger brother Anthony stationed in the outfield, the Greys won their first 12 games in 1901 before dropping a 3-2 decision in Racine, Wisconsin. After the game, an admiring local newspaper commented that “Koukalik, the twister for the Greys, was conceded to be the best man in his capacity that has been here this summer. He was speedy, had fine control and showed good head work.”10
In early 1902, Koukalik entered the professional ranks, signing with the Peoria (Illinois) Distillers of the Class A Western League.11 But his tenure was short; following his release, he returned to the Chicago semipro circuit, mostly pitching but occasionally seeing action as an infielder. Joe finished the campaign by hurling for a picked nine of Three-I League players in a postseason exhibition contest against the semipro Chicago Americans.12 That summer, he also began attracting notice in the sport in which he would achieve more enduring local renown, bowling for the Czech team in the Garden City League. The following summer brought more of the same, with Koukalik doing weekend pitching for the semipro Chicago Marquettes.
The 1904 season was the high point of Joe Koukalik’s relatively brief baseball-playing career. That spring, he returned to minor league ball, signing with the Minneapolis Millers of the Class A American Association.13 But before the regular season started, Koukalik was among four Minneapolis signees released to the Duluth (Minnesota) White Sox of the Class D Northern League.14 Installed as number two starter behind staff ace Hank Gehring (13-2), Koukalik overmatched opposing batsmen. By mid-July, his record stood at a sparkling 8-3 (.727), with 83 strikeouts and only 17 walks.15 One of Koukalik’s setbacks, a 3-2 loss to Grand Forks, came despite throwing a one-hitter.16
The White Sox were easily the crème of the Northern League, cruising to the circuit title. Yet all was not well financially in Duluth. The club’s monthly payroll exceeded the Northern League player salary limit, causing friction with circuit officials and other clubs. More important, insufficient attendance and the drain of other club expenses made sustaining the playing roster at prescribed contract levels infeasible. To remedy the situation, club owner-manager Leonard Van Praagh sought salary concessions from his ballplayers. And when Koukalik and three other White Sox refused to accept a pay cut, all were unceremoniously released.17
Returning home, Joe rejoined the semipro city league, pitching for the Chicago Athletics. He immediately dominated the opposition, breaking back into the circuit with a seven-strikeout, 6-0 victory over the Gainer and Kohler club on July 29. Three weeks later, he no-hit the Chicago White Giants, 1-0, retiring the first 26 batters before walking the opposing pitcher.18
Meanwhile in the National League, the struggling Brooklyn Superbas were in the midst of an extended road trip and running short of able-bodied pitchers. Brooklyn won the first two of a three-game set against Chicago in late August, but manager Ned Hanlon had no one available to start the series finale. He therefore issued “a hurried call to the local semipro bosses and they sent him … Joe Koukalik [who] had gained considerable of a reputation as a pitcher for the Chicago Athletics, and so he was selected to meet the [Brooklyn] emergency.”19
On September 1, 1904, the semipro graduate made his major league debut at Chicago’s West Side Park. The game report of the Chicago Tribune related that “Koukalik was nervous at the start and had hard luck besides. After making a good stop of [leadoff batter Jimmy] Slagle’s hot grounder he lost track of the ball, which dropped between his feet. After running around in a circle, he found the leather and fired it at first base but too late to get Jimmy. The throw was wide, and Slagle reached second. Then, when [Brooklyn catcher Bill] Bergen returned a pitched ball over Koukalik’s head, Jimmy sneaked to third.”20 A Shad Barry single plated Slagle, but Koukalik managed to limit the damage to one unearned run despite yielding another base hit and enduring yet another Brooklyn fielding miscue. Koukalik was touched for a base hit and surrendered two more walks in the next two frames but kept Chicago off the scoreboard.
In the fourth, two more Chicago base hits and a two-out throwing error by backstop Bergen cost Koukalik another unearned run. Three innings later, a pair of singles, a sacrifice, and a groundout got Chicago on the board a final time. Cubs right-hander Carl Lundgren, meanwhile, toyed with Brooklyn batsmen, surrendering only four harmless safeties on the way to a 3-0 victory.
Although touched for 10 base hits and yielding four walks (as opposed to recording only one strikeout) plus being handicapped by four Brooklyn errors, Koukalik had persevered, surrendering only one earned run and grinding out a complete game. Press reviews were uniformly favorable. In the view of the Chicago Tribune, Koukalik “pitched good baseball,”21 while the Chicago Inter-Ocean opined that he made “a successful debut in fast company.”22 Back in Brooklyn, Superbas fans were informed that “the youngster pitched quite a game,”23 and that “Koukalik pitched good ball for a man just breaking into fast company, and with any kind of support and a little hitting behind him, he would have won his game.”24 For his efforts, Koukalik, who was paid $25 per outing by his semipro club, received a measly $10 from Brooklyn boss Hanlon.25 The Superbas left their one-game pitcher behind and thereupon departed for Philadelphia and completion of their 56-97-1 (.366) season.
Amid reports that he might be signed for the next season by the National League Boston Beaneaters,26 Joe returned to the Chicago City League and resumed his domination of local opposition. Three days after his major league outing, Koukalik pitched the Athletics to a 9-1 victory over the Joliet Standards. Three weeks thereafter and with $100 a side riding on the outcome, he threw a four-hit, 1-0 shutout at Aurora.27
When no professional offers materialized over the winter, Koukalik began the 1905 season back with the Chicago Athletics. In early June, however, he was signed by the Dubuque (Iowa) Shamrocks of the Class B Three-I League.28 He got off to a good start, posting a 3-2 win over the Bloomington (Illinois) Bloomers in his initial appearance with his new club. But three straight defeats followed, and Koukalik drew his release before the month was out.29 He then had a brief tryout with the Lake Linden (Michigan) Lakers of the Class D Copper County Soo League.30 By mid-summer, Koukalik was back in Chicago pitching semipro ball.31 Auditioned in September by the Omaha (Nebraska) Rourkes of the Class A Western League, Joe impressed, winning three of four decisions, and was invited back for the 1906 season.32
Sad to relate, Koukalik could not repeat his audition showing. With his record standing at 3-6 in 13 appearances and plagued by arm miseries, he was released in early July 1906.33 In the estimation of one Omaha newspaper, “with his arm in good condition, Kouky is an effective pitcher and has a good head. There is no reason why he should not be able to make good anywhere he goes if the company is no faster than the Western League.”34 Given a start by the Rock Island (Illinois) Islanders of the Three-I League, Koukalik threw a two-hitter at Springfield, winning, 4-1, on August 10. As far as has been discovered, the outing was Joe Koukalik’s final one in Organized Baseball.
Back home in Chicago, Koukalik pitched a handful of games in the city league, and was thereafter reserved for the 1907 season by the West Ends.35 But he spent the following summer playing for the Lawndales, a city league nine managed by late-19th century Chicago outfield star Jimmy Ryan. Thereafter, Koukalik’s name disappeared from local box scores, supplanted by mention in sports page bowling reportage. This appears to have coincided with Joe’s becoming the manager of a Chicago bowling alley.36 In December 1908, he set “a new individual record for high average” with 230 and tied for high game with 265.37 For the winter, Koukalik averaged an impressive 220 in Chicago Lincoln League matches.38
By 1910, Koukalik had branched out into tavern ownership.39 Shortly thereafter, Joe married Chicagoan Barbara Prochaska, like himself a childhood immigrant from Central Europe. The ensuing birth of son Joseph Andrew (born 1913) and daughter Lillian (1914) completed the family. The onset of Prohibition obliged Koukalik to convert his tavern into a “soft drink parlor” by 1920.40 Afterwards, he returned to running local bowling alleys and remained a leading Chicago-area kegler into the late 1930s.41
More than three decades after the fact, Koukalik reminisced about his one-game stint with the Brooklyn Superbas. But not fondly, recalling how manager Hanlon “gave Joe a slap on the back and a $10 bill after the game. ‘Can you imagine,’ Joe complained. ‘Why I used to get as high as $40 a game with the semipros, and Hanlon gave me a $10. Even if I wouldn’t have needed the money, I wouldn’t have framed that ten spot!’”42
Warming to his subject, Koukalik continued, “Some of the old-timers moan when they see present- day players holding out for thousands. I don’t. I don’t even regret the fact that we missed the big-money era. When I played, we went out for the love of the game. We fought and played as a team, not a bunch of individuals. To us, baseball was a game, not a profession.”43 Based upon his own experience, he then added that in his day, “a semipro pitcher could make nearly as much as a major leaguer and more than a minor leaguer.”44
Our subject spent his final years living with daughter Lillian Petras and her family and managing another bowling alley. He died in Chicago on January 2, 1947. Joseph Koukalik was 66. Following funeral services, his remains were interred in St. Adalbert Cemetery in suburban Niles, Illinois. Survivors included widow Barbara, his two children, eight grandchildren, and siblings Paul, Anna, and Albert Koukalik.45
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
The biographical and factual info provided above were culled from the undated player questionnaire for Joe Koukalik on file at the Giamatti Research Center in Cooperstown; US Census reports and other government records accessed via Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise specified, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.
1 According to our subject himself, his surname was pronounced COCOA-lick. See “Koukalik’s Name,” Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, April 29, 1904: 14.
2 Much of the biographical data for Koukalik currently published in baseball reference works are wrong. An effort to correct the errata was ongoing at the time that this bio was submitted.
3 The passenger record of the steamship that brought the Koukalik family into New York harbor in May 1882 listed Josef Koukalik as a five-year-old.
4 See e.g., the WWI and WWII military draft registration forms completed and signed by Koukalik. His year of birth was also given as 1880 to US Census takers.
5 The Austro-Hungarian Empire aka Austria-Hungary (1867-1918) was a central European conglomerate that encompassed the present-day nations of Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and parts of Poland, Romania, and the Ukraine. Bohemia is now part of the Czech Republic which also includes Moravia and the western part of Silesia.
6 Per arriving passenger and crew list for the Bohemia, accessed via Ancestry.com. The Koukalik party included parents Jan and Marie and their children Paul, Anna, Josef, and Vojtech. Sons Anton and John were subsequently born in Chicago.
7 Immigrant children Paul and Anna and American-born John bore universal names that required no modification.
8 Per the 1940 US Census.
9 As reflected in the 1900 US Census and 1900 Chicago city directory.
10 “Sporting,” Racine (Wisconsin) Journal Times, July 1, 1901: 8.
11 Per M.D. Hurley, “Peoria Points,” Sporting Life, April 26, 1902: 11.
12 Koukalik was on the losing end of a 7-2 decision, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1902: 6.
13 See “Contracts,” Sporting Life, March 12, 1904: 9; “Three New Men Are Secured,” Minneapolis Journal, March 3, 1904: 6.
14 “Four Players Are Released,” Minneapolis Journal, April 11, 1904: 12; “Duluth Team Now Complete,” Duluth News-Tribune, April 11, 1904: 5.
15 Per final season Northern League statistics published in the Duluth News-Tribune, September 4, 1904: 12. Baseball-Reference provides no pitching numbers for Koukalik, only his .224 (11-for-49) batting average.
16 See “White Sox Lose through Errors,” Duluth News-Tribune, June 28, 1904: 10.
17 “Four Members of the Duluth Ball Team Are Given Absolute Release,” Duluth News-Tribune, July 20, 1904: 3. See also, “Northern League Had a Bad Week,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 24, 1904: 24.
18 “No Hit Made off Koukalik,” Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1904: 10.
19 As recounted decades later in “Pitched Game in Majors; Got $10 from Dodgers Pilot,” Chicago Daily News, February 20, 1935: 17.
20 “Shutout Games All the Rage,” Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1904: 8. For a batter-by-batter account of the game see, “Brooklyns Pay Final Game with Chicagos,” New York Evening World, September 1, 1904: 1.
21 “Shutout Games All the Rage,” Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1904: 8.
22 Jack Tanner, “Colts Manage to Win a Game,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, September 2, 1904: 4.
23 “Superbas Shut Out in Last Chicago Game,” Brooklyn Eagle, September 2, 1904: 7.
24 “Brooklyns Drop Back into Same Old Rut,” Brooklyn Times, September 2, 1904: 6.
25 Per “Koukalik Is Given a Try-Out,” Rockford (Illinois) Register-Gazette, September 2, 1904: 5.
26 See “Baseball Talk,” Carbondale (Pennsylvania) News, September 9, 1904: 5; “Sporting Items,” Winnipeg (Manitoba) Tribune, September 7, 1904: 5.
27 See “Athletic Shut Out Aurora,” Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1904: 4.
28 As reported in the Moline (Illinois) Dispatch, June 10, 1905: 5, and Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, June 10, 1905: 7.
29 Per Rock Island Argus, June 27, 1905: 7.
30 As belatedly reported in “Sporting Comment,” (Winnipeg) Manitoba Free Press, August 18, 1905: 5. Koukalik “bobbed up” pitching for Lake Linden but was released after being “badly bumped by Calumet.”
31 See e.g., “Every Local Park Has Game Today,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, August 13, 1905: 12
32 See “The Western League,” Sporting Life, March 10, 1906: 10; “Sporting Brevities,” Omaha (Nebraska) Bee, January 25, 1906: 7. Based on sources unknown, Baseball-Reference places the Koukalik record at 3-0.
33 See “Rourke Let Koukalik Go,” Omaha News, July 2, 1906: 9. Baseball-Reference posits the Koukalik appearances at nine.
34 Same as above.
35 “Semi-Pros Reserve Players,” Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1906: 10.
36 See e.g., “Bowlers Dispute Unsettled,” Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1908: 13; “Bowlers in Small Tangle,” Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1908: B4.
37 “Local Bowling League Scores,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, December 12, 1908: 14.
38 See “Bowlers Get Big Totals,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1908: 14.
39 Per the 1910 US Census.
40 As noted in the 1920 US Census.
41 See e.g., “Bowling Notes,” Cicero (Illinois) Life, November 19, 1937: 8, noting Koukalik’s match-high 666 series.
42 See again, “Pitched One Game in Majors: Got $10 from Dodger Pilot,” Chicago Daily News, February 20, 1935: 17.
43 Same as above, 17-18.
44 Same as above, 18.
45 Per the death notice published in the Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1947: 10, and January 5, 1947: 63.